Reflection on Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – Dani Wendricks

After the fall semester, I was tired. I was tired of quarantine, tired of school, and tired of political debates. I had recently started a new dosage of antidepressants and my body was spent. The medication and the pandemic confined me to the comfort of my bed. Despite my stagnant state, I desperately wanted a change of scenery. I wanted a way to escape my childhood bedroom that I had spent way too much time in during 2020. So during my break, I read. I read a lot. I read memoirs, historical fiction, romance novels, and opinion-editorials. I visited Yale with Marina Keegan in The Opposite of Loneliness, time traveled to the 1980s AIDS epidemic in Chicago in The Great Believers, and took a whirlwind trip to Ghana, Alabama, and California with my good friend Gifty, a character in Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi.

Transcendent Kingdom follows Gifty, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. She was raised in Alabama by Ghanaian-American immigrants and the reader catches glimpses of Gifty’s childhood intertwined with her current life at Stanford. Through both the past and the present, the impact that her church, the First Assemblies of God, had on her family is noticeable. Gifty grew up writing daily to God in her journal and being a true believer. But Gifty’s relationship with her faith was later strained due to the racist, sexist, and ableist aspects of her church—especially as these played out through her mother’s mental health crisis and her brother’s struggle with a drug addiction. Now as a 26 year old, she has begun to veer away from her religion, studying the science of addiction and mental health to help cope with the trauma she endured. The book beautifully captures the riveting relationship that Gifty has with religion and science.

As a child raised with a Christian faith, I was taught to pray to God when I was plagued with worry or feeling down—to put my faith in this almighty higher power to sustain me. For some, this works. It is important for me to acknowledge that people can use religion in powerful ways to support their mental health, by praying for example. Though I could sometimes find counsel and peace in biblical teachings, I haven’t found that praying to God or any religious act can cure my anxiety or depression. I rely on medication and counseling backed in science to make my life more manageable, and I feel fortunate that I have had access to seeking the care that I want and that works for me.

Throughout reading Transcendent Kingdom I couldn’t help but wonder if Gifty’s story would have looked a lot different if her faith community had a different mindset. What would have happened if they had access to different medical care? What if her church community viewed addiction scientifically instead of as an evil force from God?

How have your own experiences with religion impacted your experience and understanding of mental health? How do you see science and religion interacting with one another?

7 thoughts on “Reflection on Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – Dani Wendricks”

  1. Hi Dani – thank you for sharing your experiences and perspectives. I have found myself questioning the relationship I have with my faith and science. I had a very positive, strong relationship with my faith of Sikhi when I was in elementary and early middle school – like you, I was taught that praying could alleviate stress, pain and anxiety. In some ways, I have felt the power of prayer – it provides a time for me to reflect and hone in on what I am feeling in the present moment when I otherwise would not have done so. As I grew older, I realized that prayer and religion is not the answer to everything – it was difficult for me to reconcile the fact that no matter what a good person I thought I was, I would not be able to pray away certain problems but rather needed to deal with them head on. For example, if someone was battling a disease that required a specific treatment, praying would not eliminate the fact that there is a disease requiring specific treatment although it can help with the mental and emotional aspects of health which can positively influence physical health. Personally, I used to think that praying could solve any problem, but I now think of it as a mode to get to a point of reflection to guide what my next steps should be. I took a class called “religion in sickness and health” and I noticed that many people used prayer and religion to guide what treatment choices they made; in other words, they used religion and science to figure out a treatment plan that would work best for them. Now, I use science and religion to understand the world around me – both offer unique perspectives, and I take the best from both while recognizing that both frameworks have their limitations. Great post, Dani!

  2. Hi Dani, I enjoyed reading this post and you bring up some really interesting and great points here. I too have heard many in my faith community talk about the “healing” power of religion. While I think that for many people religion helps them maintain a sense of health and well-being, it is also important to remember that religion cannot “solve” every problem. I personally don’t believe that “finding faith” can “heal all wounds” so to speak. However, I know many people who think that it can which I believe can lead to stigma surrounding mental health and treatment within religious institutions. For me, I see things through the lens of my belief that God created all things, which includes science and so I respect the validity of medicine and medical treatment as such.

  3. Hello Dani,
    I find your post fascinating, as someone who is Muslim and going into the psychological field. I see for me my faith and science go hand in hand. Both through numerous verses that have shown scientific facts in the Quran found 1400 years ago, and that knowledge is something that science only has started to learn now. In addition, what your post brought to mind is this hadith from our prophet :
    a Bedouin man who was leaving his camel without tying it. The Prophet (PBUH) asked him “Why don’t you tie down your camel?” The Bedouin answered, “I put my trust in Allah.” The Prophet then replied, “Tie your camel first, and then put your trust in Allah.” This hadith sums up the point for me that we must seek help ourselves and do work ourselves, such as seeking therapy and whatever thing you need, and then pray and trust that God will help you through it.

  4. Hello, Dani! Thanks for this very insightful post. It makes me happy to see how you value reading and how stories have been able to help you cope with difficult times, prompting you to reflect on parts of your upbringing and identity. I agree with what you say about faith being a wonderful place for some people to find counsel and comfort through mental health crises, but that seeking help elsewhere (for example, from medicine or therapy) is also entirely valid and often necessary. After all, why would God have provided us with the opportunities to receive medication or speak to mental health professionals if He didn’t want us to do so? Finally, I believe it’s crucial to understand that mental health issues are never a result of a personal spiritual failure, and anyone who would have you see it that way is mistaken. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in facing issues and seeking help.

  5. Hi Dani!

    Thank you so much for writing this post! I know a lot of people have probably been going through similar experiences this last year, and it can definitely be hard to open up about them, so I really respect you for writing about all this 🙂 I have also been thinking about religion and how it interacts with mental health recently, and how my relationship with these things has changed in the last few years. After high school I when I was living in Jerusalem with a bunch of new immigrants, it was kind of a similar situation to this pandemic in that we were all struggling a lot mentally. But there, the culture around it was entirely different, and to a decent degree it broke down along lines of what countries people where immigrating from. I think there are pros and cons to all these different approaches. At that point my life in Israel, I didn’t believe in G-d at all, and I was always so jealous of the people I knew who had this deep faith they could fall back on. My orthodox friends from Latin America would talk a lot about how they knew they were doing what they were meant to do, and that G-d was with them, so they did not feel alone immigrating at such a young age. I think because of this faith they had, the hard times had more meaning because they were building towards something. So although faith can’t and shouldn’t replace professional help or counseling, I think can still be super powerful. I also thought that in some cultural circles it is undervalued (I know that me and my more secular Russian friends during that time period often had a lot rougher time because the hardships, etc felt ultimately random and pointless)

  6. Thank you Dani for this reflection. It saddens me that people suffer in the religious belief that prayer is the only answer to their situation and don’t get the medical help that can often be part of God’s answer to prayer. Not only do they not get the needed help but often lose their faith in God, which leaves them without that resource of faith and spirituality. I am grateful you have found the support you need — and are advocating that for others!

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