Peace of Mind

Will we ever resurrect the expression, ‘peace of mind’? This week has been declared a week for remembering that a few minutes’ reading each day can be good for your peace of mind, but of course what is actually being said is, that it is good for your ‘mental health’.

And that is true, because there is a wide-scope definition of ‘mental health’ that has become normal now; which takes into its definition all sorts of wellbeing. Yet many people have mental illnesses the distress in which is not going to be resolved by daily reading. They are not a matter of wellbeing.

In some individuals’ experience there may seem to be a continuum of the two, wellbeing, and mental health. It may be that some people seem to have a trajectory from mild or neurotic symptoms to an extreme and psychotic condition. But for others, there is a categorical difference.

It may have been a mistake to mix up these wide-scope and narrow-scope definitions of ‘mental health’: deep unease, and marked illness.

Would it not be better to say to school children that reading is good for their peace of mind? In this #keeptheheidandread week, school children in the UK are working at exams. There is surely quite a difference between what can be acute stress in exams, and, the temporary overthrow of reason.

The professional enacting a ‘wellbeing agenda’ may talk about mental health, but the friend and the parent — after all the teacher no longer is in loco parentis — would surely wish for the child a strengthening calm. Would want that for any child.

And it is not to belittle anyone’s suffering, to point these distinctions out. The sheer terror of living inside chronic anxiety, or under the suffocation of a depression, or with a mind in any ways beyond one’s apparent control, cannot be ignored. Yet they are all different experiences. We have invented a blanket term. Reading is quite impossible, actually, given some of the unwanted thoughts and interruptions that can torment people.

It is useful to have different words for various things because words are tools and not every tool is a hammer. A few minutes’ reading each day might expand our vocabulary, our subtlety, and our awareness of words’ consequences. If someone is concerned that something we do may have negative impact on their wellbeing, might it not actually be better to say that — rather than unleash the full force of the whole wide scope of the much larger phrase?

It seems to me that more important still is that the person who reads is the agent in her life during those minutes: an individual, recreating herself. To live a while within words (in Latin or Greek, rationes, and logoi) is to recover our true nature (of which rationality or logic are a part, but only part). It is to be in meaningful experience once again. Ever since Samuel Newington and psychiatric reformers like him it has been recognised that dignity and some peace of mind is necessary for the human being, whatever mental health they may have.

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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