Human Flourishing

Perhaps the best way to approach human flourishing is to visit a museum dedicated to civilizations’ demise.

I’m an optimist. I have to be. I have a tween daughter who my wife, whose devotion, patience and council exceeds even my own optimism, and I guide into a world beset by problems that seem to persist without reasonable solutions. I have a severe mental illness, which currently has me out of work, teetering violently between depression and mania. I find those I respect descending into battles that place ideology before reason, so quick to ascribe blame and prescribe solutions to problems of their own creation, just to tell others what to do. Yet I have faith. And this faith allows me to be sure that we shall endure. We always have. We always will.

My bipolar disorder should be of special concern. Beside the roiling moods that lay havoc to periods of normalcy, the illness comes with a long list of physical comorbidities, and I am already past the average age of morbidity for people with the disease. My physical health is fine, but right now I’m seared in the worst episode I’ve suffered from in fifteen years, and the pattern of distraction and inattention, flights of rage, sleepless nights and compulsion to self-harm have been particularly hard to break this time.

Before a recent appointment with my psychiatrist I took some extra time to visit the Penn Museum, a collection of archeological artifacts from ancient civilizations, some 5,000 years old. All of these civilizations made tremendous advances in technology, agriculture, governance, art and culture. All fell and have disappeared. But each gave birth to a faith, many of which are still practiced across the modern world; still providing meaning and hope thousands of years after they were born. Still alive. Still inspiring. Still placing our current civilization and the problems that threaten it into a proper perspective. Walking among the scope of the history of humanity stirred in me the Catholicism I grew up with, and still believe, and let me know that I and everyone else, in our tiny little lives, are not insignificant but creatures of a God that outlasts all we assemble, even when we create worlds that try to make this God irrelevant.

The great faith traditions that give people like me hope, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism and others as old as the treasures in the Penn Museum have outlasted kingdoms and democracies, feudalism and totalitarian states. And they’ll outlast the civilization and the systems we live in today. In fact, they threaten all of those who seek worldly power and plan solutions to often exaggerated problems for common people without consulting those common people on what they want or can handle. It is no wonder that colonial powers sought to erase indigenous faiths and modern autocrats on the left and the right, through systems as diverse and well-organized as communism and fascism, all align themselves in opposition to the ancient sources of hope and salvation and insist on making religion obsolete if not outright illegal. The Penn Museum stands defiant to the empires that have tried to abolish history and hope – and belief in something larger than ourselves and something larger than worldly power.

The great, ill-considered benefit of religion is its fostering of doubt. Even the faithful constantly question injustice and suffering without understanding how the divine could stand for this, let alone have a hand in it. In the deepest moments of Grace doubt persists, and here is where I think belief is compatible with science. Both are pursuits of reconsideration and refinement. Both, followed arduously, improve us and our world. Both hold the keys to meaning, and both have the potential to do great damage as well as great good. In faith and in science we are called upon to be both curious and honest. In the practice of faith and science we first persevere, and then we flourish.

That’s why I’m confident in the combination of my faith and medical science in the advancement of treatments to help people like me manage mental illness. That’s why I’m optimistic in the world we will leave for my daughter, despite issues like climate change that I have focused on recently in my newsletter, and the climate anxiety we create to crush our children’s belief in faith and in science, and the longevity of humankind guaranteed by faith and science, and the human flourishing they make possible.

Some alarmists focus on worst case scenarios with actions that must be taken immediately. Actions that will impoverish billions and halt human progress. Others deny a problem even exists. All, except those with faith in religion and science, with faith in human flourishing, lose the faith we should place in our children. Certainly life will be different. But certainly, too, some young, inspired steward of the earth in a lab working today or tomorrow will create a system of carbon capture, or battery technology, or a means to turn the carbon in the air that plagues us into fuel that will lead to more prosperity for the people climate change now threatens.

So a visit to the Penn Museum before a visit to my psychiatrist searching for solutions to treat a severe mental illness can result in the ascendence of faith in religion and science that can only make me optimistic. That’s why we can promote faith in religion and science to inspire our children to refute the pessimism we saddle them with as we fear a future they will shape. Throughout the history of civilization human flourishing has survived, made possible by religion and the curiosity God has blessed us with. There are no solutions in hopelessness. There are no solutions without the faith we have always applied to every challenge. This faith will save us, and it is there for us to grasp if we only believe, and then doubt, and believe again.
George Hofmann writes the newsletter Practicing Mental Illness. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Atlantic City, New Jersey with his wife, his daughter and two poorly behaved dogs. You can reach him at

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