If you made it this far into this little series about being sad, well done and hello!!
Quick re-cap: Part 1 of this series told you the story of me and why I get depressed, how it feels, how I feel about it. A personal tale, partial and leaving out loads of things, as any story will, not perfect; a human told it. Part 2 had a quick investigation into the ‘medicalisation’ of some of our ills, and the labelling we accept from the medical profession, and those that benefit by them. Whether these labels are useful or not. This related to a segment at the start of Eric Maisel’s new book, Rethinking Depression, which is what has prompted this little series of mine. I’ll return to the topic of labelling and its usefulness or not briefly, at the end of this post.
This is the segment where I tell you a little bit about Eric Maisel’s ideas for how to cope with feeling sad, and how to live a better, more authentic life. The clue as to where this will be going is in the word ‘authentic’ – it’s the catchword of Existentialists. Existentialism is a philosophical line of thought; remember Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, France after the Second World War? Ever read Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, heard of the Theatre of the Absurd?
The key idea of Existentialists is that there is no meaning to life and the universe other than what you give it yourself, what you make for yourself. In your attempts to make a life of meaning, your own meaning for yourself and true to your own personality, you are attempting to create an Authentic Life. This is – clearly – an atheist philosophy; you’ll find no god concept here. (Though interestingly, did you have a partiality to a god or two, I think you can work this philosophy fine alongside any faith you have, working along the simple idea that my nanna told me, and all your nannas told you: God helps those who help themselves. Pray to God sailor, but row for the shore. End of aside for anyone of faith.)
Sitting about, feeling rather confused and down and thinking: ‘Why am I here? What’s it all for? Does anything I do count for anything at all? What’s my place in the universe?’ is a valid Existential angsty moment (or decade or two if you get really stuck with this)…Their answers would likely be versions of, as Eric Maisel would put it:
The most important shift for the contemporary person to make is the…shift from the despairing “Why do I exist?” to the bracing “I exist”. She must stop pestering herself with the unanswerable questions that plague her […] and accept as her mantra “I am alive”. […] We opt to really live the twenty years or the sixty years ahead of us. This may be all that we have, but it is exactly what we have. As nineteenth century philosopher Richard von Schubert-Soldern aphoristically put it, “To understand life, we must contrast it with death”. We force life to mean because we are alive and not dead. We force life to mean until death releases us from our responsibility to live authentically. We say, “While I am alive, I can love”. We say “While I am alive, I can learn a few things”. We say, “While I am alive, I can create”. We live authentically because we can. (pp.78-79)
Why would trying to live ‘authentically’ help a person feeling down? What would an authentic life entail, what does it even bloody mean?! I’ll set out Eric Maisel’s suggestions of an authentic life for you, with a small explanation of each, which will answer these questions, as we go along. Now bear in mind and keep it there – this is a PHILOSOPHY book. It might help you, you might find it in the Self Help or Psychology section of the bookshop, but I find the best thing about this, is that it’s a philosophy book. It’s a way of thinking about stuffs in life that relates to the Real World, and action you can take there.
You Look Life in the Eye (pp.63-67) and You Decide to Matter (pp.75-81)
Basically, for anyone who has a love of film and pop-culture references, this is the metaphorical taking of that pill in The Matrix, and seeing that life is tatty and grey and really unattractive – and preferring the stunted nature of how things do actually seem to be than the shiny leather kung-fu lies of the Matrix illusion, because if you know the truth of the universe as you see it: you can begin to work within it purposefully, to change your world for the better, according to values you will decide upon. Your actions will mean something, because they mean something To You. The first thing to do, he suggests, is to accept that things can be quite crap, regularly – for anyone. Life can be horribly unfair, and our own and everyone else’s motivations are complex and ethically suspect, often (p.66). He agrees it may not be less painful to admit to our failings than to deny them and feel (falsely) better (p.65). A double-edged sword. The thing is – I would say that most chronically sad people see this sort of reality anyway – and are badly confused at a lot of other people’s avoidance and denial of it. So it’s a cheery message really: Life IS terribly hard, you were right!! Let’s accept you were right about all that pain around the place and the universe not caring about you or anyone in particular, and move on from that starting point (p.75). Not going to argue with you about it…
You Investigate Meaning (pp.69-73)
If you are down and have decided to look life in the eye, and acknowledge all the sadness and awfulness around us – as well as all the beauty and joy – you may still feel that it’s all futile and meaningless. But if you don’t try and have a go at making some meaning for yourself (are you not bored of waiting for it to come upon you, all this time??), he suggests you ‘will likely remain confused about and estranged from life’ (intro points, p.57). He defines meaning as ‘what we value, how we construe our life purposes, what we make of the facts of [our] existence’, and he makes clear this will be ‘entirely subjective’ to each individual (p.71). I would add that actions are never futile, they just sometimes don’t have the intended results, but trying is better than not trying for your sense of self worth, right? Futility and meaninglessness are not the same thing. What means something for one person (he gives an example of ‘watching ducks’ hopping about for an hour in the park (p.72) – something I would find very meaningful, cos I like that sort of nature watching), will have zero meaning for another. Start to try and find things that mean something just for you, and try to populate your life with more of them.
You Accept Your Obligation to Make Meaning (pp.83-88)
He points out that faced with a decision to make personal meaning most people opt out in some way, choosing religion, selfish hedonism, indifference, obsessive seeking or simply crumbling into despair at the mammoth nature of the task (p.84). He suggests that maybe people stumble so early because they feel arrogant at making their own meanings: we have had other people’s meanings pushed onto us all our lives. He suggests that thinking of it as an ‘honourable’ thing to do, to live by principles you have decided on, is a better way, and need not suggest a superiority of attitude to anyone else (p.85). He makes the incredibly relevant point that ‘we object to a universe where meaning has to be made’ for ourselves (p.86, my italics), and where it will, by that nature, never be settled once and for all – it will shift as we learn and live (p.88). And linked to that, that it’s very hard work, and ‘we know ourselves too well’: we will let ourselves down and constantly – which will generate massive anxiety (pp.86-87). He suggests that we view it as the ‘epic’ story of our lives, the ‘loving work of self-creation’(p.87) – if you think that sounds pompous, could it be because you don’t think you deserve to matter, only other people do? Why not just try and see, and keep trying – we already, all us sad people, know what it feels like to give up, get up, try again, give up, get up, try again…
You Decide How to Matter (pp.89-96)
This section is quite vital, and is about how you make decisions in your life, acknowledging that you often have whole cartloads of semi-conscious desires and prejudices within you as you do so, so that there is no such thing as a pure intellectual, or even pure emotional decision – there is just trying to do the right thing as you see it, at any time. He describes it like this:
You weigh your actions against a vision you have of the person you would like to be, the person it would make you proudest to be; you take action, you learn from your experience to what extent you guessed right; and you make use of what you’ve learned as you weigh your next decision. We can give this a shorthand name: the principle of personal pride. You use the principle of personal pride to make your meaning. This may be the beautiful, imperfect, harrowing way – the way of making meaning. (p.96)
(Me speaking to sad people: This idea should work, I reckon, even in nasty twisty decision scenarios, for the reasons I give in footnote 1 – that you can only ever work with the info you have at the time, if mistakes are made due to lack of information or due to misjudging information all you can do is learn: becoming mired in a pit of blaming yourself is understandable, should an error occur, but you need to try and tease yourself out, and look clearly again. The next decision awaits, as does your life, of course. You will learn, and sometimes having learned is all you can take from a situation that has harmed you greatly.)
You Negotiate Each Day (pp.163-168)
I personally, hate any Trying To Help Me book, that gives me loads of good ideas, but then leaves me there, like the real world and its constant demands aren’t something that will really bother me, now I have reached a higher level of perception. This book doesn’t do that. This is a lovely chapter – and it gives many examples and many different sorts of choices you can make for each single day, be it working day or free day, or a mixture. From the minute you get up to the minute you sleep it gives you ideas on how to get through that day without feeling so wan and despairing, if you do feel that way:
Each day is a special sort of negotiation. You make decisions about where you will invest meaning, how you will handle activities that hold no particular meaning, when you will take your vacations from meaning, and so on. You make a daily bargain with yourself that if you hold to your intentions you will find no reason to doubt the meaningfulness of that day. […] You do not aim for some unattainable perfection. […] You accept that you need daily vacations from “the whole meaning thing” [as well as] adamantly demanding of yourself that you put in that hard hour …doing the thing that you’ve been avoiding, because that is your prime meaning-making activity on that day. (p.163)
I think these chapters are the core of the book – the rest is incredibly useful elaboration on these ideas, and back-ups, things to help you integrate the ideas into your life more and more closely, with many specific scenarios and examples for thinking with. There is quite stringent help on how to formulate values without feeling you are contradicting yourself or not allowing for wants and needs as well, for example (pp.97-104). Prepare to really feel like your head is getting bent trying to work that one through! I ended up questioning some values I thought I held (and I have few, very few), and adding some I really did not think I had sympathy with (oddly, things make a bit more sense with them in the mind-mix). As usual, all these things are provisional, we’ll see how they go.
There’s a section on pages 125-8, in the section on You Focus on Meaning Rather than Mood, which describes quite heart-breakingly why we can feel so constantly up against the experience of ‘the void’ in our daily lives, despite all our scientific progress and civil society: its almost poetic. He suggests that because we are so used to this experience of scary disappointment, and the ‘taking the temperature’ of ourselves (p.128), checking in on our moods and seeing it as ‘bad’ during these moments, that we have slipped into a sort of trance, ‘convinced that an unlived life is less painful than reality’ (p.129). A trance where we live only half awake, because it’s the only bearable way to get through, say, a dead-end job (or even a great job that just isn’t satisfying us anymore – the guilt!!). The trance is aided by the advertisements coming at us all the time, trying to get us to buy something, the lifestyles we see on TV or film, all over the place (on p.131 is an absolutely brilliant rant against advertisers). He makes it clear, as he does throughout the book that you need to rebel, against trance and culturally induced desires for unimportant things (my friend Mr Hooting Yard would call this The Man), against allowing all that to constantly derail you in your attempts to live life by your own principles. Earlier, he says:
This is the dynamic, unavoidable tension that adds unwanted stress to every contemporary person’s life: even as she is poised on the brink of meaninglessness, she must repeatedly fight her way back to meaning (p.79).
He gives several chapters of attention to how to fight back if you feel your meanings slipping – how to get it back; or make new meaning for yourself: to understand it’s not a static thing – you will grow and change, and so will your ideals, and your meanings you make (pp.169-206). It reads both fierce and calming.
My thoughts on all this are twofold. Firstly, to live life authentically, that is, true to whatever you have personally decided is important for you, is going to be utterly uphill – because it involves going against the grain of our society which is all (outwardly) about working, acquiring, competing, celebrity and money. I think those of us that have become depressed, sad, whatever: I don’t think all these things are working for us anymore anyway. I know I wish they did; I have many times wished to be stupid and quiescent and living a quieter life!! But they aren’t, so trying to think clearly, when we can, is I reckon, a good start, and trying some of the tools for trying to become closer to the person you wish yourself to be are surely better than just giving up on life? Surely worth a go? It can’t be a bad thing to try and be that change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi said, just starting with yourself, surely? (And remember, for those of you out there allergic to the idea of self-help – this is a sodding philosophy book!)
Secondly, to return to the issue of ‘Depression’ as a label and whether it’s helpful or not. I asked Eric Maisel some quite raw and open questions on how to cope with my feelings of isolation and overwhelmedness some days as a mother alone at home with a demanding toddler. I confess, I was expecting answers along the lines of, ‘on days where you feel xx levels of anxiety and sadness, possibly you could try [insert various strategies here, that are in the book].’ ‘And on days where you feel worse, possibly these ones might be of help’. ‘And on the worst days, maybe to get right back to basics, possibly remembering just this or this might help’. What he actually said, was that he had had a fantastic time raising his two children at home as a house-husband, and didn’t ‘understand the question’. His answers were well-meaning and said in a spirit of kindness, but they underlined something that has occurred to me more and more when I think about ‘depression’.
It’s about EMPATHY. Though Eric Maisel had been in a similar (not the same, note, as he is him and I am me!) situation to me – rearing children at home, mostly alone; because he himself had navigated this challenge very successfully (he produced both personal meaning and a body of work in that time-frame), he was for some reason unable to mentally step into my shoes, and inhabit my experience of this same challenge as different from his own. This despite many examples of him stating in the book that people view situations very differently, and that circumstances can appear great on the outside and yet still you feel sad. He did not see that I felt very lost sometimes, and suggested I view my ideas about ‘proper parenting’ and ‘proper house-management’ differently, to allow more time for creation (my writing). The suggestions were valid and practical, but not talking to the spirit of desperation I had attempted to convey, for when I am very sad and anxious. I know I am not the only woman who finds child-rearing at home very hard sometimes, exhausting and weirdly unsatisfying, despite having chosen this role freely. I felt very cast down. I admire the man’s work; I find his books very helpful. And yet, on communicating with him, I found him unable to meet me where I was inside, and engage with me there, however briefly.
This is just a shade, a reminder of the way that people who get sad feel when they try and explain this to other people. I think it’s likely that the reason the population of Western society were so eager to have the word ‘depression’ replace the word ‘unhappiness’ in our vocabularies, was the lack of empathy and compassion they experienced from others. We wouldn’t have needed a medical definition of sadness, made respectable with the word ‘depression’, if we were ALL more empathic to one another and didn’t discount each others sorrows and difficulties as unimportant or un-understandable. Empathy is incredibly important. The reason depression is a helpful label sometimes, for some people, is because it provides them a validation of their feelings and their existence as they are experiencing it in a way other people in their lives have not. It gives them a starting point to dealing with their sorrow. I am here, oh – where do I go from here, how?
And that, along with the proviso that as long as you can think clearly enough that day to try and read, this book may be of great help to you, is that. It doesn't matter that my personal communication with Eric Maisel did not feel as successful for me as I would have hoped, in the end. I’ll give him the last proper word – this is what I would have said to me perhaps, as a start, were I him…but it's there already in his book, so I have it anyway:
It makes no sense to suppose that a creature with consciousness could always feel happy. It is absurd and telling that as a society we think unhappiness is an embarrassing, inappropriate emotion. (p.49)
Maybe we feel trapped by a life that sounds all right in the expressing but that feels dark, stressful, and ordinary in the living. (p.51)
Some endeavours, such as service [here think motherhood, me!], are indeed regularly experienced as meaningful…But they are not intrinsically meaningful. They are only meaningful when they are experienced as meaningful. (p.70)
You can’t make all the meaning you want. You can’t provide yourself with a continual experience of meaningfulness. Authenticity is not like a ladder you climb…where one day you see all the authenticity you need. Authenticity is about trying, day in and day out, in the small gestures and in the big decisions you make, to live out the vision you have for yourself and to earn the experience, if only on that day and for that day, of having lived authentically. There is no journey from unhappiness to authenticity, as if unhappiness were something that could be left behind in the dust. You live authentically, and sometimes you are unhappy. (p.211)
Nothing could be more natural. What sort of creature do we think we are? A kind of wishful thinking has washed over the developed world that life has become simple and settled. […] This is a false view of life. Life is a project. (p.209)
You will have plenty of reality with which to reckon. This reckoning is heroism. It is how you earn your feeling of authenticity. (p.140)
I do recommend this book, I do. I think a bit of Existentialism can be very good for the brain, if you aren't too flat on the floor to concentrate for it. If you experience depression as a sort endless trapping in a nasty self conscious present moment (as I often do), these ideas could help to nudge you toward a more advantageous self consciousness.
For other stops on Eric Maisel's Blog Tour for this book, see here.
Eric Maisel, Rethinking Depression, California: New World Library (2012)
And these posts can be in honour of my dad, a difficult but brilliant and sometimes very kind man, who I loved very much, and whose echoes in my mind keep me engaged with life, to this day.
 Notice I say the truth as you see it. I do not think there is any such thing as objective 100% true Truth, all of the time, for anything much. I think truth moves, I’ve said so before. You can make a decision at any time, based on the best information you had, the truth as you then saw it. Later you can find out that there were many other variables you were unaware of. These may have caused you to make a bad error. Truth changed. Information comes, or not. You only do the best you can at any given time. (Maisel makes this point with some very good examples, on p.72.)