On World Mental Health Day, the author calls out the myth that asking for help is weak, adding that we as a society require mutual care and interdependence.

A group of people doing fist-bump, representative image for social support systemPixabay
Voices Mental Health Sunday, October 10, 2021 - 14:23

On World Mental Health Day this year, my thoughts are with the people around me (including myself) who are quietly doing the impossible, lonely task of coping with disabilities, chronic pain and mental/physical illness without the social support system they deserve. Some are even caregivers themselves who are unable to take a break. I see and read about so many, many people making do with what measly social resources they have to keep themselves alive. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this situation worse – some of the infected had access to better care than others.

The Internet tells me that the politics, ethics and economy of interpersonal, institutional and social care is a hugely complex subject that I can only touch the surface of here. An article titled ‘The Politics of Care’ in the journal Contemporary Political Theory describes care, in part, as “...a resource for mutual aid, … a non-biological kinship arrangement, a collective survival strategy…”. The word “mutual” calls to mind interdependence, a system in which we are all responsible for each other’s care – as opposed to the capitalist notion of the hyper-independent individual. Disability writer and activist Srinidhi Raghavan, in a must-read essay, writes, “I feel the burden of having to rely on myself in a world that valourises independence.”

In such a world, the lack of social and institutional support systems, especially for the marginalised, oppressed and disabled, is crippling for individuals who bear the brunt of the trauma inflicted by oppressive socio-economic structures. The frequent suicides by caste-oppressed students in educational institutions, and by farmers, is an example of this. One can only hope that initiatives like the Bridge the Care Gap campaign have the potential to infiltrate the most disadvantaged communities of this country.

The cultural critic and scholar Caleb Luna has written a widely-read essay on “economies of care” and how we privilege caregiving in romantic relationships and the family unit over other kinds of relationships. They write about suicide:

“Suicide is a complicated and difficult decision, and perhaps that for many cannot be changed by care from others. But the relationship to the care I do or don’t receive and the intensity and frequency with which I experience suicidal ideation suggests a connection to me.”

In this kind of society, the attention given to the concept of care is not nearly enough, partly due to misconceptions of what care entails. Srinidhi Raghavan writes:

“The word ‘care’ is often understood as burden. That caring might involve pleasure is almost unheard of. We are all part of ableism’s constant dialogue that having needs or a chronically-ill body that needs to use the toilet frequently or the room to be dark for weeks is demanding too much.”

I’m here to say that individual independence is a myth. This myth is very harmful to those with a mental illness or those who have experienced trauma, among many others. Those of us who belong to this group (myself included) are taught that asking for help is weak and that we are unable to care for others since we ourselves are considered a burden to our caregivers. I have personally witnessed people losing respect for me when I ask for help. Worse, my attempts to help others are turned down by those who have hardened themselves into pseudo-independence. In some friendships I just pretend to have perfect mental health because the other person doesn’t want to hear about my mental health, yet tells me about their problems. These relationships make mutual care and interdependence impossible.

Why is the most care, attention and sympathy extended towards the young, the able-bodied, neurotypical, well-off, thin, caste-privileged, heterosexual and cisgender persons? The recent heart-breaking murder of Arbaaz Aftab in Belagavi for loving a Hindu woman raises many questions, and one of them is about police and media attention. In the case of Nirbhaya’s rape, torture, and murder in 2012, some arrests were made within 24 hours. Her parents were rightly given the utmost sympathy. The public protested in large numbers. In Arbaaz’s case, the police questioned some people but waited 11 days to make arrests. The media’s and public’s outrage has been limited compared to the Nirbhaya case. And how much and for how long is Arbaaz’s mother Nazima Sheikh going to be revered as a grieving parent? There are countless such examples in all areas of life that contrast the interpersonal, social and institutional care given to one community versus another.

***

Coming back to interdependence: not only do we all depend on others for the production of our food and other necessities, but we also depend on the people and institutions around us for personal care. If not now, then when we are older, our bodies will teach us the necessity of interdependence, no matter how privileged we are. As Srinidhi Raghavan writes: “The ageing body that needs support is not something any of us want or desire. Especially in ways that we have to be intimate with it and cannot be detached from the person who has the body that has needs.”

Buddhism, which reiterates the inevitability of old age, sickness and death, seems to agree. The Pali Canon tells us:

Life is swept along, next-to-nothing its span.

For one swept to old age no shelters exist.

Perceiving this danger in death,

one should drop the world’s bait and look for peace.

(Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.100)

“No shelters exist”. We cannot be sheltered from our own bodies. We are all vulnerable. Here’s an excerpt from an Instagram post I saw recently: 

“I don’t know who may need to hear this, but hyper-independence is the result of trauma. ‘I don’t need anybody and I must do everything myself’ really means, ‘My ability to trust has been injured by people systematically letting me down and failing me.’”

One of my favourite things to read in times of suffering is an eight-volume Japanese manga series titled “Buddha” by Osamu Tezuka, depicting a fictionalised account of the Buddha’s life. In Volume 4, before his enlightenment, Siddhartha is shown helping his friend Tatta who was lynched almost to death by the local villagers, and his home burnt down for being a “pariah”, as the English translation puts it. Siddhartha tries to protect Tatta from another lynching, this time for daring to cross the path of a forest meditator while hunting for food:

Dialogue: First person in hostile mob: “Siddhartha, we’ve turned a blind eye so far on account of your evident nobility, but we’ve just about had it! Why do you shelter that no-good pariah in the woods? Complaints are pouring in from the ascetics! Today we will chase him out of this forest, and teach him a lesson.” Second person in hostile mob: “No use trying to stop us, Siddhartha!” Siddhartha: “Sir, do not be rash! This man’s wife is gravely ill. He may be an outlaw, true, but he is also a man to be pitied, now, if ever.” First person in hostile mob: “Siddhartha! He’s a pariah! Why do you sympathize with him?”

But Siddhartha is no upper-caste saviour in this story. He is dependent, too. In the same Volume 4, while experimenting with different types of meditation, he tries the starvation method. When he is on the brink of death and under pressure from his peers to continue, Tatta visits him and tries to knock some sense into him by skinning, cooking and offering him roast venison from his hunting:

Dialogue: Tatta, roasting venison, tells an emaciated Siddhartha: “Just look at yourself. Skin like bark, sallow as clay. You’re no ordinary dude and you have grand plans, I can tell. But whatever they are, you can’t carry them out dead. Staying alive’s gotta be the priority, man. You’re a king, okay?! Blimey, the king of kings!! So start acting like one, will ya? If you’ve gotta suffer, how about suffering indigestion, instead of hunger?” Tatta offers Siddhartha the venison and says, “Now eat. Eat!! Get your strength back!!”

And in Volume 8, when the Buddha reaches his final months and is dying slowly of acute indigestion, we see him at his most vulnerable, unable to move, entirely dependent on his assistant Ananda. We see his disciples, whom he has helped greatly with his teachings, bring him water and “cloths”. For me, this is one of the most powerful messages of human frailty and interdependence: this depiction of the Buddha in adult diapers. Of the Three Refuges of Buddhism (Buddha, dhamma, sangha), the value of sangha shines most brightly in this scene:

An elderly Buddha is lying down, groaning in pain, with Ananda watching over him. The other disciples talk amongst themselves. Disciple 1, Ananda: “He has terrible diarrhea! I’ll take care of it. Please bring me a lot of water!” Disciple 2: “We will.” Disciple 3: “I’ll see what I can do about getting more cloths.”

***

Jarvis Jay Masters is an American Buddhist writer and spiritual leader living on death row. Following in the footsteps of the 8th century Indian Buddhist monk Shantideva, he has taken a bodhisattva vow in the Vajrayana tradition – to help all sentient beings (to put it very crudely in my own words). In his book Finding Freedom, Masters describes taking this vow, and then he reveals the stark reality of prison life when he asks his teacher Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche: “Helping others could cost me my life in here. Can I qualify my vow by common sense? Can I use my intelligence not to cause my own death?” He receives a positive answer but the reader is disoriented and disturbed. Undertaking to be a bodhisattva on death row could easily kill Masters, yet he has chosen to serve others there against all reason.

Not all of us can be a Jarvis Masters, but could service in our own small, everyday lives teach us more about interdependence and “mutual aid”? If it is possible for Masters to exercise caregiving in a hostile, violent environment, surely it’s possible for the rest of us. Serving others is not a purely selfless act anyway. In my own experience, metta (compassion in Pali) meditation improves my sense of well-being, and studies back up this experience.

In the Buddhist monastic life, one of the ultimate demonstrations of interdependence, vulnerability and the necessity of reliance on social support systems is the begging bowl tradition, on which monks depend for food. A monk begs for food from lay households and receives it in his bowl, and must eat what is given. As the Theravada Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho describes it:

“We can’t say we want high quality food—I want this, I want that, I like this, I like that. We are not even supposed to hint. What do you want Ajahn Sumedho? What do you prefer? You are not supposed to say anything. You just take what you get in your alms bowl.”

In another context this could be a metaphor for taking life as it is, but for me it is a simple example of interdependence: the lay community receives spiritual service from the monastery, and the monastery receives material service in return. As a monk it must be hard to maintain an illusion of independence with these rules. Can we, too, find non-monastic ways of remembering to give and receive generously?

Sneha R is a Bengaluru-based writer. She has been trying to make sense of her bipolar diagnosis since 2006. She loves trees and reads too many self-help books.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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