Episode 18: Healing Depression
Today’s is the ninth and last episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, we look at the idea that, if your depression is a result of meaning crises and a lack of purpose, it can be healed when you opt to matter and make new meaning.
Today’s is the ninth and last episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, called “Healing Depression,” we look at the idea that, if your depression is a result of meaning crises and a lack of purpose, it can be healed when you opt to matter and make new meaning. Let’s begin!
A person who breaks free of the need to parrot the beliefs of others and who nominates himself as his own final arbiter of meaning will, as he confronts the facts of existence, find existence wanting and will find his ability to make meaning and maintain meaning sorely taxed. The upsetness and sadness he experiences as a result of finding existence wanting and meaning endangered will precipitate a depression, existential and not psychological, biological, or social in nature. These are the ideas we’ve been discussing in this series.
In order to deal with existence as he finds it and in order to make sufficient meaning, he faces difficult tasks that, by virtue of their real difficulty, require true heroism on his part. He must brave anxiety. He must rebuild his personality and choose worthy creative projects. He must bear up under the pain of not creating well enough or often enough and the pain of losing vast amounts of time to work done to pay the bills.
First of all he must opt to matter and take all the actions dictated by his decision to matter.
We have come to a time in our history when it is no longer useful to ask about the whereabouts of the director of the universe or to pine about his absence. We must force life to mean even though we are bereft of the instruction manual we crave, the guidance we desire, and the answers we feel we need. Those questions no longer serve us because their answers are shrouded in complete mystery. Now we simply choose to live properly, as befits what is best in our nature, creating symphonies, holding another person’s hand, and rising to uphold a principle. On some dark nights, when the pain of existence and cosmic meaninglessness tear at our soul, we will find ourselves crying bitter tears. Then we dry our eyes and begin again.
Of course, the picture I am painting may not be accurate. While I doubt it, depression may have nothing to do with meaning, nothing to do with the facts of existence, nothing to do with freedom, responsibility and the other ideas that existentialists promote. Perhaps antidepressants can provide you with the complete answer. Perhaps psychotherapy can help you unravel a personality knot or air a childhood trauma and thereby provide a cure. Perhaps a sun lamp, more exercise, and a different diet will positively affect your mood. But when we look at the forces at play in the psyche of creators, when we look at what they dream of doing and the demons of meaninglessness with which they wrestle, I think it is foolhardy to ignore what we can plainly see.
In an introduction to existentialism, Nathan Scott explained: “The real bite of existence is to be felt in the deep things of personal experience which make us know--through love and sorrow, through nostalgia and joy, through death and loss--that a human life is not an intellectual puzzle to be ferreted out but a gift to be received and a task to be fulfilled.” You may be of two minds as to whether your life is really such a gift, but I hope that you have no doubt that it is a task to be fulfilled.
When we are not true to ourselves, we suffer. When we are true to ourselves, we still suffer. This is not a cosmic joke, just a consequence of the facts of existence as they are. Given these facts, we say, “I will do my creative work, even though I may suffer.” We say, “I won’t try to ward off pain by not creating, as that only brings its own, worse brand of suffering.” We say, “Authenticity rubs me right up against suffering, but it is the only way I can take pride in myself.”
Perhaps making meaning is just an illusion, a trick you play on yourself in order to go on. What if it is? As Sheila Ballantyne put it, “Some of my best friends are illusions.” In the end, we have to laugh at our worries and our razor-edged ability to doubt. We must simply choose belief, not in gods or in a compassionate universe but in the necessity that we honor our life exactly as it is presented to us. To live carelessly, not choosing to matter, and fearfully, derailed by stray worries and self-attacks, is to beg for depression. Better to make a best friend out of the illusion that there is meaning to be made.
In this series, I’ve presented an existential view of depression and the creative person. I have argued that the depression that creative people experience is fundamentally caused by their upsetness with the facts of existence and their difficulties in making and maintaining meaning. In doing this, I have intentionally minimized the role of biology in depression. However, I have also repeatedly pointed out that, even if I am right in my views, it is still imperative that creators investigate medical treatment for their depression, since biological remedies have been proven to reduce the experience of depression in thousands upon thousands of sufferers.
Biological treatment is likely to help and psychotherapeutic treatment may also possibly help. A lack of sunshine precipitates depression in many people and the use of a light box is a simple solution that may bring real relief. Changing diet can help, as can regular exercise. Whole books address the various aspects of this larger picture: depression associated with menopause, depression associated with winter, depression associated with giving birth, depression associated with chronic illness, depression associated with major life changes like divorce, and so on.
The picture I have painted is not complete but it is accurate. If you are a writer and you get a nasty rejection letter in the mail and the enterprise of writing suddenly seems meaningless to you, you will get depressed. The depression arises not just because your ego has been bruised, which would be a psychological cause, but because you are suddenly reminded of essential meaninglessness, that dark specter hovering above every contemporary creative person’s shoulder. When this meaning crisis strikes, you must immediately confront the fact that meaning has taken a blow. You don’t have a moment to lose. What you must say to yourself is, “Meaning crisis.” Then you must do what you have learned to do to restore meaning.
The headline I want you to take away is that you must restore meaning immediately after each blow to meaning, just as you must stop the bleeding when an artery is severed. You can’t ignore meaning crises any more than you can ignore other catastrophes. You were not taught at home or in school to deal with meaning, to think about meaning, or to make meaning, but you can’t use your lack of training as an excuse. The stakes are too high. If you can’t keep meaning afloat, you will sink.
How you actually accomplish this work is your learning of a lifetime. Part of the answer is the basic attitude you adopt, the basic heroism you show moment-in and moment-out. Part of the answer is understanding and managing your self-talk and getting a grip on your own mind. Part of the answer is doing worthy creative work, work that pleases you, makes you proud, and inoculates you against meaning losses. Part of the answer is repairing yourself, rebuilding your brain, your body, and your personality in your own best image. These are your core tasks.
You may be a great painter, writer, composer, or scientist. But if you haven’t learned how to effectively deal with meaning crises, you will get depressed. Your next hundred paintings will not be enough to save you: look at Van Gogh. Your next Ninth Symphony will not be enough to save you: look at Beethoven. Your next War and Peace will not be enough to save you: look at Tolstoi. The only thing that will save you is your expert work at forcing life to mean. You are free to choose your meanings, since meaning is entirely up for grabs. But you are also obliged to choose your meanings, as meaning means nothing until you tell the universe where you stand.
That ends today’s show. Tune in next week for a brand new series! To subscribe to “your purpose-centered life,” please visit personallifemedia.com, where you’ll also find my blog. You can drop me an email at [email protected]; and I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services. That’s ericmaisel.com—(spelled out).
Thank you for listening!