If you believe, as I do, that the world around us is a construction of meaning for which we are at least partially responsible, then when the world appears to be reeling out of control, one place we should check for the cause is our own mental state. As both product and symptom of our mental condition, the world is perhaps the most revealing and reliable indication of what’s going on inside us.
Four virtues of what we can call “mental strength” are fortitude, equanimity, flexibility, and resilience. When these are compromised, we tend to become disengaged from reality and spiral into a neurotic state. Our perceptions get skewed, our judgment is impaired, and the beliefs that spin out are distorted, irrational, and untethered to empirical evidence and common sense.
As a consequence we become increasingly susceptible to conspiracy thinking and emotional extremes, as well as vulnerable to miscreants who seek to exploit our unstable and anxious state.
Assaults on our mental health generate experiences of anxiety, confusion, disorientation, and exhaustion. Confusion and disorientation can be distinguished in that confusion is difficulty making sense of something and organizing our thoughts, while disorientation is a compromised sense of where we are in the larger context or scheme of things. Along with anxiety and exhaustion, they are both examples of “mental disorder.”
Looking across the American national scene right now, the signs of mental disorder are all around us.
America is, after all, the shared world of our national experience for which each and all of us have some accountability. I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, you may protest. I have nothing to do with the current insanity among our politicians. Storming the Capitol and pushing democracy to the brink wasn’t my idea. No, of course not. And that’s not what I’m suggesting.
The loss of what I’m calling mental strength and our accelerating slide as a nation into mental disorder (anxiety, confusion, disorientation, and exhaustion) might be blamed on one or another politician, one or another demographic of the radical base. But that’s a coping tactic I want to challenge in this post. It won’t do any lasting good to pin blame and imprison the offenders. And it certainly won’t help if we just “let it ride” and hope for the best.
What is needed – especially in this critical eleventh hour of American democracy – is for more of us to cultivate the virtues of mental strength.
Of all the virtues, fortitude is the one with obvious associations to mental strength. From the Latin fortitūdō, it refers to strength, firmness, and courage, and is in our words fort, fortify, and fortification. Mental fortitude, then, is our ability to withstand stress, maintain our integrity, and remain grounded in the here and now. It doesn’t make us insensitive to what’s happening around us or less compassionate to the suffering of others.
In fact, engaging with reality from a grounded and centered mental state enables us to make a more accurate and realistic assessment of what’s going on, and to understand (note the grounding in that word) how we can be a creative influence in every situation. In terms of psychosomatic science, mental fortitude is a virtue of the energetic alignment of mind and body, of being mindfully present in our body, right where we always are.
Equanimity, an equalized or balanced mind, provides the inner calm we need to maintain our composure in difficult and stressful times. The mind-body alignment mentioned above serves as the vertical axis around which our thoughts, feelings, and emotions (feelings infused with the motivation to act: e-motion) can be held in balance. Otherwise, and without this balancing principle of equanimity, our thoughts can easily be hijacked, our feelings manipulated, and our motives exploited by those who would want to control us.
Terrorists of every kind gain their advantage by throwing us off-balance, making us feel disoriented in our fear, unable to think clearly, find our resources, and make a creative rather than a merely reactive response to the shock of their violence. American society could be diagnosed as suffering from national PTSD, chronically off our center and lurching from the latest threat or the merest hint of danger.
Politicians who are looking for a pathway to power just need to drop a few buzz-words and make a provocative reference to something we fear, and we are ready to hand them the keys.
Mental strength is not merely the ability to withstand stress and the countervailing forces of life. It also entails a capacity to move with and through those forces, just as a strong tree sways and bends in the wind without breaking. The opposite of mental flexibility is mental rigidity, where our concepts and beliefs have become frozen convictions that hold our mind prisoner, like a convict.
Dogmatic thinking, where the two sides of an issue cannot see anything but the absolute truth of their own positions, saturates our social media today. Politicians and preachers pump it out from their platforms and pulpits, as their constituents gulp it down without discernment. Mental rigidity paralyzes the critical and contextual thinking needed to make a clear assessment and find constructive solutions to the challenges we face.
Our fourth virtue of mental strength is resilience, referring to the capacity to catch our balance, recover our integrity, and re-center ourselves in the aftermath of a stressful assault. If the opposite of flexibility is rigidity, the absence of resilience is fragility: we are easily injured and take a long time to heal – if we ever do. Instead, we put up defenses around our vulnerability in order to protect ourselves from the pain. But behind those high walls, our spirit cannot move or breathe and we fall into exhaustion.
The common term from psychotherapy for this condition of spiritual exhaustion is depression.
In characterizing depression as spiritual rather than merely emotional or cognitive-behavioral in its deeper dynamic, I am drawing a bold line of equivalency between mental strength and what might be called “spiritual fitness.” By this I don’t mean to imply that our challenge is supernatural or metaphysical in nature, that it has anything to do with what we believe about god or whether we believe in a god at all.
Our spirit is the power of life, creativity, freedom and joy that intends to flow through us and out to one another, into the world we construct and live in, and for the sake of the holy community we might one day become.