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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

terra incognita

Yesterday was Canada's Thanksgiving holiday. Here in Vancouver it was sunny and clear. And for the first half of the day I found myself uncharacteristically depressed.

I know that depression is normal, but for me it is unusual. As I used to say to depressed friends: I tend toward anxiety rather than depression--mental agitation rather than painful mental inertia. Yesterday it struck me that depression is lethal to an artist, or to any freelance. Self-motivation seems to be one of the first things that the psychic defoliant called depression takes out.

Kimmie suffered from depression in the 1990s. She was treated for it for some time before the doctor twigged that Kimmie was entering (very early) menopause, and saw the depression as a symptom of a larger process. One of the things the doctor recommended was reading the book Darkness Visible by the novelist William Styron, who had suffered through severe clinical depression. I read parts of the book myself. It was chilling, and I admit that I have always found depression to be a scary disorder.

Another thing that the doctor gave Kimmie was a depression self-test questionnaire. One day Warren and I both did the questionnaire, and discovered that, whatever our other problems, we were both normal in that respect, or at worst only mildly depressed.

Antidepressant medication is a major industry, and Kimmie was on these for awhile and received clear and obvious relief from them. Nonetheless, I do not feel that depression is "caused" by brain chemistry, or is a disease in its own right, any more than fever is a disease in its own right. Fever (elevated temperature) can also be controlled by medication, but that is not the same thing as treating the underlying disease. If a persistent fever has an unknown cause, it is irresponsible simply to keep throwing Tylenol at it. This is essentially what I tried to do in 1990 when I got a cold or flu with accompanying fever, and kept taking Tylenol for the fever. It barely worked, which eventually led me to visit the doctor, who determined that I had pneumonia. No amount of Tylenol would have helped me.

My own feeling is that depression, as a mental state of low initiative combined with sad, pessimistic feelings, is a symptom. This is clear enough in cases of normal depression, as when some calamity occurs, like the death of a loved one. You become depressed, and you know why you're depressed. In time you work through the grief and start to function more normally again.

So-called clinical depression--depression that has no obvious outward cause--I believe is also triggered by underlying mental facts, but these are out of sight. The "event" is in the unconscious, and is probably shielded from consciousness just because it is so painful and unpleasant. In some unknown way, one is somehow maladapted to one's situation, or ignorant of an important truth about oneself. The maladaptation has become a crisis, a kind of mental tumor, drawing resources to itself and draining your conscious budget of energy.

As I recall from Styron's book, clinical depression is often suffered by those who have undergone trauma as children, and who have alcoholic tendencies. To me it seems clear that these traumas will have lasting effects that most likely will continue on, influencing our lives in countless ways. Maybe it's sort of like breaking a bone and never having it set properly. It knits together in some random way, leaving one partly lame.

And, as I mentioned recently, Daniel Goleman's book Vital Lies, Simple Truths explains how the psychology of self-deception is not merely an isolated clinical event, but a pervasive fact of conscious mental life. He shows how to be conscious means to be continuously self-deceived to some extent. The task of consciousness, of adaptation, of maturity, is to become ever less self-deceived. Consciousness is intrinsically a highly censored experience for all of us. In this state, it seems obvious that inward events could color our conscious experience without our being aware of what they are. Indeed, as Goleman shows, we're generally aware of precious little.

Probably the greatest doctor of the mind is still the Buddha, who provided both diagnosis and treatment for the ills of the human condition in his Four Noble Truths. He fingers the problem in the Second Noble Truth, the Truth of the Origin of Suffering: ego-fixation. When we come to the realization that "I am suffering", we habitually try to get rid of the suffering--but that doesn't work. He said that the part that needs to go is not the "suffering", it is the "I am". If we can do that, the suffering disappears at the same moment. But where does ego-fixation come from?

The root-cause is ignorance. According to the Buddha, all of our suffering arises from the state of our knowledge, specifically our self-knowledge. The Buddha would have agreed wholeheartedly with the directive inscribed at the entrance of the oracle of Delphi: "Know thyself." If you can truly achieve that, you can escape suffering. You can also become a truly useful and effective human being. Indeed, if you go all the way with it, you become a buddha.

Yesterday afternoon, when my depression had lifted and I was doing my reading, one of the books I read was What Babies Say Before They Can Talk by Paul Holinger. To help with a baby's healthy development, one of a parent's tasks is to act promptly to relieve the child's distress. Often, though, figuring out the source of the distress is hard. A baby can move from distress to rage, and you don't know why. One mother eventually discovered, by accident, that her daughter's socks were too tight. (I recall now that this was also one of the theories for why the Grinch in Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas was so mean-spirited: his shoes were too tight...) It's the same with our own minds, our own lives. Figuring out the source of distress can be hard. We're terra incognita even to ourselves.

As for yesterday's depression, it was a briefly chilling experience. I feel lucky not to have that millstone hanging around my neck more often.

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