You all know the story by now. After a first, shaky event, the presumed gold medal favorite and arguably the greatest gymnastic talent the U.S.A. has produced in a generation, Simone Biles, withdrew from the remainder of the team competition at the Olympics. She said the reason for her withdrawal was “mental health challenges” that were impacting her physical performance. This shocking decision sparked countless hours of commentary, with almost all of it swirling around that one phrase: “mental health.” The vast majority of mainstream media sources, including the Olympic coverage on NBC, praised Biles repeatedly for taking a “brave stand.” After sitting out of the team competition and most of the individual events, she came back, competed, and won bronze in the balance beam. Biles deserves to be commended, not criticized, for her choices and actions.
As John Reid has written, whatever you individually think of the decision, personal attacks on Biles are absolutely out of bounds. Christians, of all people, should remember and recognize that Biles is made in the image of God. When discussing or opining on her decisions, Christians should treat her with the respect and love she deserves. Furthermore, since most of us — myself included — can barely flip a pancake without dropping it on the floor or pull off a passable cartwheel, we really aren’t in a position to judge the mental state necessary to perform at the highest levels of such a dangerous sport. The sheer level of intensity, grit, and laser-like mental focus that must go into hurling your body through the air, flipping and turning at a dizzying speed and then trying to stick the landing without snapping your neck is beyond our mere couch-sitting, Cheeto-scarfing, critique-hurling ability to comprehend. So, to make my position clear, I’m not here to critique or question Biles — full stop, period.
But, that said, I do want to raise some questions about our culture and our newfound preoccupation with the all-important category of “mental health.”
Again, lest I be misheard or misread (which alas may happen still), and as I tiptoe my way towards my point trying to caveat and clarify appropriately, please know that I’m not downplaying the importance of mental well-being. I’m not criticizing anyone who seeks to improve their mental health or makes decisions about what to do or not to do in their life for the sake of their psychological stability and happiness (albeit constrained by a Christian worldview and morality). I’ve personally been the beneficiary of many hours of counseling from trusted pastors, helping me process events like the loss of my younger brother, dissatisfaction in the workplace, my own failures, confusions, shortcomings, etc. So, if you are reading this, and you think you need help, please get it! If you are a Christian and a member of a local church, reach out to a pastor or counselor or seek psychiatric help.
With all of that said, here is the concern I have with how we, as a country and as a culture, talk about mental health and what it reveals about how we collectively think about what it means to be human. When the talking heads on the sportscast, or the news anchors, or the commentators use the word mental health, it seems that what they actually mean instead is “a sense of personal inner peace and self-fulfillment.” Thus, I wonder if our culture’s absolutizing of the priority of mental health — primarily understood as settled sense of self-fulfillment — shows a narrow, unbiblical understanding of the “self.”
This is a view of self that flows from a worldview based in “expressive individualism,” reveals the triumph of “psychological man,” and thus prescribes — really demands — the corresponding inner-focused therapeutic mindset. Ultimately, it’s about a misunderstanding of our identity. Who are we at our most fundamental, irreducible levels? And what does that mean about our interactions with others — the sacrifices we make, the way we order our lives, and the priorities by which we steer our ships-of-self? Modern culture, and the mental health reckoning, says the solution is to look inward, to prioritize that inner-sense of self above all else. Is that correct?
In his ground-breaking book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, historian and Christian cultural critic Carl Trueman explores these themes of expressive individualism and psychological man, as previously studied and expounded by the late sociologist Philip Rieff and the philosopher Charles Taylor.
According to Rieff, “psychological man” is “characterized not so much by finding identity in outward directed activities…but rather in the inward quest for personal psychological happiness.”
In the opening chapter, he considers how this idea — of a demand for total personal inner-peace and the supreme sense of individual well-being — was foreign just a few generations ago. Trueman writes: “Take for example, the issue of job satisfaction, something that is significant for most adults. My grandfather left school at fifteen and spent the rest of his working life as a sheet metal worker in a factory in Birmingham, the industrial heartland of England. If he had been asked if he found satisfaction in his work, there is a distinct possibility he would not even have understood the question, given that it really reflects the concerns of psychological man…But if he did understand, he would probably have answered in terms of whether his work gave him money to put food on his family’s table and shoes on this children’s feet.”
This is the quote that was ringing through my head as I watched the coverage of Biles’ decision. And prompted by this quote, I thought: We would have never had this conversation two decades ago. There just simply wasn’t a category for this — for the supreme deference to, and unquestionable praise for, an individual’s subjective internal sense of self and using that as a decision point. Whether you think this is good or bad — I personally think it is, as with many things, a mixed bag — it is still worth reflecting on the change.
I appreciate that our culture cares about the psychological well-being of our citizens. But from a Christian perspective, we know that the answer to our inner struggles isn’t an inner solution; rather it is the external work of Christ on the cross, who came to make peace with God. The mental health category, as defined by our secular society and on its own, then, is profoundly deficient. The issues that are plaguing our nation, and our citizenry, aren’t primarily mental, but spiritual.
Again, I am not saying chemical imbalances in the brain aren’t a real thing that need real medicinal treatment. What I am saying, and I trust Christians across the spectrum can agree, is that what our society is calling “mental health concerns” are really a symptom of a much deeper, darker malaise. It is an attempt to find peace and fulfillment in the creation — in ourselves — and not in the Creator. As C.S. Lewis once put it: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
To admit that we were made for another world — that we are embodied souls — would disrupt the entire post-modern project that is terraforming our metaphysical categories at lightning speed, seeking to dispense with any notion of God, truth, judgement, sin, personal unease, guilt, and discomfort.
So, don’t criticize Biles. She is an abuse survivor, an absolutely phenomenal athlete, a brave gymnast, a loving teammate, and is clearly committed to her craft. But we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Don’t criticize Biles, but do carefully consider, and interrogate, the cultural backdrop in which this conversation is being had. Apply a Christian worldview to the conversation about the importance of mental health. Let’s decouple “mental health” from “personal self-fulfillment” and the domination of a therapeutic society that puts “me” over “we,” no matter what the cost.
David Gibson reminds us in his book, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Helps Us Live in Light of The End, that the paradoxical path to true biblical joy, happiness, and personal fulfillment isn’t found in “I” but rather in “we.” Gibson writes “If you can live in this world in such a way that the person or people beside you — your friend, your spouse, your children, your brother, your sister, the people God has put in your path — are your waking concern and your dominant focus, then you will find happiness.”
We, not I. Not that I’m arguing for collectivism, but rather an appropriate orientation of the individual in community — of recovering the virtue of self-sacrifice for the good of others. Not a life lived navel-gazing and fixated on the self, but with a face raised to God, and with eyes on others.
The happiness that so many seek, that so many are claiming is absent due to mental health reasons, is in fact a happiness that can never be found by a focus on that same pursuit of improving mental health. Rather it is ultimately, though in a fallen world not perfectly, found in a fixed, external reality: Submitting to the Creator of the universe in repentance and faith. It also comes with recovering a biblical anthropology. As Carter Snead, author of What it Means to Be Human, puts it, “The anthropology of expressive individualism alone cannot make sense of our fragility, neediness, and natural limits.”
In summary, I am arguing that the Christian worldview has a much better, more accurate diagnosis of the problem then “mental health” and a much stronger, more powerful antidote than “me time” to prescribe for the cure.
As our society continues this conversation, let’s keep these categories in mind. Sometimes the issue at hand may really be a true physiological impairment impacting mental health or the deep trauma and grief that impedes faculties from dealing with the death of a loved one at an inopportune time or the many possible things in between. But it may also be another manifestation of how our culture is captured by expressive individualism and the pursuit of psychological man. It could be we are mistaking mental categories for spiritual ones. That we are seeking to acknowledge and address the depths of the God-given soul of mankind without a willingness to submit to the soul-giver.
In the appropriate quest for personal peace, let’s not apotheosize the subjective self at the expense of a willingness to sacrifice personal comfort for duty, virtue, and the good of others. Just because you don’t find work fulfilling doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the cause of what you perceive to be an issue with your mental health. You might just be expecting something from your job — a deep sense of personal comfort and spiritual well-being — that it was never designed to provide. If we can learn to differentiate between mental health and a therapeutic desire for personal validation, or self-fulfillment, these conversations will be better for it. For now, go Team USA, and hats off to Simone Biles.