Depression: The Logic of Despair

Depression: The Logic of DespairWhy do depression and despair paralyze us?   Okay, not “why,” as in, “can I have YET ANOTHER more or less useless scientific explanation of clinical depression?”  But rather, what is it about depression in the moment, in this very moment, experientially, that makes it so much better to do nothing, than to do something?  And, how can I recognize when my despair is an illusion, versus when it is justified by the facts of my life?  And what is to be done about the inaction resulting from despair?  Like the subject of the classic drawing “Melancholia” featured here, we are surrounded by wonder and yet often choose to do nothing, wallowing in despair.

Recently I wrote about “Bullshit Psychology”, and in connection with that post, I looked around online and found this interesting post by someone with much to say about having difficulty, ah, finding anything useful about psychologists.  The author writes at length, with much truth, about how “awful” and “shitty” life is, the world is, civilization is. And the sad truth is, he’s right. Everything IS awful and terrible, from our perspective. AND also miraculous, wondrous, precious and divine. And we don’t handle that contradictory situation very well; our logical minds take over and fail us, leading us to despair and inaction, when what’s required in order to live life in a meaningful, satisfying way, is action.

Despair Is Logical

Research diverges regarding whether people are more realistic or less realistic when they are depressed. The facts are that there is evidence for “Depressive Realism,” that people are able to make more realistic evaluations of certain interpersonal facts, as well as plenty of evidence of “Cognitive Distortions” that people experience when depressed.  All very interesting, but not really germane to the realm of experience.  When we are very depressed and filled with despair, we do not typically experience our thoughts as mere evaluations of the world.  We experience them as our world, period.  And, for many of us, our despair is logical, based on established facts of our lives, and/or established facts about the world.  Let’s look at a couple of areas of fact and logic that rationally lead to despair.

Problem 1: Life is Shitty

Objectively, by any reasonable standpoint, the deal we are given in life is pretty shitty.  We are born and we experience pain.  Everything we come to love will disappear in time, everyone we know and love will die, and we too will die, very likely in pain.  Our bodies will deteriorate through life, if they ever functioned well to start with.  Our friends can betray us, our enemies can beat us at our own games, our lifelong dreams most likely will be shattered or compromised to the point of apparent meaninglessness.  Case closed.

Problem 2: The World Sucks

This is a world constantly at war, in which acts of horrific violence are perpetrated against innocent people, against CHILDREN for crying out loud, every day.  In multiple locations, in large numbers.  This has always been the case, and it doesn’t matter much if this era is less violent than past eras.   Tell that to the maimed child left after a bombing strike.  (And who really cares who dropped the bomb?  What, do ours explode in a friendlier, more Democratic way than “theirs”?  Please.)  We are destroying our environment at an alarming rate and it is hard to know whether our children will have a planet worth living upon.  Greed is rampant and corrupts just about every aspect of civilization, everywhere, to varying extents.  Let’s face facts: This world is not a very nice place for far too many people, and may not be here for long at this rate.

Problem 3: Everyone Seems to be in Denial

Despite the obvious lousiness of life, the world, and just about everything in it, everyone seems to be in denial about just how logical despair is, just how many reasons there are to be very, very depressed.  In our society in particular, the idea is promulgated that if you see how terrible everything is, there must be something terribly wrong with you.  You must need to be on medication, you must be crazy.  Well medication or therapy might help you feel better, but they won’t fix how fucked up this world is, and they won’t change the very rules of life outlined under Problem 1, above, that we have to live with.  And the industries of the quick  fixes of Self-Esteem, Have-A-Nice-Day, Smiley Face, Get Rich Quick, How To Win Friends and Dominate People just keep pushing the notion that we should all be deliriously happy, regardless of how totally, appallingly violent, unfair and vicious the world is.  And hoards and hoards of people seem to go along with this notion that things are just wonderful, often under the thin veneer of some kind of glurgy religious belief system.  This denial just compounds the pain of logical despair.  Part of the despair is, everyone seems to be committed to not seeing what’s happening around them.  This seemingly deliberate ignorance and callousness of the general population just rubs salt into the wounds of the depressed.  Despair becomes more desperate from the loneliness of incomprehension.

Joy Is Beyond Logic and Reason

Whatever we have to say about the world, it is just as it is, and hating it, complaining about it, and suffering in the throes of despair, none of these activities, while compelling and Human, none of these changes anything about our lives or our world, none move us in any direction we would freely chose to move.  Lived through the mind, there’s not much here for us other than disappointment and sorrow.  Lived through the body, through the senses, through our intuitive, full beings, there is so much more.

Irrational Miracle 1: We Are Alive

The very fact that we exist is miraculous.  The mere existence of life, of Human life, is incredible.  It is not possible to appreciate this using the logical mind, using rationality.  Rationality would say, “Well, it happened, so the chances of it happening were 100%.  Yawn.”  To see the miracle of life, we would have to go beyond the mind, beyond logic and rationality, beyond mere language.  We would have to be attuned to our senses and see the world as it is, rather than as our mind sees it.  Sounds like nonsense until you try it, and try it, and try it some more, and then you’ll see what I’m talking about.  This a way, not to “happiness” but to joy.

Irrational Miracle 2: We Can Love One Another

Okay, so now I’m probably losing you. “Oh brother, another hippy, great.  Thanks, I’ll just take another xanax and read the Huffington Post some more.”  Fact remains, we can love one another.  Someone got nailed to a tree for suggesting that this loving one another was the way forward in a difficult life, and after that people used his death as an excuse to kill more and more people, for some reason.  But the idea was sound.  We can love one another, and when we do, this bitter life becomes much, much more sweet.  Bittersweet.  Bittersweet is painful, it is illogical, it is hard to bear.  And it is infinitely better than the alternative of a purely bitter life.  In this very bittersweetness lies joy.

Irrational Miracle 3: We Can Refrain From Harming Others and be Kind to One Another

You may not be able to stop the bombs falling, but you don’t have to actually torture and hurt other people.  You could even go out of your way to be kind to others when you can.  You could find ways to make life better for others, even when there’s not much way to make life better for yourself.  You could go outside yourself and care about others.  It doesn’t make any sense to do so, but it’s an option.  You could try that and see what comes of it.  Don’t take my word for it, but maybe take a chance or two and see what life can be like if you go around doing kind things for others.

Irrational Miracle 4: We Can Return to Our True Nature

Through deep contemplation, through meditation, through mindfulness practice both formal and informal, we can go back to a more basic way of being that came before thought.  OK I know now I’m TOTALLY losing you.  I get it.  It sounds like bullshit.  And perhaps it is.  I after all in my last post stated that I thought most psychology was bullshit.  So I can handle it if you think mine is just more of same.  And I’m here to tell you, if you practice enough, you can begin to see glimpses of a very different way of being, one that is not ruled by logic, by rationality, by language.  I could get technical on you and barrage you with terminology, but I’ll bet you’d rather I didn’t.  But practicing with This Moment, practicing with This Breath, simply is the most efficient way to touch the other way of being.  As I’ve written here before, life sucks because we have minds.  The good news is, we can see beyond the mind if we work at doing so, if we try steadily, best we can, to do so.  That is what the practice of mindfulness is all about.  We begin to see that we are all in the same boat and that the only thing there is to do that really makes sense is to help one another, to love one another.  It’s rational and logical to despair.  Joy makes no sense.  It takes something more than reason and logic to rise above the depression and despair and LIVE.

Have you practiced mindfulness as a way to go beyond logical despair, to bittersweet joy?

What is your experience?

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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  • Great post Joseph, in essence human, funny, deep and compassionately calling for action. Nice 🙂

  • You nailed it Joe! It is subtle, but really focusing on living in the moment takes a mindful approach and complete awareness of all that “is”. We all get caught up in “life” and let it rule…not to mention the ego. But once we get into a state of “mindfulness” of every moment in life, there are gifts. All Universal “gifts” are “pre-sent”, so live in the present moment, so you don’t miss them. 🙂

    • Thanks Sean! I’m planning a few blog posts, including one about EGO. Mine is as annoying as anyone else’s. We need them to survive, but mindfulness is what we need in order to enjoy our lives and thrive… and mindfulness involves learning to separate from, and disengage from the ego-mind. Stay tuned! 🙂

      • I read Eckhart Tolle’s book: “A New Earth – Awaking to You Life’s Purpose” and that was an intense read about the egoic mind. I would be interested to know your thoughts on his teachings in that blog post.

        • Honestly, I’ve never read Tolle and know next to nothing about him, other than that a lot of my clients read and enjoy his work.

  • Anonymous

    I have never experienced joy. What does that feel like?
    What does loving someone feel like? What do you mean by loving someone?
    No one I know, including me, has the slightest idea what “love” is.
    We know “tolerate” “put up with” “need because I’m lonely/bored/don’t want to be alone/etc” and the favorite “liking you only so long as you”re nice to me”.
    How does one learn to love?

    • Wow, hard questions. I will try to respond in some meaningful way in this limited medium. First, I recommend starting to love things other than people. People are complicated. They are hard to love. What about appreciating a sunset? That is a form of love. What about an animal or a piece of music? Notice what that appreciation feels like in the body. That is joy, that is a taste of what love is. Love is appreciation, when it is not deluded and selfish intoxication. The latter sort of love is just an ego-illusion and you’re best without it. “True” love is appreciating life, and noticing and appreciating the sensations of that appreciation. It can be practiced. It can be learned. Start small.