Don't Tell Me What to Do

Who knows better what you need in your life than you do?

I have a book coming out in March. Like this newsletter, it’s called Practicing Mental Illness, and it presents the most important things I’ve learned about how to manage a mood disorder and live a meaningful, productive life.

In my writing about mental health I try not to be too preachy. I know what works for me, and I suspect these things, meditation, movement and meaningful work, will work for others as well. Still, I present my information with personal anecdotes and gentle suggestions. I’m no know it all, and I certainly don’t want to try to persuade people to be like, or even think like, me. I have some ideas about what works, and some evidence that for a lot of people these things work for them, too. Yet instead of lecturing I try to write in an entertaining, accessible style and make points that I think are important and may help others who struggle with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.

Like every writer I want to be read, so I try to keep my work compelling and, to hook people, a bit provocative. If you catch me lecturing, please call me out on it.

It takes a long time for a book to come out. This one will hit the stores nearly two years after I turned in the manuscript. In that time, in many ways, I’ve moved on from what I wrote. I re-read the book this weekend and I still feel strongly positive about what is in it. I still think it works and I still live by the ideas I present. But in the meantime my writing has changed. It’s become more political, perhaps more insightful, but a lot more certain. I’ve expanded beyond writing about mental illness into writing about a variety of topics. I’ve even fancied myself a pundit with big ideas about right and wrong, and I’ve solidly placed myself into controversial discussions of many of our time’s biggest issues. And I enjoy it.

Maybe I should have stuck to writing about mental illness.

Why? Because I’ve learned that the people who argue about politics have little, if any, idea about what they’re talking about, especially the impact of the policies and solutions they champion on the people whose lives such political elites seek to change. Including me.

Take two small examples:

I’ve been an advocate of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s efforts to plant trees in neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia. Trees beautify a neighborhood and freshen the air. Who wouldn’t want to live on an attractive, tree-lined city street? Well, many of the people who live on streets we urban renewers consider ugly, that’s who.

To people in crime-ridden neighborhoods trees give cover to people who deal drugs, lay in wait to assault someone, and break into houses. Trees make these neighborhoods more dangerous, not more desirable. My elite, planning, altruistic mind couldn’t even comprehend this fact without interacting with the people I thought I was helping. But so few people who seek to help actually interact with the people they seek to help, and they end up doing irreparable damage in the name of good; in the name of “I know what’s good for you.”

Take a bigger issue. Take climate change.

We’re told we need to go to net zero carbon by 2030 or 2035. We’re nudged toward a new world of renewable energy and electric cars by well-meaning activists and technocrats who have never driven through Kingsessing, a neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia.

I drove through Kingsessing every day earlier this year to get to work. People were always out in the streets talking, playing with kids, smoking ribs in barbecue pits. It is a vital city neighborhood. It’s also impoverished with many houses in disrepair and old battered cars crammed into every spot on every street. It is ravaged by gun violence almost every day. It is set to be hammered by the well-meaning tyranny of those who would save the planet.

2030 is just over eight years away. Where on earth are the people in Kingsessing, or in most neighborhoods in the United States for that matter, going to get the money to convert their houses to high-efficiency HVAC units or line their roofs with solar cells? Electric cars? Really? Any new car? With what money? The average car on the road today is nearly 12-years-old. We’re all supposed to get new ones before the end of the decade? In neighborhoods in which we drive around desperate for a parking space a block or two from home, where on earth are we supposed to charge all these cars?

And yet so many elites think they know better than the people in Kingsessing about what the people in Kingsessing need. They seek to improve lives that they can’t even comprehend. They trip over the very real fact that their wonderful new world doesn’t even include most of the people in our dirty, grasping world of today. They have no idea of the damage they do as they call down doom and force their speculative vision on people already on the precipice of ruin, struggling to get by, living in a real community, making the best of it, teetering on the edge only to be pushed into misery by some elite who thinks they know better.

Which brings me back to mental health and my writing on politics. I’m not sure any of today’s political pundits of any stripe can speak of mental health as they paint their dystopian view of the Armageddon to come – the miserable fate we will suffer unless we all do what they say we should do. Individuals know best what to do with their own lives. They need to live in a world that acknowledges the strength of fortitude, faith, families, community and effort. The political class and society’s elites should foster this or shut up.

The minute you think you know better than someone else what they should do with their life you become a tyrant.

Perhaps the worst kind of tyranny is the tyranny of the well-meaning. Those who ignore simple human belief and motivation to impose their view of the world on people they belittle. In the end, the elite end up demonizing what most people think is important and force us into a world that includes only those who think like they do, and only those who can afford the sacrifices borne by the masses manipulated and marginalized by the terror of the big idea. The terror of the class that thinks they know better.

Biased elites will look at the people in treeless neighborhoods and the people they declare disadvantaged in Kingsessing and proclaim: “but who will tell them what’s best for them?” Of course, the people elites condemn with their limiting ideas will. In making decisions of what’s best for themselves and their communities, and by extension the country and the world, people will find the most beneficial life for themselves, their families, their communities and, inevitably, all of us.

At present we are stuck in a world in which elites are telling us how to live our lives and limiting our choices as never before. Besides economic difficulties, rates of depression, drug addiction and suicide are soaring. There is a connection. Political elites insistence on doing what’s best for people they don’t first consult is leading to a mental health crisis in the United States. People untrusted to do what’s best for themselves will disengage. Their prospects, their mental and physical health, and the health of the world notably suffer. Few people really care about big issues, and rightly so. They take care of themselves as best they can. In doing that, they do what results in the best world possible. The best world for all but the scheming elite class. This should be encouraged and supported. We should expect the best of people and they will succeed, despite well-meaning efforts to hold them down.

I hope I have done this with my newsletter and my book. The model is to present some proven but unbiased information and let readers take from it what they will. What they choose to apply to their own lives.

A first step toward positive mental health is to know that with the help you accept and decide to draw on you can manage it. To succeed is to accept the responsibility that you must do what it takes to heal and to stop blaming mental illness for your failures. This is incredibly difficult. It’s always easier to blame something, or someone else. And yet simple actions are what it truly takes to live well. This is what I present in Practicing Mental Illness. I hope it’s what I present to the people I care for and the people on whom I may have some influence.

We must set our own goals and discover our own paths. Learning from others, especially others with direct experience rather than abstract knowledge, is important. But in the end we must choose our own path and stick to it with all we’ve got. I can only hope my work supports people’s efforts to do just this without assuming that I know better. I don’t. But in sharing information I’ve learned and therapies that have worked for me I hope I can help others decide what’s best for themselves and what’s best for all in their life without insisting that what I do is what they should do. It’s the only way to a fair and sustainable world. It’s the only way to a full life. It’s the only way to live well with a mental illness – trusted to do what’s best, and independent of know it alls.

Pre-order Practicing Mental Illness here.