Home » Uncategorized » Is theology making me sick? (Theology & Vulnerability III)

Is theology making me sick? (Theology & Vulnerability III)

Is theology making me sick? This is one of the recurring questions I grappled with as I came to terms with my anxiety during the past year. This question—a really troubling existential one, one that potentially calls into question a lot of what I’ve been doing with my life for the past eight years—simply could not be avoided.

One of the many early benefits of counseling was a heightened awareness of the situations that triggered my anxiety.  I took note when I sat in seminars and colloquia totally absorbed in the task of mitigating an anxiety-induced catastrophe. “You will not run out of the room,” I told myself moments before my presentation began. “You will not throw-up. You will not throw-up.”  I paid attention when day after day I sat at my computer, tears streaming down my face, unable to write.  As I recognized patterns among the scenarios that got my head spinning and my heart racing, I simply could not deny the fact that many aspects of my life as a graduate student triggered these spells of heightened panic.

So I began to wonder: “Is theology making me sick?” And if it is, could I continue on this career path in academic theology? I always suspected that theology itself was not the central cause of my problems.  I would likely bring my anxiety, with its deep roots in my personal psyche, to whatever career I pursued. Still, there are a number of reasons why I continued to wonder whether there is something about this line of work that magnifies my personal struggle.

I have reason beyond my own personal experience to question whether the theological academy is a potential hazard to mental health.  Some of the responders to my last post testified to the burdens that can accompany life in the academy, regardless of whether one struggles with mental illness.  One commenter, Mags Blackie, eloquently captured this when she wrote that that process of “putting on the cloak of capability is something that afflicts us all” in the academy.

Another scholar, Ann Cvetkovich, makes her case for the psychological effects of the academy in her book, Depression: A Public Feeling.  Eschewing the medicalization of mental illness as a reductive and insufficient account of the complex human experience of depression and anxiety, she exhorts cultural studies scholars to identify and interrogate the social structures that lead to these psychological states on a broad scale.  She identifies capitalism as a major source of mental illness, and explores the ways that scholarly life amidst the production demands of the academy spawned her struggle with bipolar depression.  In an industry notorious for its relatively scarce employment opportunities and its “publish or perish” demands for those fortunate enough to get a job, one can easily spiral into a recurring state of despair or constant worry, she explains.

I have some contentions with Cvetkovich’s project (e.g., in the same way that she is weary of reducing mental health to biological factors alone, I’m weary of the purely-cultural explanations on which she seems to rely), but her book has many convincing dimensions, especially in light of how I’ve watched others live in the theological academy for a number of years.  Certain structures, like that of academic theology, do seem to affect people’s psychological health.  Many accept varying degrees of depression and anxiety as completely normal states of mind among graduate students and theologians.  For years I’ve heard peers comfort one other with the message that it’s perfectly normal to be miserable.  “We’re graduate students or academics—of course things suck!”  And, to be sure, there are aspects of graduate studies that, for the average student, are extremely difficult and warrant a proportionate amount of worry and struggle.  But I have learned firsthand just how unhelpful—even damaging—this habitual justification can be.  When someone is struggling with more severe manifestations of anxiety and depression there is a temptation to dismiss it as entirely acceptable. Anxiety and depression are just part of this way of life.

I’ve seen how this mentality spawns a perpetual deferment of happiness that can lead to years and decades of misery.  We tell ourselves: I’ll be happy when I finish comps.  I’ll be happy when I publish a peer-review article. I’ll be content when I finish the dissertation. I’ll be happy when I get a tenure-track job. I’ll have peace when I secure tenure….And in the meantime, people are miserable and this too often goes unquestioned.  Is theology making us sick? Or, perhaps better put: Is theology making so many of us perpetually unhappy?

I am convinced that there are certain realities about academic theology that lend themselves to the widespread discontentment that I’ve personally experienced and witness among many peers and professors. However, as I considered whether I should stay in theology amidst escalations in my anxiety and its associations with my academic work, I also began to pay more attention to those who didn’t seem so affected by the pressures and demands of academic life.  If there is something about theology that contributes to my illness and renders so many others perpetually unhappy, then what is it about these other people in theology who seem content? How is it that they appear immune?

Contrary to what one might assume, contentment in the theological academy is not only for those who are “successful” by the standards of the institution’s production demands. From what I observed, it is not reserved for the frequently published and prestigiously appointed.  Peers and professors of varying levels of academic “accomplishment” and “success” aren’t paralyzed by the structures of this line of work.  This raised some other important questions for me: Am I really just the passive product of a harsh system?  Or have I been making myself sick?

During the past year I lived in the tension of these questions, and I’ve learned a few things in the process.  This post is already quite long, however, so I’ll reserve those thoughts for my next post….

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4 Comments

  1. Wendy Morrison says:

    As I sit here preparing for my comprehensive exams, I can easily relate to this post! I have experienced anxiety I never knew was in me, and I am certain it is not making me a better theologian…or friend…or significant other. I think observing the habits of those who are able to remain calm is in an interesting idea; I’ll be curios to hear more about your discoveries.

  2. magsblackie says:

    I am grateful that I only really entered academia once I had a sense of my own identity. For me, that meant accepting that I will never be a chemist in the way that many of my colleagues are chemists. I hold a passion for spirituality which will always divide my focus. I got my permanent academic job after I had figured out that the only way I would survive academia was by being fully myself. I still get caught by stress and anxiety, but usually it is in areas where I feel I still have to prove myself. For me it is really about having found instrinsic ways to measure success rather than trying to live up to some ever moving ideal.
    I really appreciate your courage in exploring these ideas in a public fashion

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