Tag archive for depression

The Wisdom of Melancholy: Alain de Botton

In 21st century America, melancholy seems passe, dated, all but forgotten. It's something that happens to people in Chekhov plays, or other countries.

Everyone knows about depression, by contrast, and ten percent of Americans are taking anti-depressants, according to one study, and one in four middle-aged women. 

“It’s not only that physicians are prescribing more, the population is demanding more,” Dr. [Ramin] Mojtabai said [to the NYTimes]. “Feelings of sadness, the stresses of daily life and relationship problems can all cause feelings of upset or sadness that may be passing and not last long. But Americans have become more and more willing to use medication to address them.”

But what if melancholy connects us to others and the world, where depression isolates us?

So argues philosopher Alain de Botton. He writes:

Many of the things we most want are in conflict: to feel secure, and yet to be free; to have money and yet not to have to be wage slaves. To be in close knit communities and yet not to be stifled by the expectations and demands of others. To travel and explore the world and yet to put down deep roots. To fulfil the demands of our appetites for food, drink, sex and lying on the sofa – and yet stay thin, sober, faithful and fit.

The wisdom of the melancholy attitude (as opposed to the bitter or angry one) lies in the understanding that the sorrow isn’t just about you, that you have not been singled out, that your suffering belongs to humanity in general. So often our sorrows are egocentric. We see them as special misfortunes which have come our way. Melancholy rejects this. It has a wider, much less personal take. Much of what is painful and sorrowful in our lives can be traced to general things about life: its brevity; the fact that we cannot avoid missing opportunities, the contradictions of desire and self-management. These apply to everyone. So melancholy is generous. You feel this sorrow for others too, for ‘us’. You feel pity for the human condition.

I cannot help but think of the Miller Williams poem/Lucinda Williams song linked here a month or so ago, that goes:

Have compassion for everyone you meet
Even if they don't want it 
What seems conceit, bad manners or cynicism
is always a sign
of things no ear has heard, no eye has seen
you do not know
what wars are going on
down there
where the spirit meets the bone. 

Included in those few lines is compassion for one's own self don't you know. 


Photograph by Ansel Adams of aspens at dawn in autumn from de Botton's essay in the Philosopher's Mail

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Be true to your depression: James Hillman

The late great Jungian analyst James Hillman, on depression. Christian myth, the soul, and the path depression offers to those who experience it. 

From his compilation A Blue Fire:

"Depression. Because Christ resurrects, moments of despair, darkening, and desertion cannot be valid in themselves. Our one model insists on light at the end of the tunnel; one program that moves from Thursday evening to Sunday and the rising of a wholly new day better by far than before. Not only will therapy more or less consciously imitate this program (in ways ranging from hopeful positive counseling to electroshock), but the individual's consciousness is already allegorized by the Christian myth and so he knows what depression is and experiences it according to form. It must be necessary (for it appears in the crucifixion), and it must be suffering; but staying depressed must be negative, since in the Christian allegory Friday is never valid per se, for Sunday — as in integral prt of the myth — is preexistent in Friday from the start. 


James-Hillman2010Depression is still the Great Enemy. More personal energy is expended in manic defenses against, diversions from, and denials of it than goes into other supposed psychopathological threats to society: psychopathic criminality, schizoid breakdown, addictions. As long as we are caught in cycles of hoping against despair, each productive of the other, as long as our actions in regard to depression are resurrective, implying that being down and staying down is sin, we remain Christian in psychology. 

Yet through depression we enter depths and in depth find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul, and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression. Neither jerking oneself out of it, caught in cycles of hope and despair, nor suffering through it till it turns, nor theologizing it — but discovering the consciousness and depths it wants. So begins the revolution on behalf of soul."

If this is a path, it's pretty clear why it's not often taken. I always sensed there was some reason I didn't like the Christian allegory. Never understood so clearly why before.

Or, as Robert Frost put it, 

The best way out is always through. 

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Mike Wallace, depression and the real “Blues Brothers”

Today was reported the death of the great reporter Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes fame. Sharon Waxman, an excellent reporter herself, recalls meeting him, and hearing of a now forgotten side of Mike Wallace, and of his great friends Art Buchwald and William Styron too: 

[Mike] Wallace always seemed fearless and in fact on that day — vibrant and powerful late in his 80s – he seemed timeless too.

Wallace was one of [Art] Buchwald’s closest friends. They would spend summers on the Vineyard together (that day Wallace had just come up from exercising on the beach, visiting Art who was recovering from a stroke).

And Art was a friend of mine, a late-breaking relationship during which we talked for hours. One of the things we talked about was Art’s recurring bouts with depression. It was the thing that he shared with two of his closest friends: William Styron, the novelist, and Mike Wallace.

The three of them would discreetly appear together at support groups, calling themselves “The Blues Brothers,” Buchwald told me.

I could understand Buchwald and Styron as suffering from depression: a humorist (a common affliction among them), and a novelist who wrote about the illness in “Darkness Visible.”

But Wallace was a surprise. Familiar to us all as the aggressive journalist who asked the fearless questions of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Malcolm X, that seemed hard to fathom.

But it was the case. In 1996, Wallace went public with his illness, and asked the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging for more federal funds for depression research.

He told the committee that he had felt “lower, lower, lower than a snake’s belly,” and had tried to commit suicide.  (The depression apparently first appeared after being sued for libel by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who sought $120 million for a 1982 “CBS Reports” documentary, “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.”)

I don’t know if Wallace succeeded in winning funds for research. But he overcame his depression and went on to continue one of the most storied careers in American journalism.

He is missed, and a man worthy of our great admiration.

I recall Wallace declaring then that he intended to spend the rest of his life on Zoloft. I wonder if he did. 

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