Putting Pen to Paper: Writers on Depression

That terrible mood of depression, whether it’s any good or not, is what is known as The Artist’s Reward. Ernest Hemmingway

Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know, and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t. Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast

That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.  Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America

In depression . . . faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come – – not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute . . . It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

They flank me-Depression on my left, loneliness on my right. They don’t need to show their badges. I know these guys very well. …then they frisk me. They empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying there. Depression even confiscates my identity; but he always does that. Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Depression is nourished by a lifetime of ungrieved and unforgiven hurts. Penelope Sweet

Finding Meaning in the Legal Profession:An Interview with Dr James Hollis

This is my interview with psychoanalyst, James Hollis, Ph.D., author of the best-selling books, “What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life,” and “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up

Dan:  What is depression?

Jim:   I think first of all we have to differentiate between depressions because it‘s a blanket term which is used to describe many different experiences, different contexts and different internalized experiences of people.  First of all, there is the kind of depression that is driven by biological sources and it is still a mystery as to how that works.  We know it affects a certain number of people in profound ways.   Second, there is reactive depression which is the experience of a person who has suffered loss and as we invest energy in a relationship or a situation and for whatever reason, that other is taken away from us, that energy that was attached to him will invert as depression.  Reactive depression is actually normal.

We would have to figure out where that fine line is and where it might cross over into something that was more than normal.  When we say that a person is grieving too long or it is affecting their lives so profoundly, that’s a judgment call, of course, but we do know people that have been sort of destroyed by reactive depression because they had attached so much of their identity to the other, whatever it might be: a position in life that they lost or a relationship that was important.

But I think none of us can avoid occasional reactive depressions because life is a series of attachments and losses.  Most commonly, when we think about depression, however,

Embracing The New: Avoiding a Routinized Life

On my printer I have pasted a quote from Odysseus who, two and a half millennia ago, said, “I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardship / and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then I will swim.”

Why is this quote there, of the many possible? Odysseus was fully aware of his perilous position on the high seas. At various isles, he and his comrades had to fight monsters on the one hand and resist the sundry seductions of sensual slumber on the other. Whether battling Polyphemus, or leaving the Isle of the Lotus Eaters, or traversing the clashing rocks, he knew that he had to press forward, or drown in fear or lethargy in the wine dark sea.

Every morning we awake and we face the same perils as that ancient mariner. At the foot of our beds two grinning gremlins wait to greet us. One is called Fear and the other is called Lethargy. Fear snarls in familiar form: “Don’t go out there. It is too big for you. You are not up to it!” Some days he wins and we stay safe, close to the harbor of habit and shores of familiar contour. Lethargy says: “Chill out. Have a chocolate. Turn on the telly or the Internet. Tomorrow’s another day.” His voice is equally dangerous for we secretly long for such sibilant seduction. One of the four rivers of classical Hell was Lethe. Drinking of its waters made one forget all. Frequently, Homer tells us, Odysseus’s comrades succumbed to fear, and fled, or lethargy, and “forgot” their journey.

It is troubling to me that so many of us, so many of our days, succumb to fear and lethargy. Some days we spend mindlessly distracted by the diversions of popular culture. Some days we are numbed by the press of duties, legitimate claims of work and relationship, and little is left over. Some days we simply forget to show up. But how are we to “show up,” and in service to what, remain compelling questions, and worthy of periodic reflection.

Jung once observed that our neuroses were in fact our private religions, that is, where the bulk of our spirit is actually invested. H. L. Mencken once observed that one could hardly go broke under-estimating the taste of the American public. I would change that to suggesting that one cannot go broke under-estimating the role anxiety management systems play in governing our lives. This is natural given the fact that we are both launched on a perilous journey, which ends sooner or later in death, and are conscious of this prospect all the while.

No wonder we spend so much time hiding, or seeking distraction. Such diversion is understandable even as it is lethal. Nearly four centuries ago the French mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal observed that the court had to invent the jester because even the King might grow troubled if he were obliged to reflect upon himself. Pascal concluded that divertissement, or diversion, had become the chief role of popular culture. How much greater are the jester-like distractions of our time.

The majority of persons I see in analytic therapy are in their 50s and 60s. All have achieved productive lives and possess considerable capacity for insight and self-direction. This is what has brought them to therapy for, as Jung observed in the 1920s, more people came to him because of “the general aimlessness of life” than overt psychopathology. When I mentioned this fact in a recent radio interview, the interviewer, herself educated, said, “But we were told in graduate school that old people didn’t really change.” I don’t know who those instructors were, or how old they were, but they were wrong.

Of course as people age they can grow ever more cautious, timid, fearful, rigid, and resistant to change. We see that in the divisions which beset our country now. But is it’s clear to me, and anyone who works with a psychodynamic perspective, that our psyche wishes to grow, to develop, to bring new things into the world. As I have put it elsewhere, we need to periodically ask, “What wants to come into the world through me?” This is not an ego-driven, narcissistic question. It is a query which summons us to show up, to serve something larger than the familiar, the comfortable. Surely one of the most telling tests of our lives is whether we are living in a way which is driven more by challenge than by comfort, one which asks more of us than we had planned to offer.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that merchant vessels hug the coast line, but men-o-war open their orders on the high seas. Every day we are cast upon the high seas of the soul. Whether we wish to be or not, we are already there, and have orders to show up. We begin showing up when we ask ourselves where are we blocked by fear, by lack of permission to live our own life, by self-doubt? What do we gain from staying stuck? Where is life served by our staying stuck? Who, or what are we waiting for before beginning our real life? How does staying stuck help anyone around us?

If we think our life dull, routinized and repetitive, we may profitably think more on our predecessor, our brother, Odysseus, and why someone 2,700 years ago thought it so important to write about the twin perils of fear and lethargy. It seems as if they have been our companions for a very long time now; yet every day we are summoned anew to high adventure on the tenebrous seas of the soul. Living our lives, and not someone else’s, calls us to voyage, and if our familiar structures falter, then we swim.

James Hollis, Ph.D., Jungian analyst in Houston, TX, author of the recently released book, Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives and the best-selling book, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life.





Embracing Mortality, Living Authentically

The subject of mortality may or may not come up overtly in my therapy sessions, but it is always implicit, always hovering about the conversation, always seeking to pull us back down into a special thoughtfulness. Today I was talking with a woman who lamented some of the roads not taken in her life, and, with a chagrined expression, said, “and this is where I will always be, always falling short.”

“What are you so afraid of,” I asked. “It used to be of what people would think, or who would be there to take care of me if I did what I really wanted to do with my life. And today, I guess I am afraid of dying.” “Well, you traded freedom for security and wound up with neither. Isn’t it time you decided it might be worse to relinquish your fearful grip than fear the end of your life?”

If, as is sometimes argued, anything that separates us from nature is pathological, a grand denial, a self-estrangement, or moral evasion, then surely our flight from our mortal nature falls into the “neurotic.” When Jung said “neurosis is the flight from authentic suffering,” he was asserting that we cannot evade suffering, only be captive to its neurotic evasion. Of all of our defenses, our most primitive is denial, greatly abetted by distraction, which is the chief “contribution” our popular culture makes to us. What other culture evolved complex systems to present extravaganzas of sport, exposed flesh, political circus, and programmed violence equal to ours? Well, perhaps ancient Rome, panum et circum, bread and circuses to distract, divert, and entertain the masses. Are we pleased by this comparison?

While it is natural for that slim wafer we call “ego,” namely, who we think we are at any given moment, to bob and wave, and hope the scythe of the Grim Reaper passes over, it is also the surest course to deeper levels of despair and anxiety as inevitability exerts its will. Underneath so many of our neuroses, our pathologies, both private and societal, is the elemental fear of death. This fear is not pathological; it is natural and normal. What becomes pathological is what it makes us do or what it keeps us from doing with our lives.

There are some strange paradoxes to be found here in this fear. Is it not a greater fear to arrive at the end of our journey, however long or short it may prove to be, and recognize that we were not really here, that we did not live our journey? I recall that as a young person I twice walked up to receive an advanced degree thinking, “if I had known they were going to graduate me, I could have enjoyed this whole thing.” I considered then, and even more now, those as rich periods of life lost to anxiety and compulsive coping behavior. I have learned a bit from those and other moments of clarity. At the end of our life would we be inclined to say, “if I knew it was going to end, I could have enjoyed it?”

By “enjoying” I do not mean frivolous wasting of time, or hang-dog obeisance to duty, but having risked investing our energy in whatever provides deep satisfaction to us. If that emotional reciprocity between investment and return is not present, then it is not right for us, however strong our social conditioning. Through our timidity we relinquish the gift of this journey. If there should prove to be an after-life, then it is another life than this one, with another agenda. This is the only one of which we are sure.

Another paradox lies in the fact that it is precisely because our journey is limited that our life has meaning. If we could simply do this or that for a century, and something else for another, then life would lose its bite. The emperor sitting on the veranda with nothing to do but munch grapes and seek diversion has a most miserable life. The slave who lights a fire of freedom in his mind’s eye, the gladiator who says yes to the combat that comes to his door, the woman who sacrifices for her child’s possibilities are infinitely richer. All of them will and do die, but how did they live while here?

So, in the presence of our symptoms: the troubled marriage, the persistent self-sabotage, the eroding addiction, we may all be brought to a larger place by a periodic consideration of mortality. What am I afraid of, really? What shabby excuses are holding me back? What does life ask of me as this point in the journey? Where will I find the most meaningful experiences of my life?

When we ask those questions with sincerity, and summon a measure of courage, we will find that we are too busy living a fuller life to be side-tracked into Angst-ridden swamplands or distracting way-stations. It is all right to be scared; it is not all right to live a scared life.

James Hollis, Ph. D. is a Jungian analyst in Houston, TX, author of 13 books, the most recent of which is What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life.



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