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Religion and despair

by David Gaffney SJ

There are scenes of a troubled young man being counselled by a very believable ‘shrink’ in the film Good Will Hunting (and readers may be able to supply other examples). But, lacking such an image of a helper, many a young man who is facing the possibility of suicide may have no use for talk. And I feel that the situation with religion is somewhat the same. Unless an accessible image of God has already been planted in the psyche, I don’t think one can just parachute-in religious considerations.

Any such image is in turn going to depend on whether the young person’s experience of human relationships has been satisfactory. Perhaps the person is isolated, lacking ‘socializing’ networks.

In any case, young males are more emotionally vulnerable than ever today. Anne Cleary, of the Sociology Department in UCD, interviewed fifty-two men who had attempted suicide. “When I interviewed these men,” she says, “relationships emerged as a very important issue for them. They found it very difficult to cope with the changes around relationships, because women… are much freer about moving in and out of relationships”.

And women nowadays (according to psychiatrist Angela Mohan) come across as less nurturing: “The social pressure to look the part of a successful woman and ‘be happy’ in career and relationships is constantly being reinforced by popular culture, so that many young women feel like failures when they’re not”.

At a deeper level still, lies the expectation which young people bring to a relationship. Do they even have the basic emotional maturity to understand ‘give and take’? Or is a whole generation growing up spoilt – hooked on instant gratification?

To what degree can a counsellor provide a religious motivation to people who are in danger of harming themselves? One cannot bring religion in cold. But, on the other hand, if one waited till the ‘natural’ dispositions were in place at every level, the light of religious truth might never be brought to bear at all.

My own approach would be: (1) to bring the despairing person gradually to the point where I talk about a goal or meaning in life – involving ultimately a loving God; (2) but first to do the ‘natural’ groundwork. And here I have in mind some reference (without wanting to be superficial) to the stages outlined already. The person is not going to fully open up unless an image of genuine concern is somehow part of the picture. This image in turn remains to be distilled from the person’s ideas of what a positive experience of relationship might feel like. And the person (particularly if quite young) may first need to think through the issue: which expectations of relationship – even on his or her view of things – are to be seen as childish, and which are to be seen as mature.