An article with the above title appeared in the Friday, December 6, 2019 Wall Street Journal. The article is written by the Jewish psychoanalyst Erica Komisar of New York City. She draws her conclusions from her reading of the scientific literature, her experience treating anxious and depressed children, and her Jewish faith and community. Her advice transcends any particular faith. I recommend her article to you.
Ms. Komisar cites a 2018 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology that looked at how being raised in a household with religious or spiritual beliefs affects mental health compared to an equal size non- religious control group. The children that attended a religious service one a week or more scored more highly on tests of mental wellbeing and a lower risk of mental illness. These children also had a lower probability of drug use and early sexual behavior. The children also had a higher rate of volunteering, a greater sense of mission, and a greater ability to forgive. From a purely secular point of view, these attributes alone might be worth “faking it to you make it”.
Ms. Komisar then goes on to address what she sees at the root of much of the increased anxiety and depression in today’s children, existential nihilism. When there is no meaning to a life beyond the here and now day to day survival, no ultimate meaning and purpose beyond our existence, then a person is ripe for not only depression and anxiety but also despair. This has been addressed by numerous authors including, most notably, Dr. Fiktor Frankl. Therefore, I ask almost all my patients, “what is your reason for getting out of bed each morning, what is your meaning and purpose in life, what is the hope that keeps you going?”
Having this transcendent anchor point external to ourselves, but with personal meaning to the induvial believer as well as the community of believers, allows us to answer the big questions common to all children and to provide solace in their time of anxious questioning. This hopeful belief system allows us to talk frankly to our children about death. I will quote directly from Ms. Komisar’s article: “The idea that you simply die and turn to dust may work for some adults, but it doesn’t help children. Belief in heaven helps them grapple with this tremendous and incomprehensible loss. In an age of broken families, distracted parents, school violence and nightmarish global-warming predictions, imagination plays a big part in children’s ability to cope.”
Ms. Komisar states she is often asked by parents how they can instill gratitude and empathy in their children. These are virtues found in all religious traditions, even those without a deity or belief in an afterlife such as Zen Buddhism. Ms. Komisar states in her article: “It’s rare to find a faith that doesn’t encourage gratitude as an antidote to entitlement or empathy for anyone who needs nurturing. These are the building blocks of strong character. They are also protective against depression and anxiety.”
Finally, Ms. Komisar points out that religion provides a natural community. Ms. Komisar expresses this beautifully in the following passage: “The idea that hundreds of people can gather together and sing joyful prayers as a collective is a buffer against the emptiness of modern culture. It’s more necessary than ever in a world where teens can have hundreds of virtual friends and few real ones, where parents are often too distracted physically or emotionally to soothe their children’s distress.”
I will leave you with the final paragraph of Ms. Komisar’s article: “Today the U.S. is a competitive, scary and stressful place that idealizes perfectionism, materialism, selfishness and virtual rather than real human connection. Religion is the best bulwark against that kind of society. Spiritual belief and practice reinforce collective kindness, empathy, gratitude and real
connection. Whether children choose to continue to practice as adults is something parents cannot control. But that spiritual or religious center will benefit them their entire lives.”