The dialectic between the depressed and the energetic

My cousin’s wife is indefatigably energetic and cheerful. She smiles constantly, though not stupidly; always makes eye contact and shows interest in others; works all day without complaint or fatigue, etc. While speaking of one of our depressed relatives, she betrayed that she didn’t understand how in the world one could ever be depressed – “just think of something you are looking forward to”, she said. The comment was a throw off, so it wouldn’t do to press it to the letter. The sense is simply that depression was impenetrable to her, not for being too difficult but for being so incoherent and easy to dispel. She had clearly been dejected and frustrated or even filled with sorrow before, but she didn’t see why this should ever become depression, which was a very different thing. I, however, spent years thinking the opposite. The energetic and cheerful were impenetrable to me, and the whole idea of skipping cheerfully through life struck me as willful incoherence which would to collapse in the face of the slightest appreciation of reality.  I remember rejoicing when I read Walker Percy exclaim something like “Of course you’re depressed. How could anyone live in this world and not be depressed? Think of the sorts of persons that never get depressed: cheerleaders, California surfers, born-again Christians who’ve said the Jesus prayer and now know that they’re going to heaven no matter what. Would you trade your depression for the lives of any of those people?” This quotation can’t be pressed to the letter any more than the one above, but the sense is that depression arises from some appreciation of the real and that it reveals something precious and ennobling. By this point, everyone can recognize that the philosopher has to say something about how neither side is completely right and that the truth is some synthesis and critique of both views. This is right. But now that we’ve gotten the platitude out of the way, what are the details?

Economic depression is the collapse of the economy; depression is the collapse of the will to act. For the depressed person, the knowledge of the good (that is, of what they have to do) is not the dynamic knowledge that illumines and strengthens a person to get up and act; it is knowledge that simply informs without empowering. If one were simply oblivious to what they ought to do, they would never feel the pinch of being unable to will it; but the same is true of those who always get up and do whatever they need to do. The depressed person thus knows what he needs to do but finds himself unable to act, which seems to many like sheer contradiction.  How can you want to do something, recognize that it is in your power, and yet not do it? Seen from this angle, depression seems like so much infantile self-pity and bellyaching. The solution is simple: get up and do something! What therapy does the person need beyond someone just saying “Stop it!” “Stop it!” “Go do it now, you pathetic self-pitying loser!”

But if this is therapy then depression is therapy. The depressed person is telling himself to do things all the time. His whole day can be consumed with the awareness of what he ought to “just get up and do”. As said above, the problem is not the lack of knowledge of what needs to be done- such knowledge is, if anything, a necessary component of depression. There is a real distinction between knowledge as awareness or illumination and knowledge as the dynamic force that pushes us into action, and when the two are divided knowledge is experienced only as a burden and a condemnation. But from where the depressed person is sitting, this burden is appropriate and fitting. There is something so willfully obtuse about the one who bullies their way through every sorrow. The energetic have no appreciation or proper horror in the face of sorrows. Sorrow is just brushed aside like an audience member who makes a dull-witted comment in a Q+A: the energetic look at it, say something polite but detached, and move on to the next thing. But this is certainly to miss something about all the absurdity and evil that one encounters in the world. Even if there is something wrong about depression, it is closer to the truth than an energetic and empowered response.

Both the depressed and the energetic see each other as infantile. From the point of view of the depressed, what is all this “get up and go” but the stupid and immature bravado of one who refuses to acknowledge absurdity, evil, and the meaninglessness of sheer chance for what it is? The sense that you always have something to hope for is either a childish optimism or a childish confidence in a power other than yourself, which makes one a child either way. But if both sides agree that the other is infantile, this provides a possible point of possible synthesis and critique. If we are in fact (at least in significant ways) as powerless as infants, perhaps the energetic and the depressed both express two ways of dealing with the fact.  The energetic capture an infant’s ability to move onto the next thing and not dwell it, the depressed capture the infant’s recognition that he is powerless in the face of circumstances. Seen from this angle, the depressed and the energetic each get a part of an appropriate response to human weakness and powerlessness.

If this tension between the depressed and the energetic is meant to lead us to some truth in which they harmonize, and if truth is known by its simplicity, then perhaps we’re supposed to see ourselves as children of a cosmic father. On the one hand, it is only in this that the energetic can have real confidence and not just bubbleheaded optimistic self-assertion; on the other, this way of vindicating their confidence also preserves the fundamental awareness that we are powerless in the face of what might come. The analogy does not work in every way of taking it (no analogy does) and this notion of cosmic fatherhood has to be faithful in preserving the powerlessness that we feel in the face of evil (note that it is not evil that bothers us, since an evil that was completely under our power wouldn’t bother us at all). Still, if the only goal is to find the reality that is only partially revealed in the lives of the depressed and the energetic, some sort of Sky Father presents itself as the simplest reality.

%d bloggers like this: