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Toward Mental Health and Well-Being: Beginning with Beauty

I have often wondered, personally and professionally, if suffering is brought about—or perhaps is made more acute—by the loss of Beauty in our lives. The vision of something beautiful can renew us in that moment of despair.

Later this week on January 28th, Canadians will celebrate Bell Let’s Talk by posting messages of encouragement, sharing stories of struggle and recovery, and raising money for mental health supports and services. Bell’s mental health awareness movement has generated substantial conversation about mental health and illness in Canadian society.

This past year was a year of tectonic shifts in our world, communities, families, and in our own individual lives. We met loneliness, isolation, despair, anxiety, and grief face-to-face. Indeed, many professionals and leaders are referring to the mental health crisis as the fourth wave of the pandemic. On top of this, injustices, exploitation, discrimination, and violence have been central in our news and perhaps for some of us, in our daily life. There is no doubt that existing mental health struggles or illnesses have been exacerbated.

What is our response as disciples of the Great Physician?

I was challenged to consider a fresh form of responding to the suffering of my human siblings, and myself, while reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy Patitsas, an Orthodox Christian ethicist. Unfortunately, a summary of Patitsas’ book is just not possible in this short post. His interview here is a good place to start.

At various points, Patitsas brings the Christian spiritual and theological tradition into dialogue with psychiatrists Jonathan Shay and Bessel Van der Kolk. In agreement with Shay and Van der Kolk, Patitsas argues that modern psychotherapy has mistakenly approached suffering from an overly rationalistic and analytical perspective. If I only changed my thoughts, I wouldn’t suffer so much.

He proposes that the way to healing begins with encountering Beauty. Patitsas paints a compelling picture of the unity between Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Each is necessary, but not sufficient on their own, for healing and most importantly, for becoming transformed into the likeness of Christ.

I have often wondered, personally and professionally, if suffering is brought about—or perhaps is made more acute—by the loss of Beauty in our lives. The vision of something beautiful can renew us in that moment of despair. The Holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl penned a hauntingly beautiful description in Man’s Search for Meaning about his experience envisioning his wife as he toiled in a concentration camp trench.

When we lose sight of Beauty, we also lose Truth and Goodness along the way. Truth and Goodness are impoverished when Beauty is absent.

For Christians, that something beautiful is really Someone. Someone appears to us (theophany) in many ways. Patitsas remarks, “But what is this real Beauty, but Christ himself in a moment of self-emptying love?” In other words, Beauty is not simply the pleasurable, aesthetically appealing, or a matter of the latest trends. Rather, Beauty is “the crucified Savior and the Cross.” Perhaps healing begins with being attentive and receptive to beauty—and the Beautiful One who suffers for and with us in the Great Act of Love—in our daily lives.

Perhaps we have not always seen Beauty and mental health as being intimately connected. I’m beginning to wonder if they are more tied together than I once thought. There seems to be something, intuitive, however about the possibility that when we face our suffering, the way forward is not to begin with trying to convince ourselves that we are not suffering, or that our problems are too petty and not worth attention, or that if we simply disbelieve our thoughts we’ll feel better.

Despite COVID-19’s incessant incursions into every area of individual and collective life and continued discrimination and violence between members of the human family, perhaps we can attest to moments of theophany this past year, moments of seeing Christ’s Beauty coming into the world, our world.

Take a moment today to consider and contemplate Beauty.

Ryan Schutt, MA, CCC is the Team Lead for TWU’s Mental Health Services. Born and raised in Washington State, Ryan moved to B.C. to attend TWU, and now calls Langley home.

A friendly note from TWU Mental Health Team:
It is important to take care of your mental health. Mental illness can seriously impact daily life, relationships, school, and work. If you are suffering from a mental illness or if you are finding the days a little harder to get through, reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or colleague. If you are a student, The Wellness Centre has resources and a compassionate team of professionals to journey with you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us by visiting mentalhealth.twu.ca. If you are staff, your TWU benefits may cover a portion of counselling fees. If you are a member of the wider TWU community, the British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors website can provide you with a list of counsellors in your area. Beyond BC, search for your provincial, state, or regional professional counsellor psychology association to find a qualified professional.