Monday, March 18, 2013

Suffering and the Real

Last night, I got a little message on FB from an old friend, from waaay back in BC, who told me he was going through a difficult patch and was experiencing severe depression. He's got a bad combination of work/health/family stress and it's doing to him what such things often do. I know this man very well, (he taught me to drive) and I knew that he was not the sort to use these terms lightly. I knew that "severe" meant dangerous. He also knew that I had some experience with such things, which was why he asked me, "Tell me life is worth living".

But what can you do for a close friend who lives 8700km away? He rescued me, several times, in my mid-20s, before I'd figured everything out.

I know from my own experience how difficult it can be to get out of that house of mirrors. Depression can be a terrible trap, but the one hope is that it is one of our own making. It is a capitulation to Fantasy.

I've written a great deal about The Real and Fantasy here, but maybe not so much about how it's possible to apply it all in one's real life. A while ago, one of our regular commboxers sent me an email saying more or less the same thing. He was depressed and it was getting worse. He wanted to know how my ideas about The Real could help him cope with his brain and circumstances. It was a hard question, not because it's difficult to do, but it's a bit difficult to describe.

Below is an edited segment of my discussion with my friend that gives a fuller answer than I was able to give before.

Can you do me a favour?

Tell me life is worth living.



it's the only thing there is.

what's the alternative?

not death, because that's just more life

the alternative is non-existence, which we do not have the power to procure

I can neither make nor unmake myself

I can entropy my ass into a dissolute state.

you mean not do any housework?

Let the energy bleed away and the matter convert to other fporms.

To be honest, the housework would be okay.

you have some kind of superpower there, mate

if you have the power to induce entropy, I'd like to know the trick

I'm in a a constant entropic state.

but it is debatable whether human existence is entirely in a realm of the natural, and even if we had such final power over the natural realm, which we don't, we have even less power over the supernatural.

we are what we are, we didn't make ourselves, and we don't have the power to change either of those things

you're in a constant state of emotional and psychological turmoil

which isn't at all the same thing

have you ever read Aquinas?

maybe you should try him


A long time ago.

Sorry, not in the mood for flights of fanc today. Talk about what's really bothering you or go away. Nonsense about "entropy" will only annoy

Severly depressed.

And unable to spell


is it the chemical kind of depressed or environmental?

Work stress

Heart attack

Relationship stress

Parental stress

General inability to face life

environmental, then

Piling on to pre-existing lifelong depression.

I'm familiar.

I know

I think you may suffer from philosophical depression more than anything else

is it possible you have failed to sufficiently live in and dedicate yourself to The Real?

have you indulged in Fantasy?

Do you lack the mental discipline to order your thoughts towards The Objective Real?

I have noticed when I am becoming depressed, it follows a very familiar pattern , starting with a train of thought

the thoughts are linked together in a chain of logic that leads from one Worst Assumption to the next

it has the appearance of uncontestable truth because the logic is nearly always sound

which is a big problem for wordy-smart people like you and me

I'm familiar with that, yes.

we are able to think our way into being miserable, but not out of it

this is because we have failed in the first rule of rational thought. We have started the syllogism upside down.

to be a true syllogism, we have to start with premises that are themselves true

you and I become depressed when we accept as true greater and lesser premises that are untrue

My favourite untrue premises are things like, "My parents didn't love me because I am worthless".

I move quickly from there to "No one will ever love me" (lesser premise)

"therefore my existence is without value" (conclusion)

it all makes sense to my brain while I'm thinking it, but looking at it objectively, we can both see a whole mess of things in there that are simply erroneous.

My parents didn't love me because they were emotionally and spiritually stunted people

it had nothing to do with me

In fact, loads of people love me.

and as for the conclusion, my worth as a human soul doesn't come from whether any human being ever did or ever will love me. It comes from being created in the image of God.

the entire syllogism is worthless, a Fantasy.

a tissue of self-induced lies and misery that lies on my mind like a pall.

the only thing to do to combat this evil thing, because that's what it is, is The Real.

My wife just hugged me and told me she loves me. That's pretty Real.

Except then I immediately turn that into feelings of being unworthy of that love.

as I said, habits of thought

confront the thoughts with an objective mindset.

what makes you so special as to be the only person in the world unworthy of love?

Hard to do when you are in the grip of those habits of thought. They act to limit your field of vision.

they do

which is why it's more important to do this as a pure exercise of the will

than as a response to feelings

which brings me back to Aquinas

virtue, of which this is a part, is a combination exercise of the intellect and will

you suffer from un-disciplined passions.

you can reduce your suffering by learning to discipline them with your intellect and will

remember in D&D there was a roll you could make to see if you could "disbelieve" in a particular threatening situation if you thought it was the product of an illusion?

I imagine this is like that. You use your will to forcefully ignore the evil thoughts.

when you counter them with the facts, with The Real, they lose a great deal of their power to induce negative emotions,

what Aquinas called the passions

But then the conditions that produce those thoughts are still there.

that's The Fantasy talking

what "conditions" are those?

that you are a good man, with a loving wife, a good job, a decent education and a beautiful child?

It's all very familiar, isn't it?

a big part of the Fantasy that's hurting you is the script that tells you it's not your thoughts that are making youmiserable, but the "conditions" behind them

you are just reacting normally to bad conditions.

your misery is therefore justified and rational

it rather lets you off the hook doesn't it?

there's nothing you can do about the "conditions" .

I will argue that there's nothing I can do about my conditions. the facts of my past, the fact that my mother never loved me, that she abandoned me. that I never was able to get an education.

it allows me to sit back and say, "see? I deserve to be as miserable as I like"

because there's nothing I can do

You have a better education than most people in the world.


that is The Real

the other stuff is the neurotic Fantasy

It can be difficult to get up and face the conditions in a mature way sometimes.

the conditions will always be there, and it is how we think about them that causes all the trouble. But the thinking is where it all goes wrong.

There are things you can control in life and things you can't. Your thoughts about yourself are one of the first group.

but it's very hard. esp. after a lifetime of bad habits

but you have already accomplished a great deal in this vein

The things I can control are the only ones that ever give me trouble. If it is beyond my control then I don't worry about it, because it is not an area in which my personal failures make a difference.

you might also try writing down point by point what you think a perfect person would look like. A perfect you.

you might find it a tad unrealistic.

your personal failures are probably not going to land you in the international criminal court

they might not even be of much interest to a parish confessor

say your three Hail Mary's and stop thinking you're all that.

one of the things that regular Confession does is take out a lot of your pride about your sins.

we can be very proud of what great, awful people we are

and it can be very deflating to have a priest yawn, look at his watch and give you three Aves

the good thing about Catholic praxis is that it cuts you down to size. yo

you quickly find that yo're not really very different from everyone else

because going into the confessional forces you to make a bullet-pointed list of the objective actual things you may have done wrong.

That's really depressing.

and it is never very heroically bad. it's always a pretty tawdry bunch of little betrayals and sad hoardings

I think you suffer a bit from the need to be special in your badness

it can be a let down when you learn you're just ordinary

I always hoped that other people are doing a better job at life than I am. If they aren't then that's truly sad.

but at least it grants you some solidarity.


and makes you more able to cut them and yourself a little slack

jus' plain folks, I'm afraid

and your awful badness doesn't impress God

Not trying to impress anyone or feel special about my unhappiness. Just trying to survive it.

But all this rational discourse has done a lot to settle and calm me down.

it's about Real things

your brain is trying to trick you.

And keep in mind, depression comes in waves, it attacks and then recedes.
while's its happening, it can be overwhelming. but when it goes away, you can be left wondering what all the fuss was over



Anonymous said...

My "real" advice is limited, but here goes:

1. No one is asking him to live out the rest of his life right now. All he has to do is get through today, then curl up in bed and set his alarm for tomorrow morning.

2. Related to that, things can always get worse - which is deeply frightening - but they often get better.

The worst times I've had have been objectively horrible, but the terrifying part was looking down into the abyss and wondering how much worse it would get. (Ever almost lost the entire maternal side of your family within the week? It sucks, but then you start to wonder what would become of you if you were to lose the paternal side of your family, and your extended family, or your friends.)

3. If he is religious, he can only pray that God will give him strength and some sign that this is all worthwhile.

4. Sometimes the understanding that you are supposed to be that stressed out, depressed, and miserable is what makes it tolerable, because you start to understand that you're not going to spend the next few decades feeling that way.


Santiago said...

This is beautiful.

Zach said...

Those are some good reminders.

I am starting to see that Aquinas and I need to become good friends.


DP said...

And keep in mind, depression comes in waves, it attacks and then recedes.
while's its happening, it can be overwhelming. but when it goes away, you can be left wondering what all the fuss was over

Amen. It's a sneaky, vicious little bastard that way. Emphasis on the "little." Think of it as an ankle-biter, like some annoying midget dog, and you have the perspective right. It yaps like something bigger--and definitely wants to be--but it's not.

Anonymous said...

Rico's 4 steps to battling the black dog:

1. Prayer, prayer, prayer. Go to weekly Mass if you can. If you don't believe in God, start believing - it might be why you are depressed.
2. Diet - eliminate all caffeine, sugar, alcohol and processed foods. These are all mood killers. Take a probiotic daily. If you fall off the diet, get back on it and don't beat yourself up. The weight you'll lose from eating right is guaranteed to make you feel better.
3. Exercise - get to the gym everyday if you can, very important!
4. There's no shame in taking on antidepressant if you need one.

God bless,

-Rico S.

Anonymous said...

He needs help urgently, or his family will suffer terribly as well.

Good words there, Hilary.

I'll pray for him and his family.