Recently, we experienced another tragic event: a mass attack in high school in Pittsburgh. Just one week before, there was another mass shooting in Fort Hood. And before that, a long series of destructive and preventable tragedies, which, it seems, are becoming more common every day. The Navy, Aurora, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Colombina: once the names that simply resembled quiet places in our great nation, which, unfortunately, now evoked destructive memories of unspeakable grief.
In the midst of all this, the national dialogue reappeared. This is one that, given the dubious mental stability of a large number of shooters in these events, includes discussions revolving around the views and policies of our country regarding mental health.
~ Are we doing enough to treat mentally ill people?
~ How can we better control people for mental illness?
~ How can we keep weapons from the hands of those who have a history of mental instability?
And so on…
But here is the question that I still have to hear: “What can we do to prevent a mental illness?”
It seems logical. And, frankly, if we were dealing with an epidemic of flu, obesity or some other physical illness, prevention would be at the top of this list. But strangely, the attitudes and habits of our culture relating to mental health are significantly different from the habits of physical health.
Take this into consideration.
In the field of the physical, it is generally accepted (although not always practiced) that if you want a healthy body, you need preventative maintenance: brushing your teeth, eating reasonably healthy food, doing sports, relaxing. Day after day, we are engaged in many duties aimed at improving the well-being and longevity of our physical self.
In other words, we understand that physical fitness is a harbinger of physical health. Nevertheless, in matters concerning our mental and emotional self, we find another story.
Developing habits of feeding and exercising their mental and emotional self are not something that is regularly considered by most Americans. On the contrary, most of our efforts to meet our mental and emotional needs are more about learning than fitness. Feeling of stress? Take beer with friends. Sadness has lowered you? Go look at the last blockbuster movie. Anxious about work? How about a round of golf?
Instead of increasing our mental capacities, we are treating ourselves. We participate in events so that we can better feel in the short term, but without actually addressing the root issue that revolves around the lack of ability to absorb and cope with life’s difficulties. It’s like how you gain weight by removing all the mirrors in the house. Of course, this can make you temporarily feel better, but what does it do to solve the problem?
Truth is an approach that too often produces what can only be called a free, wild mind.
This is an important point. As mentioned here, many of the mental actions that we are taking to develop our minds have very little to do with mental fitness. Examples of actions that DO NOT dramatically increase our levels of mental health include:
~ Data collection as part of the learning process
~ Exercising your cognitive means to make the mind more agile
~ Participate in activities that soothe and nurture an excited mind and emotions
This does not mean that these actions are not worthy and valuable, as they are obviously vitally important in our development as productive and happy people. Nevertheless, for the most part, they do not help to increase our ability to synthesize comparatively easy experience in the most difficult circumstances. And the cultivation of this easily-filled experience is the heart of mental fitness.
The key to understanding mental fitness is the concept of ability. “Mental fitness” is an indicator of a person’s ability to withstand life’s problems without excessive balance. It is the ability to resist dismissal, diagnose health or tolerate a financial challenge with grace, élan and confident calm.
We all know such people who never seem to be tousled. Dismissal? No problems. IRS audit? Good. An accident? No, biggie. While everyone around them is sent into a tailspin, these people remain calm, cool and collected no matter what life throws at them. So what kind of people are these that make them so well equipped to deal with life’s problems successfully?