Lost Connections, by Johann Hari

When he was 18 years old, Johann Hari went to his GP seeking help. He explained that he felt an enormous emotional pain that seemed to be leaking out of him uncontrollably. His doctor told him a story: that his distress was caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain, specifically a low level of something called serotonin. By taking antidepressants, his serotonin level could be restored and his depression would go away. Johann left the doctor, collected his prescription, and took the first of thousands of little tablets. Almost at once he felt relief, his pain seemed to be lifted. But after a couple of months, it returned and soon he felt just as bad as he had before. He returned to the GP, who prescribed a stronger dose. Again he felt an immediate improvement, which lasted for a few months until once more he fell into a severe depression. This process was repeated several times, until Johann was on the strongest dose of SSRIs, which he continued to take for 13 years. The side effects were horrifying. He put on huge amounts of weight as a consequence of almost compulsive junk food eating. And worst of all, he was still depressed. The drugs were not working for him, and he was not alone: although exact figures are not available for the UK, it is estimated that 1 in 5 US citizens are on antidepressants.

It was at this stage that he began to ask why? Why are so many people depressed? Why are chemical treatments apparently so ineffective? What alternative remedies might there be?

His latest book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions, describes the results of his questions. He spent years looking at research data and interviewing the scientists who had collected it. He travelled all over the world, visiting many of the researchers but also going to places where different, innovative ways of dealing with depression had been tried.

His concluded that depression is not in the head, but mostly caused by real factors in the world outside. The one thing most of those factors have in common is that modern society is sick, and it should come as no surprise that so many people respond to that sickness by falling ill themselves. Johann sums this up by describing it as a ‘loss of connection’, because of the way we are forced to live in the modern world. Among the nine causes of depression and anxiety that he has identified, he lists disconnection from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, and from a hopeful and secure future.

If you’re like me, you will respond to a lot of this by thinking, Of course, I’ve always known that; but why then don’t we, or doesn’t society, do something about it? Part of the answer is that Big Pharma makes billions of dollars from the widespread use of antidepressants (also they pay for and conduct most of the research which ‘proves’ the effectiveness of chemical antidepressants); but another large part is that there are too many other political vested interests that resist the major reforms to society that would help solve the problem.

This is a brilliant book, informative, full of heart-warming stories that you just long to see turned into one of those ‘feel-good’ films about people battling against overwhelming odds, to turn around their own lives, and the life of their neighbourhood. There are lots of things we can do as individuals, to lift ourselves out of depression (or to improve our emotional health generally); but much more than that is needed. We need to be working for radical changes to society and the way we live. It doesn’t have to be like this. The changes we need are hard to imagine, difficult to begin, and yet many of them don’t require a lot of expense: they’re simple enough to do, they’re not rocket science.

We know this stuff! Why don’t we do it, and why don’t we protest and keep protesting to the people in power to make these things happen?

Who’d have thought I’d be agreeing with Elton John? But I do, when he says of this book, “If you have ever been down, or felt lost, this amazing book will change your life… Read it now.”

See and read much more about it on Johann Hari’s website.

Is there a Hell?

Tom Wright describes studying Theology in what he calls the ‘heyday of liberal theology’ in the 1960s and 70s. One of his teachers told his students, “There may be a Hell, but it will turn out to be untenanted.” As a consequence of that prevailing fashion, Wright says, most Christians at least within the mainstream churches have become effectively universalists – people who believe that ultimately, everyone will be ‘saved’.

And yes, gentle reader, I am one of those who, although I was not reading for a degree in Theology until almost the end of those liberal decades, find myself most comfortable within a universalist view of humankind’s final destiny. But I also agree with Tom Wright that universalism just won’t hold water in the world we inhabit at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. Decades in which we have seen genocides in the Balkans and Africa, bloody civil wars in Syria and DRC, constant wars in the Middle East, terrorist atrocities in Western countries and even more in Islamic countries, where Islamist extremists massacre fellow-Muslims by the hundreds and thousands. Where there are evil leaders who even train children to be suicide bombers, with lying promises of Paradise hereafter.

The Great War of 1914-18 showed up the bankruptcy of the liberal Protestantism of the 19th century, which Karl Barth denounced in his Epistle to the Romans and Church Dogmatics. The German liberal theologians who had not challenged but lent their enthusiastic support to the militaristic war aims of the Kaiser, were equally ineffective in challenging the Nazis when they took over the German State and Church in the 1930s. A new theology was needed, which took seriously the Word and the sovereignty of God, and this became the inspiration for the Confessing Church and younger theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted Nazism. Now that we find ourselves living in our own new age of barbarism, where is the tough new (or old?) theology we need to bear witness against the powers of this present darkness?

Yet I was still secretly hankering after that universalist pabulum. Until I re-read the Rule of St Benedict, one of my favourite spiritual readings. The Rule sets out one of the most gentle, moderate prescriptions for a life of Christian discipleship. The Master claims that he wants to prescribe nothing that will be too severe, or will frighten off the would-be servant of Christ. So far, so good. But at the same time he robustly warns his students about the horrible punishment that awaits those who fail to keep the commandments of God’s Word. Even for the holy pupils in Benedict’s ‘school for Christ’s service’, there is no free pass, no ‘Get out of Hell free’ card, for those who fall short.

So Alison and I found ourselves, at teatime last Sunday, debating whether or not there is a Hell. We didn’t reach a definitive conclusion, no surprise there then. But we did decide that Hell is something like a theological Schrödinger’s Cat.

God must ultimately put everything that is wrong in the world to rights; God must deal with evil and its consequences, and establish justice. Therefore Hell is necessary.

God’s love and everlasting mercy are all-inclusive, infinite and invincible. Therefore Hell is impossible.

Wikipedia explains the dilemma of Schrödinger’s Cat like this:

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor (e.g. Geiger counter) detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

Perhaps we have to live on the basis that Hell simultaneously exists and doesn’t exist; but at the end of the day, when the ‘box’ is ‘opened’, it will either exist or not exist.

So which is it? Is the Hell-Cat alive? Or dead? And what will be the moment at which reality collapses into one possibility or the other?