Those of us who’ve experienced abuse as children often learn to expect that bad things are likely to happen in the future and that there is nothing that can be done to prevent or avoid them from happening. This can lead to a lifetime of anxiety (waiting for it to happen) and depression (arising from learned helplessness).
For many years the Bahá’í Faith was both my rescuer and my tormenter. I totally believed that Baha’u’llah was who He said He was, and that He had a blueprint for humanity, (including me), so that we could get ourselves out of the mess we were in. This is my primary reason for becoming a Bahá’í.
Over the years, I strove to put into practice the teachings, to the best of my ability, believing that if I did so, I would be transforming myself and contributing to the betterment of the world. Doing this gave me my life back, for which I am grateful!
But the longer I was a Bahá’í, and the more I studied the Writings morning and night; and the more study circles I tutored and the more people I coached, the more the Writings became a giant “to do” list, and I eventually collapsed under the weight of trying to do it all. It contributed to my deepening anxiety and depression and worsened my mental health.
I knew that this wasn’t the fault of the Teachings, but that somehow there was something I had failed to understand. Recently I came across the term “akrasia” which means “weakness of will; acting in a way contrary to one’s sincerely held moral values”. This described me perfectly!
My mental health problems had less to do with anxiety and depression and post traumatic stress disorder (most of which had been laid to rest years ago); but the failure to live up to my expectations of what I thought God wanted of me. The judgements and torments with which I inflicted myself were beyond any of the abuse which had been perpetrated on me as a child; and worse, I was doing it to myself! So I was delighted to find the right “diagnosis”!
I recently came across the work of Michael Penn, a Bahá’í professor and clinical psychologist, who conducted a study called “Akrasia and Mental Health”. In it, he sought to explore the mental health problems that may be associated with akrasia in a cross-cultural sample.
He was interested in akrasia as defined by “an agent’s will is said to be weak if he or she acts, and acts intentionally, in ways that are contrary to his or her own best judgment. Under such circumstances it is sometimes said that the actor lacks “self-mastery” or the willpower to do what he or she knows or believes would be best, all things considered”; and in the moral self-assessments and self-reflective judgments that centred upon what one has done or failed to do, resulting in guilt, shame, regret and remorse leading to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and vulnerability to suicide.
His findings were as follows:
1) When individuals act in ways that are contrary to their own values they may awaken moral emotions that are experienced as a form of self-induced trauma;
2) as it is with other-induced trauma, the self-induced trauma associated with acts of akrasia should be correlated with mental distress and various states of psychopathology;
3) the deleterious impact of akrasia is not culture specific but is universal.
Michael began to hypothesize that the only lasting remedy was for akratic patients to begin acting in ways that were more congruent with their own implicit or explicit values.
I turned to the world of nature and looked at the human body. I came to realize that the big toenail (for example) has an important function and when it’s bent or broken, the whole body suffers. It’s function is to protect the big toe and the surrounding soft tissues from injuries. It doesn’t feel guilty for not being able to see, or taste. It just does its job the best it knows how.
This was a revelation! The Bahá’í Writings were written for all of humanity for the next 500,000 years; and not just for Susan Gammage on October 10 in any given year! I didn’t have to do it all; and I didn’t have to do it all today. I just had to make today better than yesterday.
If you want to read the whole study, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org