May 2022 – Depression in Depressing Times

I thought this might be a good time to talk about depression as it relates to current events, since there seems to be a lot of them events currently. Contentious politics, shaky democracy, a pandemic, culture wars, and now an actual war in Europe, amongst whatever local crises might be happening for us individually. The basic question here is how, in depressing times, we can avoid becoming depressed.

There are a lot of facets to the question—it goes to the heart of what depression actually is—but in this newsletter, I’ll just address the general subject, and in future letters, more granular parts.

In line with that: may you find, even with all that’s going on, some appreciation of the changing seasons, and some portion of an absurd, indefensible, dog-with-a-bone hope and trust in the Goodness of things.

Depression in Depressing Times

The first thing to consider, in considering the past years of accelerated human events, is the need to accept that we can’t not be affected. This, apparently, is a time when not only are circumstances changing rapidly, but the ways we’ve known how to interpret events are evolving or shattering at a similarly accelerated rate. We can define “What is it?” fairly conventionally: it’s a virus; it’s a war; it’s people being mad at each other. But the question of “What does it actually mean?” is a lot less clear now that old, received religious and cultural beliefs are powdering all around, without a lot to snap into their place.

We humans, as much as we (particularly in individualistic cultures) would want to believe otherwise, are not separate from our environments. Not that this is new news, especially with the environmentalism of recent decades, but at the psychological level, the directness of effect on our bodies, psyches and relationships of environmental events is denied or soft-pedaled. Why? Part of it is cultural bias and habit-of-mind, and part is deeper, about how scary it is to recognize our own vulnerability in this world of not-separateness. Stuff happens that we can’t control, and won’t control, and quite likely will never influence, but we’ll be affected by it nonetheless. Our denial is paper armor, especially at gale-force times like this.

Ironically, then, one of the better mitigators against depression is acknowledgement of our own vulnerability. Not even acceptance, yet, but giving voice to the reality of this core human experience. As, essentially, simply speaking the truth.

Which is difficult, for a number of reasons. Probably most salient to depression and depressives is that speaking a truth undercuts whatever stories or beliefs we’re holding onto that are in the not-truth bucket. Speaking truth is easy when we’re not attached to a particular reality one way or another, or when something is technical, like math. But when we are invested in the not-truth, when something that feels or is critical to our sense of either survival or “goodness” comes into question, our stability is shaken. Our “world” (the world we have built, and been given, as a set of assumptions and biases) starts looking unfamiliar and threatening, and because “world” and self are not extricable, our self starts feeling unfamiliar and threatening (usually with shame). This is scary.

In fact, as the social psychologists behind Terror Management Theory demonstrate exhaustively (see their 2015 book, The Worm in the Core), unfamiliarity provokes first anxiety, and then terror of annihilation. The human reaction, in the absence of self-awareness, is contraction away from the reminder of vulnerability (and mortality), and a retrenchment into tribal belonging. At a psychological level, this means collapsing away from the world, dissociating, or clinging onto some illusory belief or story.

Although depression is often referred to as an emotion, it’s not that. Depression is a defense against emotion—it’s what happens when we cannot tolerate the emotions that we are actually experiencing. But not just any emotion. Rather, the emotions related to loss are what trigger depression, but only when a person can’t or won’t allow themselves to feel those feelings. Boiled down, depression is the inability to grieve an important loss, and it serves to protect us against the loss that feels unsurvivable to admit. That is, to speak the truth about.

These current times have tremendous losses, at the individual level with direct experience of war and pandemic-related death. But there are also much more subtle losses, in elements of the “world” that were so taken for granted that they were not even noticed, and therefore assumed to be facts about reality, rather than conditioned states of the present. I’m sure the experts are not surprised at talk of using battlefield nukes, but in the “world” I assumed was a given, that was a past thing. Apparently not.

Anything—yes, absolutely any thing—that we are invested in will need to be grieved in order for the imprint of it in our psyche not to stick around our psyche like a forlorn ghost. Some are grieved in a second—“Man, that’s a bummer that my favorite coffee mug broke…sigh, ok, that happens”—and others, like the loss of a parent we depended on, or a worldview we wove our psyches around, can be the half-life we live our whole lives in. Why would we submit to such a ghost world? Basically, because the alternative, being a “world” devoid (to be made empty) of that which we were attached to that’s not gone, is experienced as impossible to exist in. Depression is a kind of survival strategy wired into the human nervous system, which sees ghosts as better company than nothingness.

Although that’s a rather grim reality, to the point of this article, the depressive needs to know about this stuff in order to speak the truth that can release them from the ghost world. If we don’t know where we are or what’s happening under the appearances, we don’t know where to go or how. Where the depressive has to go (slowly, but at pace) is actually into a truer “world”, because as prominent as the “devoided” sense of reality is core to depression, it’s not actually true of life.

So, back to current “depressing” times, and how to avoid syncing up with the relative dismalness. It’s not through illusion or delusion—that won’t help us ultimately. What is necessary is seeing what is true—we are vulnerable, the world at large is going through tremendous changes, and those changes are affecting us in more ways than we know—but in its fuller truth. Although depression engenders a felt-state of collapse and hopelessness—that’s what it’s protectively built to do—it conveniently neglects to show us the also real parts of reality that exist right now, amidst all this.

Although I know well that it does (or can) sound banal and dishonoring of suffering to pay attention to that which is not dismal about current events this is a key factor in inhibiting dismalness from becoming our own internal experience. This means acknowledging (given our vaguely post-ape stage, with others often helps) that we are both vulnerable, and resilient. That while some events in the world are grim, others are hopeful and positive (here’s great proof of that). And that at the local, immediate level, without being in denial of what is happening at the macro scale, the basic systems are functioning relatively well, there is enjoyment to be found, there are humans on your street who are not savaging each other or you.

Depression wants to dumb everything down to dismalness, cherry-picking data to support that pre-given conclusion. Avoiding being overly affected by depression in “depressing times” is to effort (it takes work) to draw our own attention to, and see and experience, what is already also true.

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