In the last post i looked at the possibility that our global north society may be suffering from a kind of arrested development, that the whole of society may not have progressed beyond adolescence and true maturity is rare among individuals. In such a society, adults who regress into adolescent thinking patterns may find themselves indistinguishable from others around them, because the whole of society is not advanced beyond them. Thus they get no help - either from the individuals around them or the role models or policy makers they are expected to emulate. We are used to considering early attachment issues in order to understand Borderline Personality Disorder, but a look at adolescent thinking may help us further.
A useful model of help was proposed for me by Linda Kavelin Popov, of the Virtues Project. If you are in a hole, you don't need people to get in the hole with you. That's what adolescents sometimes do. When one is in a hole they all get in and wallow, all with the idea of somehow trying to get the first person out. Then all you have is lots of people in a hole. What you need when you in a hole is people outside the hole, people wise and caring enough to put a ladder down and hold it steady so you can climb out.
So, we have lots of people in holes and not enough wise and caring people to hold the ladders. Who are the people from whom our young ones are expected to get their inspiration? Well, the magazine most bought by older teen and twenties women in New Zealand is New Idea. No models of maturity there. A piece of research i was involved with earlier this year* among young people found they do not relate to world changers such as old skool Martin Luther King etc. They are concerned about things that affect them directly, such as plus size models being allowed on catwalks, and the issues touted by celebrities such as Hayden Panattiere's truly brave efforts for dolphins. Remember, more people voted for American Idol than for the American president. We have a dearth of examples of maturity and depth and wisdom. Our policy makers and shakers preach individual responsibility, then model that special politician's apology that goes something like - I apologise if you perceived that you were thinking that you may have taken offence by something inadvertant that I am damn well not going to take any responsibility for....
We also have societies that are increasingly unequal and becoming genuinely more anxious. Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kare Pickett describe this in their book The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. These two are interesting because they are so methodologically careful. It's a great book if you like graphs. They state that the age of prosperity building is over; it has long done its work. Societies where there is greatest relative inequality within that society have more social problems. One of those problems is anxiety, and they cite research that shows we are not just more aware of anxiety, we really are more anxious. Of course these guys are epidemiologists and they are not commenting on the individual experience of people with mental illness. They see mental illness as a social feature - they see the context of mental illness. For them the good news is that simply by increasing the relative equality within our societies we can help social problems. i don't know that in a more equal society there would be less BPD. But i think it is tragic that a woman in her twenties lives alone, on welfare, with no family contact, and few functional relationships, on medication that makes her fat and dulls her intellect, while the soundtrack of trauma and damage plays over in her head. Whatever label she has been given, there is a context for her experience, and we can do better. For this is the social context wherein people decompensate, regress, hurt and even kill themselves, fall in and out of crisis, and struggle to regulate and make sense of sometimes unmanageable emotions.
So in a society that is atomised, immature, de-natured, spiritually arid and porfoundly unequal, how can we tell who are the sick ones? Perhaps it is the individuals who are happily adolescent, who just stand in line for the latest toys, who are 'unwell'? Let us imagine a society where we shake our head sadly at people who have no depth, who care only for themselves, who seem unable to develop the huge compassion for all the planet that is normal for adults....
Miners used to take canaries down mines, and when the canaries got sick the miners knew the air was poisonous. Perhaps those with the BPD label are our canaries. They are telling us our societal air is poisoned, and we are all sick.
* Yeah OK i confess, it was my daughter polling her facebook friends at my request.