It’s hard to talk about sadness. It’s an unattractive phenomenon, one that most people shunt off to the corners of their lives with secret thoughts and their stuffed animal collection. People are increasingly inclined to talk a little about “depression,” which in the modern nomenclature has become an unheralded bogeyman waiting in the shadows to surprise any given unsuspecting person for no reason whatsoever. Increasingly, all sadness is depression and all depression is a function of such random caprice that it would make the Old Testament God blush. The idea of even talking about why sadness might be happening or what might be causing sadness (or what, other than the latest under-tested concoction of Big Pharma, might help fix it) has been labeled as uninformed and undesirable. I know that the model a lot of people are using is that depression is a disease (and, by extension, all sadness is diseased), but at least people try to trace the spread of germs and how one got the flu and what steps people can take to avoid or cope with the flu in future. Whereas depression and sadness have been bundled into a package that looks for all the world like an airborne anvil.
Depression is not a disease. The mind is not just another organ. If you personally disagree with this perspective (hello, most of you), I think it’s useful to consider that you don’t live this way even if you think you believe this way. You may philosophically believe that your brain is a series of malleable chemical reactions that have no external significance (or indeed that the idea of significance at all is constructed), but you still find it rational to sit down and make a decision. In fact, those more inclined to believe in things like absolute determinism or the complete physicality of everything are even more likely to put rational calculated thought into all manner of decisions, ranging from where to eat breakfast to where to attend college to what to do with one’s life. This is not the behavior of someone who truly believes that their decisions already have a pre-determined outcome or they are a robot pretending to be self-aware. Such a person, taking their beliefs to heart, would most likely just start making every choice by gut or intuition, realizing that the charade of careful calculation was merely window-dressing for something that was already resolved without their consent. You can choose to believe that this is a delusion, that we are habituated to not resign ourselves to randomness even though we should. But in the end, it has nothing to do with the way we actually approach our lives. Even the most hardened materialist or determinist ponders how they are feeling and what they want before deciding something. They don’t live as though their beliefs had validity. And at that point, are they actual beliefs?
If someone claims to believe in God but in no way acts morally or as though their decisions meant something, most people would probably describe them as somewhere between hypocritical or not religious. If someone says they believe in the rule of law, but they constantly break it, no one is going to label that person as a law-abider. If someone says they believe in technology’s power to fix problems but they shun computers and cars while living in the woods, chances are we’d call them a Luddite sooner than an engineer. Which is all an exemplary way of saying a widely affirmed cliche, that actions speak louder than words. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are no determinist materialists anywhere in life.
And thus I am uncompelled by the notion of depression as a conspiracy of chemicals in the brain that culminates in sadness. Or at least sadness unbidden, irrational, and irrelevant to the life of the one who is sad. You can tell yourself a story where we just like to tell ourselves stories and we find a reason for the sadness, but that’s pretty akin to telling yourself a story where all the stories are just convenient fictions we invent and thus we don’t actually learn anything or grow or change or follow a course or accept the influences of any of the world around us. Materialists seem increasingly fascinated by the idea that experiences or thoughts or feelings can actually change the chemical composition of the brain and they act like it’s some revelation that there may be some reality to, well, reality. Studies utter self-proclaimed profundities like “thinking you’re happy can actually make you happy” as though happiness were some objective measurable quantity because some chemical compound roughly aligned to the observed phenomenon in a few prior studies. Of course thinking you’re happy can make you happy – that’s what happiness is. Being sad is sadness. And it happens for reasons. Logical reasons. And sometimes illogical ones. But ones that are traceable and explainable without a technical degree.
I know it often feels like it happens “for no reason.” There are lots of reasons for this! We like to deny things to ourselves. It is one of the primary defense mechanisms that humans, the consummate survivalists, have – to find ways of believing that everything is fine even when it’s not. It is decidedly unsurvivalist and unadaptable to believe a saber-toothed tiger is a legitimate threat to one’s corporeal existence. Far better to believe, naively, that the tiger poses no threat, that one eats saber-toothed tigers for proverbial breakfast, that it won’t take much thought or care to live past the encounter with those sharp teeth and razor claws. The inconvenient truth is that the encounter will be challenging and likely deadly, but facing those realities in the moment with anything other than a glib disregard will lead to the fetal position and so much carrying on, which does not feel intuitively like it maximizes the chance of survival. Voila, denial.
And because of this natural intuition, this inclination toward staring reality in the face and saying it ain’t so, we have developed the expectation of hubris, the expectation of feeling like things are more okay than they are. This expectation and adhering to it has probably been rewarded in all societies across the human spectrum, but perhaps never more than in modern America. The US anoints the careless attitude of disregard, of denial, of carrying on without feeling as strength, putting sobbing and the admission of challenge as weakness. There’s a reason that James Dean and so many drug-addled rock-stars are our heroes while those who question themselves or openly cry in public are lampooned. We aspire to the reckless disregard for reality and disdain the careful sobriety of calculation. We want to taunt the tiger rather than run, even when running is safer. It’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s dangerous.
But it is dangerous. Constantly denying and tamping down one’s emotions, especially sadness, is dangerous. And I know a lot of the form you think this is taking, the volcanic phenomenon of denying one’s own feelings for years until they explode in deranged behavior or tormented tirades. And that’s true. But it has larger, institutional implications as well. A lot of what saddens people, especially “for no reason” are larger inequities and injustices in societies and across the world. How can people be starving in a world where the US is dotted with luxury hotels and cruise liners? How can people shoot other people, in uniforms or plain clothes? How can a world that has congratulated itself for ending slavery be perfectly happy to incarcerate millions and make others financially indebted and beholden to those who happened to be born rich?
When I ask these questions in my daily life, out loud, it almost always makes people uncomfortable. People accuse me of being depressed and depressing. People ask me to stop, that they want to get through their day and be functional. This is a larger institutional process of denial. Realizing the shortcomings of the world, especially those that are hard to fix or appear intractable, is a challenge to making fluid progress through that world. And yet, it is also that instinctive denial that makes the problem intractable in the first place. If everyone were thinking about these things all the time, they would be so upset that fixing them would be a matter of survival. (Which, incidentally, it is to those being maltreated by these problems.) But because we have the power of denial and can lampoon depression or call it a disease or just say some people are naturally more inclined to it, then it’s all too easy to return to the desk job making the wheels of injustice and inequality turn, turning up the music, and shutting out the nature of reality.
True, sadness can be crippling. Debilitating, paralyzing. It is not always a call to action. It is rarely a siren call for change – just as often, it is a swan song of despair. This is what makes it scary, what puts it diametric to survival in the perception of so many. Why we are so afraid of even acknowledging it, let alone breaking down and letting it wash over us. This mere reality – the terror of sadness, especially the deep sadnesses brought on by the larger problems of the world or the deepest problems that we make for ourselves personally – is almost entirely responsible for the drug problem in the world, itself perhaps among the top five issues that we deny daily. People can’t face life unhappy, they medicate themselves to mask the thinking and the pain that comes with it, and they change their diet instead of changing themselves or the world. What sustains drug use is often addiction, habit, or environment, but the prime mover of almost all of it is sadness. And thus the use of mind-altering substances enables us to pretend that we aren’t as sad as we are.
But we are sad. And it’s okay. It’s okay to be sad. And saying that it has rational explanations and reasons, things that can be faced and fixed, is not the same as saying that it’s the fault of the person who is sad. Depression as a capricious thief in the night is not the only model that avoids victim-blaming. Depression can also be heightened awareness of the world as it is, which should drive someone to do what they can about it, to try to alter themselves and the world to make things a little better. But it’s not that person’s fault if they aren’t strong enough to make those changes and instead end up in a periodic puddle on the floor. Sometimes the right reaction is to be a puddle on the floor. Sometimes the tiger in front of you is real and has you cornered and facing your mortality is more useful and meaningful than pretending you are a tiger-slayer. And if you could pop a pill or quaff a drink that convinces you that you’re a tiger-slayer (or far more likely that tigers simply aren’t dangerous), it won’t make you any less dead in five minutes. Realizing the gravity of a situation is actually often the only true antidote.
And sometimes there aren’t antidotes at all. Sometimes the world is just saddening. And acknowledging that is true and powerful and better than glib denial.
Being sad is strong. Admitting weakness is strong. One first has to recognize that these can be valid perceptions at all, that these are part of reality, in order to engage with them. The shape of sadness ought not be a phantom, a wispy thing blamed on things beyond our control. It ought be embraced and clutched close as one of many tools to be used to interact with the world as it truly is. Not as a mere series of chemicals to be tinctured and controlled, but as a vibrant and meaningful place that we can organically change for the better.