Thursday, February 11, 2010
Olympics & Psychiatry
The Olympic games cost billions of dollars to prepare for, and to host. Therefore, it has been a subject of controversy, particularly because so many people (both globally, and in the local communities near the Olympic sites) are suffering with homelessness, poverty, lack of opportunities for therapy, education, recreation, healthy community, etc. There is understandable criticism that those billions could have been better spent addressing these serious social problems directly.
A few things in particular bother me about the Olympics: one main corporate sponsor is a soft-drink company; another is a fast food company. These companies, in my opinion, contribute to the health problems of millions of people. It is like having cigarette companies as sponsors. The Olympic torch was preceded by a truck with neon lights and dancers boisterously advertising soft drinks...I think this was contrary to the spirit of the event--certainly in bad taste-- and I hope future Olympic organizers can be more health-conscious in considering whom to allow as corporate sponsors.
Overall, however, my opinion is that the Olympics are very healthy, for the following reasons:
1) In these games we have an opportunity for nations of the world to display a type of excellence, and to come together in serious, spirited, but friendly competition. It is a model of sublimating competitive conflict through sport or play, rather than through war. And it is an opportunity for multicultural celebration, in a setting which encourages sportsmanship, generosity, and hospitality.
2) The ethical problem of spending extravagantly while many do not have basic needs met is a very serious one. Here are a few ideas about this:
-Almost any activity could be considered extravagant spending (in terms of money, time, or attention) : much university education does not address the needs of impoverished, displaced, or other suffering individuals. Much in medicine (e.g. transplantation surgery) could be considered expensive extravagance, benefiting a small number of people while others have inadequate basic health care. A great deal of scientific exploration (e.g. the space program) is very expensive, yet doesn't help directly with poverty or world hunger. Investment of time, attention, or money in the arts (e.g. music, theatre, literature, visual arts) could be considered wasteful, since it does not directly help with poverty or homelessness. People could be directed to stop spending time reading novels, going to plays, going jogging, having pets, etc. because they should better be volunteering to assist with dire social problems.
-Regarding the above examples, I think most would agree that these "extravagant" aspects of human endeavour are healthy...it is part of human nature to strive for excellence and for new frontiers (whether this be in space travel, advanced surgery, mathematics, theatre, or sports): it is part of healthy civilization that we allow our attention, time, and money to be invested in these activities. It would induce a type of global psychosocial impoverishment to suppress these activities. The development of a culture which is advanced in terms of arts, sciences, and sports, and which shares its advances with other cultures, is healthy. While these activities may not directly help with social problems, they are part of building a healthier society, which in turn can address its social problems with greater ease and morale.
This social issue has a metaphorical parallel, I think, in individual cases of depression, anxiety, or other psychological symptoms: in a depressed or anxious state, a much greater portion of energy may be invested to meet basic needs. Energy itself may be in short supply, and it may require most of this energy just to prepare food, or to make it through the day. It makes sense to budget energy in such a way that few "extravagances" are allowed. Yet, if this budgeting practice persists for years, it may lead to a perpetuation of a grey, depressed status quo. "Extravagance" may be a necessary part of energy budgeting in depressive states--this extravagance might take the form of energy expenditures which may not seem affordable (e.g. exercising, taking up a new activity, involving oneself in a new community, socializing, taking time away from a hard-to-maintain work schedule in order to volunteer, etc.)---and indeed, such extravagances may sometimes not work out (e.g. efforts to socialize may fizzle, the new activity doesn't work out due to depressive fatigue, etc.). But allowing for extravagances is a type of balanced risk that can permit growth from a depressive status quo.
Suppose a room-mate invites a whole bunch of people to your home, for a lavish celebration. Suppose you are very opposed to this event, perhaps in the context of your room-mate not having done his share of chores regularly for the past 4 years (etc.) ...But suppose also that the guests are themselves honorable, noble people who come from many lands, who are polite, respectful, talented, and interesting. Perhaps in this context it is healthier to set aside one's differences, and to welcome the guests with a spirit of hospitality and celebration.
I think it is great to have the Olympics in Vancouver: I wish all the athletes and spectators a happy, healthy, spirited few weeks of enjoying our community, of enjoying vigorous competition and good sportsmanship. Afterwards, I hope that all of us in the community may enjoy the resources constructed for the games, and that special effort may be made to include those in greatest need.