Depression is an illness, an affliction, and a serious public health concern; and fortunately there is now a pharmacopeia of drugs to treat it.
Yet there are those who find the world itself depressing. How can it be otherwise when it is entirely predictable, repetitious, and groaningly similar from one year to the next? Isn’t this reaction the most intelligently conceived and the most spiritually promising?
Traditional Hindus have always believed that the world is no more than illusion (maya), a deceptively alluring place but one which offers nothing but disappointment and perpetual rebirth.
The Devil speaks in The Brothers Karamazov (The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare) about his indispensability. The world is already a far too serious a place and would be intolerable without him.
We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there'd be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events. So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy.The devil is the vaudevillian who adds spice and hot pepper, who gets into mischief, who upsets the applecart, and who makes life worth living. Without him, life would be worse than solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. It would be tedious, dull, and depressing.
Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
The man who understands the tedium of the herd and its directionless, purposeless trampling can only go mad.
Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin (Anna Karenina) found it utterly depressing that God had created man with intelligence, creativity, insight, compassion, energy, and wit; allowed him to live for a few short decades; and then consigned him for eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes.
Existentialists have tried to give some hope to such nihilists. The world may be meaningless, Sartre said, but that is no reason to acquiesce. Acting, and acting responsibly can give at least some moral momentum to an otherwise depressing life.
Psychologists have also understood the fundamentally depressing nature of a world created with no particular purpose, leading nowhere in particular, and with no special rewards. Freud’s id, ego, and superego constructs were important attempts to give coherence to the individual. While he might not have directly confronted existential angst, his theories of individual dynamism – the continual struggle among the primitive, the practical, and the moral – validated personal existence.
Carl Jung and his theory of Archetypal Images added a new dimension to the question of individual worth and meaning. We are all products of the past, he said; or better, the past and the present are one. Archetypal Images, recurring predictably over time, unify humanity and give it a moral reality that supersedes that of any particular generation.
We are not lost, said Jung, but an essential part of something.
Priests and pastors have understood that the combination of existential hopelessness and the incessancy of brutish everyday life can be depressing; and have offered the hope of salvation and eternity to their congregations.
The trend today is to medicalize normal but disturbing responses to environmental pressures. Children are diagnosed with ADHD but the underlying causes of their hyperactivity may well be parental indiscipline, emotional confusion in a complex world, poorly-explained; and a society which is less concerned with moral order than it is with self-image.
Drug and alcohol addiction are more a result of chemical imbalances, genetic predisposition, and some neurological wiring. While much of this may be true, such clinical explanations deny the role of will, discipline, rectitude, and upbringing. Perhaps as importantly, they may ignore individuals’ logical response to the world itself. Hard to take at times if not most of the time.
How many of the 322 million people worldwide suffering from depression are not simply chemically disturbed but overly responsive to the concerns of Konstantin Levin, Ivan Karamazov, Freud, Jung, and Sartre?
Nietzsche’s comment about madness in response to a meaningless world may understate the problem. King Lear on the heath says to Edgar:
Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on ’s are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come; unbutton here.
There are many things that are not supposed to happen in one’s life. No one should be bullied or question one’s self-worth. No one should be marginalized on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity; and most of all, no one should be depressed. Thanks to psychoactive drugs, no one needs to be.
Yet isn’t ‘logical’ depression important for understanding? Isn’t it an emotional response to an intellectual problem? It is not enough to conclude on the basis of philosophical reasoning that the world is purposeless and without meaning. One must feel the angst of this realization.
Yet why suffer anything? Why is existential pain any different from any other? Drugs can relieve the pain.
Peter Kramer wrote in Listening to Prozac (1993) that he wondered whether the drug freed the real person or created a new one. Most depressed patients did not care as long as they felt better; but Kramer raised an important related issue. Were we drugging our way out of facing existential dilemmas?
What’s the point of facing such dilemmas many say? If life is as meaningless as supposed, than a happy, feel-good life, however ignorant, is certainly better than one obsessed with meaning.
On the contrary, there are few people who do not reflect on their mortality, immortality, worth, and legacy before they die. Understanding is certainly a function of preparing for death. “Too soon old, too late schmart” may be an overused punch line, but it is hard to ignore.
Anyone seriously considering life’s prospects and the imminence of death cannot help but be depressed; and bouts of logical depression throughout one’s lifetime are not only common, but necessary. The combination of emotional and intellectual responses to existential questions is essential.