The Goose in the Bottle

The other day I read an article by William Doherty that really sparked my imagination. Doherty argues that the job of therapy is not simply to help each individual manage his or her own symptoms, but to recognize the ways that society and culture affect and create the problems that each individual must face. Doherty writes, “We need a new image of the self to counteract the Consumer Self of hyper-individualism.”

Doherty’s point is that humans are relational beings whose mental health requires connectedness with other people, and that our therapeutic culture has often erred on the side of assuming mental health to be an individual problem rather than a collective one.

This argument gets to the heart of something I have been puzzling over for a while. Some people have said that rather than being an “abnormal” mindset, depression is in fact a very sane and sensible response to an abnormal world. As someone who has alternately seen my own depression as a spiritual crisis and as a reasonable response to some of the painful facts of the world at large, I couldn’t agree more. Especially as I raise children in this culture, I see the ways that our society–and probably all societies– seem designed to create all the intrapsychic conflicts and happiness-destroying anxieties that plague us on every front.

As American culture has become more individualistic, it has also become more fragmented, sapping the communal cohesion that once helped people take care of each other in the midst of change and difficulty. The sense of community and mutual aid has only degenerated since  sociologist Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone in 2000, which argued that Americans had far fewer communal associations than they used to. 

Not only has community disappeared, placing all of the financial and emotional stress of contemporary life on the shoulders of harried parents in isolated nuclear families, but technology has only made news and the negative aspects of culture at large both more toxic and more pervasive in our emotional lives. In a connected world, we are all under a constant barrage of messages and news designed to make us feel bad about ourselves and sad for everyone else.

In Ordinary Mind, psychoanalyst Barry Magid writes of an old Zen koan that asks, “How can you get a goose out of a bottle?” The koan asks you to imagine a baby gosling placed in a narrow-necked bottle who grows big inside his bottle and thus cannot escape. Magid writes, “In such conditions, how unimaginable a life of freedom must be.” Sometimes our media feels like that bottle to me: a world we are forced to live in, filled with messages designed to make us addicted, distracted, judgmental, and relentlessly self-critical. How do we live a life of emotional freedom inside the constraining bottle of contemporary society?

The truth is that we cannot get out of the bottle: it is the world we live in, for better and for worse. Instead, we can try to see the bottle differently, and to use what power we have to subtly reshape the bottle to a more comfortable mode of existence. With resources like therapy and meditation, we can resist the negative messages and try to amplify the positive ones. Only then will we develop the power of communal action that can help us to build communities of care and peace that can have lasting effects on our own mindsets and on society as a whole.

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