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Circling the drain

Clinging to victimhood will only lead to greater mental anguish

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My friend Maria could be a lot of fun. She lived a block away, and our boys were buddies. Occasionally we even got together with our husbands for backyard grills and card nights. We led a Cub Scout pack and enjoyed occasional tea dates away from the kids during the drippy Northwest winters. As we got to know each other better she shared more of her rough childhood as an Army brat with an abusive father. While she complained about counseling sessions and an unsympathetic husband, I tried to supply her need for a sounding board and supportive friend.

When I told her we would be moving back to the Midwest, she seemed to take it in stride: “Well, we can always write.” And so we did, but I found the neediness of her letters increasingly difficult to answer; even more our infrequent telephone calls. Bitterness about her husband led to divorce. A parade of counselors failed her. The last time we spoke, she told me how disappointed she was in her daughter, who refused to swap bedrooms with her. Maria had begun to feel unsafe in her own room, which faced the street. The girl, then 12 years old, eventually gave in, but with very bad grace. I had young teens at that time and knew how ungracious they could be—but who was the adult here?

And why did further counseling increase her sense of victimization? After much thought I wrote Maria a long letter about taking some responsibility for her own ­neuroses. She never communicated with me again.

That was years ago, but Maria came to mind when I read about a study reported in the academic journal Social Science & Medicine. “The Politics of Depression” took a close look at raw data from a survey conducted by Pew Research in March 2020 (the first month of COVID shutdowns). The data show a gap in well-being between political persuasions, with conservatives reporting themselves happier than progressives. The gap is startling in adolescents. My friend from long ago was not an adolescent and I don’t know her political beliefs, but the brand of counseling she was getting then (at least the way she described it to me) seems to come from the same playbook that’s contributing to the sorry ­mental health of young people now.

“Heightened perceptions of bias and discrimination are robustly associated with mental anguish, social strain, and adverse physical outcomes,” according to an examination of the data in American Affairs. “The more people perceive themselves to be surrounded by others who harbor bias or hostility against them, and the more they view their life prospects as hostage to a system that is fundamentally rigged against them, the more likely they become to experience anxiety, depression, [and] psychogenic and psychosomatic health problems.”

This seems obvious, just as it seemed obvious to me that Maria was clinging to victimhood rather than ­pursuing restoration. As near as I could tell, from her experience and others I knew, the approved practice was to encourage clients to explore all the ways they’d been wronged in the past, and if possible to confront the parents, siblings, or significant adults who wronged them. Not surprisingly, the perpetrators seldom acknowledged their fault, so the victim’s sense of injustice intensified and formed its own feedback loop.

What was trendy counseling in the 1980s now contributes to national trauma, with progressives obsessing over problems they can’t personally do anything about. It’s up to everyone else to do something, mainly by ­getting their minds right and voting accordingly.

Writing to the Philippians, Paul offered another approach. “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). There is a goal, and a prize, and an upward call. Do we reach for the prize, or circle around our grievances until they suck us right down the drain?

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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