Depression is becoming a pandemic in the West. Perhaps surprisingly, hardship and want are not always – or even often – the source of our misery. The problem is more likely to stem from our comfortable standard of living and secure social safety net. Having it easy makes us passive and complacent – and that leaves us vulnerable to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Looking at some famous examples of the more chronic forms of depression will illuminate the modern experience.
Depression often assailed Winston Churchill who referred to the wretched emotional state as his “black dog.” Like a loyal hound, depression has a habit of following the sufferer around. Rather than Churchill’s black dog, I use the image of a black pit when contemplating my own troubles with depression. To remain free of this gloomy curse requires constant clawing at the sloping lip of the abyss. Even a moment’s lapse in the desperate struggle results in a nasty tumble into despair, from whence it can be difficult to regain the precarious, yet greatly desired, perch on the edge. Depressive types live their whole lives in this manner. (Manic-depressives such as me get some respite during manic episodes.)
My experience with the mood disorder is common. In fact, others seem to think about depression in much the same way. Virginia Woolf talked about “falling” when writing of depression and her recurring fits of madness. She too suffered regular lapses into despair, often after spending time in the small quiet village where she and her husband had a modest country home. The place could not offer enough mental stimulation for someone with such an active mind.
Robert Louis Stevenson had occasional bouts of feeling gloomy. He suffered some of his worst episodes while living a primitive life in remote Samoa. Interestingly, he claimed that how we feel hinges not on what is done or has been done to us, but upon what we do. In other words, our mood depends on our own actions. Naturally, this would include our response to what has happened to us. Depression can be averted if we possess the experience and self-knowledge to avoid remaining passive and deal with the situation in a constructive way. We can dodge the bullet by deploying some emotional literacy.
We all like to have our own way, and one sure path to feeling better is to act on our own behalf. Anyone who acts from his or her authentic self is living wilfully and will reap the emotional rewards of wholeness. To express our true self in the world is uplifting. Passivity (even passive aggression) has the opposite effect. Remaining “positive” without acting is still being passive and will do little to stave off a mood decline.
Intellectual or mental stagnation is a primary source of depression. Again, it is best to be proactive and seek out stimulation rather than passively waiting to become interested or be challenged. An active mind is the best defence against depression that I know of. This is analogous with staying physically healthy by getting some exercise.
If you find yourself comfortably placed in life, be aware that the absence of risk, challenge, and struggle may actually work against you when it comes to the onset of depression.