In Michael Bond’s reflection on the passing of the years read by Sir David Attenborough at the Queen’s 90th birthday service he stated – “My father’s motto was – the most precious gift you can bestow on a child is your time.” A recent survey by mental health charity ‘Mind’ of primary care workers found that work is currently the most stressful area of their lives. Research by the professional body for human resources has revealed that the the number of people saying that they have experienced mental health problems while in employment has climbed from a quarter to a third over the last five years.
The knock on effect of this on family relationships and the well being of children is very costly. Natasha Devon, formerly the UK government’s children’s mental health champion, said last year that in order to identify mental health problems in the early stages, it was necessary to look at the root causes. “Anxiety, for example, is the fastest growing illness in under-21s, and we need to look at what’s happening to young people – the culture and the society they live in, the pressures that are on them.”
Last month attention was being drawn to the increasing evidence of the effects of social media on young people’s mental health but the root cause I want to focus on is the busyness of parents.
Too many parents are overstretched and as a result lose their sense of humour and warmth falling back on tranquilizers or alcohol because they haven’t taken time to look after themselves. We are limited by many things….including our own life experiences and the hurts of our own childhoods but not least the pressures of work. There is only so much pressure we can take so perhaps the most important starting place is to take care of ourselves. Our children need us to look after ourselves and to take time out with them.
In Douglas Coupland’s novel ‘Girlfriend in a coma,’ the central character, after waking up from 17 years in a coma, comments on the lives of her friends: “..….there’s a hardness I’m seeing in modern people.……. Life’s so serious now. I mean nobody even has hobbies these days. Nobody seems to be able to endure being by themselves either but at the same time they’re isolated. People work much more, only to go home and surf the internet and send e-mail rather than visiting each other. The whole world is about work: work work work.”
We are all affected by this same pressure to work. For some the drive to work excessive hours comes from the insecurity engendered by temporary posts and zero hours contracts. However we don’t have to do all that we choose to do and when we choose to do more than we have to do family relationships can suffer. There is good evidence that in western countries at least we are not coping emotionally and spiritually with the diversity, extent and pace of ‘progress.’ The need to keep up has become a tyranny of the soul both in our professions and in our relationships with our children.
However thankfully there are signs of a belated recognition that values, meaning and spirituality are essentials in childrearing and education. The institutions of school and family along with some form of religious affiliation are being recognised as protective against self – destructive behaviour in young people. A better future will mean repudiating the moral priority given to the individual over the community, image over content, the fleeting over the enduring. As we learnt in our Rhythm and Rules series earlier this year the biblical Sabbath leaves no doubt about the need for rest and discipline in our lives.
We must see how precious a gift to those we value most is the time that prioritizing these creates and find a way of creating our own sabbaths.
Noel McCune is a member of the board of Contemporary Christianity.
Thanks for the spotlight on this, Noel. This week I have had conversations with a couple of clergy and so I want to add a comment on the specific need for ministers to make time for a Sabbath rest in their week.
Response to “Seasons of Life” by Noel McCune
Noel rightly brings to our notice an epidemic, that of mental disorder, that is affecting increasing number of human beings not only in highly industialized societies but also in newly developing societies such as Brazil, China, India and Russia. The root cause, as he rightly identifies, is the “pressure to work” (or is it “pressure in work”?) But there must be more to it than it meets the eye!
Simply the pressure to work longer and longer hours by itself cannot account for the increasing occurrences of mental health problems not only among the adult working population but also among the children from the age of six onwards. Firstly, not only most adults but a significant number of children in poor less industrialized countries like Nepal work much longer hours seven days week, in many cases just to survive day by day. It is not just longer working hours then but also the kind of work most people do nowadays, the environmnet in which they work and incresaing pressures to succeed more and more in terms of material wealth and higher and higher prromotions are also contributing factors to the iincreasing incidence of mental disorders.
It is such cultural factors that deprive most working adults of adeqaute time not only for their young children but also for each other and their elderly relatives. It is worth pondering that most of us, inspite of the availabilty of personal motor cars and fairly comfortable means of public transport, have less and less time to visit our relatives and friends who live at a certain distance from us than people did, say, a hundred or so years ago. One reason for this is the kinds of entertainment we are offered which reuqre us to behave like “couched potatoes” alone, each glued to his or her TV set or other modern gadgets. (Let me at this point ‘come out’ and honestly confees: mia culpa).
Noel rightly reminds us of the importance and value of the Biblical Sabbath as one (if not the) antidote to the epidemic. Yet we need reminding that there is ‘sabbath’ and there is ‘sabbath’. When I first arrived in the UK about fifty years ago, Sunday was really a ‘day of sabbath’; most of the businesses, except cinemas and theatres and a few other places of entertainment, were shut. Most Sundays, most people either stayed at home or visited their relatives or friends. But nowadys centre of Belfast and most other cities and towns is not much diiferent on Sundays from what it is on Saturdays. This seismic change has come about partly because of the pressures from businesses, partly because of the demands from ordinary folks like you and me for ‘Sunday Opening’ and partly because most of our poltical rulers no longer believe in keeping Sunday a ‘day of sabbath’, a day of rest, of reflection, and of enjoyinhg the company of our relatives and friends.
What is required surely is a radical cultural change and a change in mind-set which recognizes not only the value of the ‘day of sabbath’, but other values which previously underpinned sabbath such as values of worship, spiritual reflection and self-reflcetion, value of enjoying the company of relatives and friends and values of trying to meet the needs of our neighbours who are sick and lonely.
Noel speaks of the family, the school, and of “some form of religious affiliation” as ‘institutions’ which ‘are being recpognized as protective against self-destructive behaviour in young people. If that is the case, then it is a welcome fact. But, in my experience, if the media are to be believed, incresaing number of families and schools no longer provide an environment in which young people can be taught the basic personal, social and ‘spiritual’ values. As for the churches and other religuous institutions, the primary emphasis is on “Christ as a personal saviour’ and ‘loving each other’—the rest is for the young people themselves to decide.