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Sun, Jan. 19

Mental health ties to moral health

Almost 30 years ago a mentor and friend, Dr. Karl Menninger, wrote a book titled "Whatever Became of Sin?" A major point of the book was that while the word "sin" has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, the sense of guilt remains in our hearts and minds.

Dr. Karl thought mental health and moral health were identical. He believed that recognizing the reality of sin offers to the struggling, suffering, anxious world a hope not of belated treatment but of prevention.

One of his primary reasons for writing the book was to enlist people to fight actively against the prevalent confusion and discouragement resulting from a psychic sickness engendered by what Arnold Toynbee called the "morality gap."

He closed this profound book with this sentence, "Yet, how is it, as Socrates wondered, that 'men know what is good, but do what is bad?'"

Thirty years after the publication of this book, I ponder the classic assumption that "men know what is good." I am unconvinced the majority of people do! (Which leads, of course, to my wondering whether guilt is as widespread as Dr. Karl believed it was).

One reason for my lack of confidence is, of course, the lessons we are receiving from those we, traditionally, have been taught to respect. Like former presidents. Ethically and morally Mr. Clinton's actions call into question Socrates' maxim. But he is not alone in provoking us to feel bewildered and confused about issues of right and wrong. Daily the media present evidence of moral and ethical bankruptcy.

One central question is whether the young are learning values that differentiate right from wrong. Obviously, many are receiving such instruction. But are they the majority? I can't answer this question.

But I do know that a number of astute societal observers are very concerned about the global breakdown in ethics and morality. They are worried about a meltdown of the core moral values by which people live. And if they're concerned, so should we be.

Underlying concern about a breakdown in moral and ethical values is the critical matter of survival. This is a significant issue as we begin the new millennium – creating a moral future that enables humanity to develop a sustainable 21st century.

A starting point of exploration might be to ask whether the ethics and morality of the 20th century are appropriate for the new century.

From my readings of world leaders and societal critics, the answer is a resounding "no."

There is considerable agreement that the world's ethical and moral barometer is falling – and the consequences of this are grave. We are heading toward a moral recession, we are told.

In other words, the moral and ethical problems of the past millennium may well become the disasters of the new one.

More on this topic in the next two columns.

(Ron Barnes is a longtime Prescott resident and a semi-retired educator and businessman.)

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