Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
When asked perfunctorily, “how are you?” it is usual to respond, “I’m good!” Grammarians will correct their pupils on this, reminding them that “goodness” is a state of virtue, whereas “wellness” is a state of health. Yet, in some ways, the improper grammar may be revealing more of the reality of wellness than at first meets the eye. Goodness and wellness are related.

We hear much about “holistic” therapy as conducive to the total well-being of the person. To be well, one must take account of the whole person. To seek and find healing from any disease to be on a path to stay well, one must not only treat symptoms, but include mental and social factors, moral and spiritual integrity: to be well one must also be or at least strive to be good.

What passes as therapy in our time often neglects the element of moral virtue as an essential component of human health. Some have pointed out (cf. Philip Rieff, “The Triumph of the Therapeutic,” 1966) that since Freud, individualized “analytical therapy” has replaced — pretended to replace — the role of traditional cultures in supporting behavioral norms that hold civilizations together by created common behavioral expectations conducive to social and, ultimately, emotional equilibrium. This would include not only rewarding but suppressing — note, not repressing! — certain actions which, while quite natural and instinctive, do not contribute to community peace and harmony.

Unlike repression, which is unconscious, suppression is a conscious decision, a form of learned discipline that requires practice and norms that one is expected to observe. It’s really a form of discipline. Typically, such norms are derived from religious or philosophical beliefs about the nature of human persons and their relationships. Since Freud, the perceived well-being of the individual has, to a great extent, influenced the goal of most forms of therapy. Rather than learning to integrate into the norms of the community — which was the more traditional way of understanding sanity — the individual is tasked to create themself, their own meaningfulness, and to find inner peace their own way. This becomes a Herculean task, literally to create oneself, but it is commonly encouraged in many high school and college commencement addresses: you can be whatever you want to be.

As an encouragement to be bold and courageous, to think creatively outside the box and to discourage groupthink, it may seem harmless enough, even good advice. Yet, carried to its logical conclusion, what it means is every individual determines their own moral standards, their own identity to the point that no objective reality matters. We see the consequences in the anguish of so many who have been led to believe that their feelings alone define who they are. Their happiness and wellness are thought to depend on the freedom to live according to their dictates alone. This leads to social chaos of which we see much of today.

The well-being of the person, following a model that psychological well-being can be detached from any higher aim or large communal purpose than one’s own individual pursuits, can lead to horrifying results. Adolph Eichmann, and others who were held to accountability at the Nuremberg trials, could have been perfectly well-adjusted individuals, efficiently seeking the comfort of doing a “good job” by pleasing their superiors. They could have been quite “well” — but far from being “good.”

What does it mean to be “good” and what does it have to do with wellness? Quite obviously, it cannot be a matter of mere conformity to what everyone else is doing or what society alone dictates. At the same time, something more is needed than every individual determining for themselves what constitutes the good. 

The Catholic sacramental practice of confession (aka Penance, Reconciliation) covers all the bases. The priest has sometimes been called the “poor person’s psychiatrist” if for no other reason than he must do a lot of listening and, if well-formed and experienced, is able to offer sound counsel. What is unique about the sacrament, however, is that it covers many of the bases that are essential toward holistic wellness: the need for personal responsibility and accountability, the connection between personal well-being and community harmony and the need for divine assistance along the path toward these goals.
I would like to be clear that I have great respect for counselors and therapists who accompany those who seek emotional wellness. Many of them well understand that relationships are key to such well-being and include those in family, friendships, the workplace and the community at large. The role of religious beliefs and/or affiliations, however, are not always appreciated as key to the person’s search for meaning and self-understanding. It is not up to the therapist, of course, to suggest or determine these prospects, but why should they be discouraged if, in fact, they provide a sense of purpose that person is part of something larger than themselves?

In the synodal listening sessions that I have been so pleased to be a part of, many young persons have been particularly articulate about their desire to participate in the well-being of their community. They are very much attuned with the teaching of Pope Francis in seeking to be good stewards, caring for the environment, which includes not only the material and physical ecology of the planet but the integrity of their relationships with family, friends, their communities and with God. They speak of their desire for reverent worship which recognizes and celebrates the mystery of God’s presence in their lives, something more than just a party and certainly much more than a “feel good” moment that can be acquired from what they wear, consume or rock to. As one young woman said at a recent session, she understood that churches should be welcoming and inclusive of everyone. She believes that true friends do meet friends where they are at, but do not just leave them there: they encourage them toward growth and virtue. She continued that she seeks from the Church not only “feel good” experiences, but accompaniment on the path to moral goodness, to holiness. 

Holiness is indeed suggested by the goal of “holistic” therapy. Or, to put it succinctly, to be well IS to be good. People who are at peace with God and neighbor are at peace with themselves and are free to be their true selves. Jesus in combining the two greatest commandments — love of God (cf. Dt. 6:5) and love of neighbor (cf. Lv. 19:18) tells us that, finally, wellness is a matter of love, harmony among self, God and neighbor. Happiness is a matter of beatitude, or blessedness, as he counsels us in the Sermon on the Mount. So, if you respond to the question, “how are you?” by saying, “I’m good,” you may not be far from the kingdom of God. Strive for goodness, and you will be well.