Is there a place for sadness? (On depression)


Something happened in the last few decades. Quietly, with no notice and without discussing it, grief and sadness were renamed to “depression”. It all happened gradually and without anyone noticing. And no one seems to know how and why that happened. Depression became a brand, a franchise, the theme of the morning talk show. Everyone is welcome to diagnose himself. Experts in the media are constantly talking about it, but taking great care not to actually say anything. We are constantly told how to recognize the symptoms of depression, but no one is explaining to us what it actually is and why do people suffer from it. At the same time the term was stretched to encompass any and all suffering and gradually lost its meaning altogether. That is why the text that follows is not about depression, but about something else, which is so rarely discussed today.

In a way, life is a long line of separations and loss. There is a peculiar universal balance of receiving and giving. Anything that we gain in life one day will be lost and in the end, we will lose life itself. When a person loses something dear, he grieves. But grief is not just some painful emotion or a “negative” experience. It is not merely an unpleasant feeling that we must endure till it goes away on its own.

When a person grieves that which was lost, he thinks about it – we think about the love that left us forever, about the shattered dream or the future happiness that was suddenly rendered impossible. The adolescent may secretly grieve the end of childhood and the adult, without knowing it, may grieve the end of adolescence and youth. A person may even yearn a certain image that he had about himself – an image that he has to let go of. Sometimes to lose a lover is more than losing his affection. It may also mean losing the nice image that the other had of us. A version of us, that we grew to love and believe in, is now all but gone.

When someone close to us dies, the process of accepting this loss is called mourning. Every culture in the world has established traditions and customs surrounding mourning. In the village, the town or the community in general, there is a symbolic space for this grief. It is accepted as something perfectly normal and inherent to our lives. In some cultures you can tell the widow or the widower simply by the way they dress. The clothing alone can tell you whether the mourner lost a child or a parent. There are traditions which define the way you should address a person in the different stages of mourning. Cultures have specific customs and rituals related to the departure of the dead and to the comforting of the grieving relatives.

All of this helped those who lost their loved ones. Traditions played a crucial role in consoling and guiding people through their sadness and helped them accept their loss. And although all of the above has to do with death, we can clearly see how loss in general was thought of and handled in the past.

Unfortunately something very dangerous is happening today. These rituals are gradually abandoned and the symbolic space for grief slowly disappears. There is no place for sadness anymore. Every loss (no matter what it is) must be immediately swept under the rug. Any grief must be quickly stopped at its tracks, before it goes out of control as if it is some contagious disease.

When you seem kind of sad, everyone asks “What`s the matter?”. But usually people don`t try to listen, understand or share this pain – they just want to find the quickest way to cheer you up and take your mind off of it. Few people are ready to just listen and acknowledge sadness.

To be happy all the time, to pursue your dreams, to not think about the past, to keep a positive attitude, to live here and now – all these are unavoidable slogans that are being aggressively shoved in our faces, day and night to the point where it has become grotesque.

But practice shows us, that such recipes lead to even more problems. This happens simply because the process of grieving is much more than simply suffering, like we do from physical pain. A loss must be put to words, it must be thought of. When in our sadness we think about the thing or the person that was lost, when we talk and share, we do something incredibly important. We give meaning to this loss, we put it to words and little by little we find its place in our intimate world. The loss is thus inscribed onto us and we make our peace with it. It stays with us always and marks us. It changes us and often times it helps us get our feet back on the ground by reminding us what is truly important in life. A deeply intimate truth must find its own place in our inner world and become a part of our personal history. We must inscribe this void in our own private narrative of life which no one will ever hear, somehow accept it, make our peace with it and allow it to stay there.

When we do not go through this process of grieving and acceptance, when there is no place for the meaning of this loss, and instead it is discarded from our minds, then we sink into an even deeper pitfall. In the beginning things may appear to be ok – we force ourselves not to think about it, we consciously try to make ourselves believe that it wasn’t that important at all, that it`s irrational to be so sad and that we just need to be stronger, forget everything and move on with our lives. We constantly seek something that would distract us, take our minds off of it, almost as if to switch our brains off. And more often than not we succeed. Unfortunately this has become increasingly easier with the endless ocean of audio-digital fast food that pours constantly from the screens of all our devices. And gradually the current carries us onward in life and in a way we do forget.

But what follows will be much worse and getting out of this trap will be even more difficult. Because practice has shown over and over again, that when buried, the lack of the thing that was lost becomes a lack of desire. This loss that was never accepted and castaway from our inner world returns. It comes back as if from nowhere, completely disguised and what is now missing is desire itself.

This is probably the most important aspect, which many people don’t really understand and few experts attempt to explain to a broader audience – depression is not an endless inconsolable grief over something in particular. Quite the contrary – it is the lack of desire itself which is something much more painful in a very different way.

To live without purpose or passion is a human misery unlike any other. The thirst for life is gone and the current drags you on without resistance into a life, where you remain just a passive observer. You look at the world through a thick piece of glass with the feeling that “life” is happening elsewhere, to others and not to you. This is an entirely different way of suffering. A type of pain, which is very different than that of “not having” and only poets can truly describe it.

Psychologists and psychiatrists may argue, and rightly so, that the forms of depression vary greatly and that there are other important sides to it. But as I said, this text is not really about depression, but about the fact that we have stopped trying to  learn how to lose and part with each other. It is probably the most important skill we need in life and it is becoming unthinkable.

To learn to let go is of course difficult, it takes time and life is a true teacher. But our culture is changing in a terrible way and is not helping us, on the contrary – it hinders every attempt. Of course it is only natural to try and save yourself from the suffering and the pain. We all learn along the way and there is nothing wrong with trying to take the easy way out. But when being happy all the time becomes a commandment of society and no one says a word about sadness and loss – then you know the deep trouble that we`re in.

We live in a world where “to have” has become a religion, and there is nothing unusual in the fact that losing anything has become unthinkable. In the end it turns out that people are willing to do anything, just so that they don’t acknowledge a simply truth.

The virtue of being honest to yourself has degraded so much. How easy it has become for people to maintain foolish fantasies and lies, and to go around convincing everyone in their absurd made-up stories, as if to convince themselves. And the world around them is quite ready to accommodate this dangerous folly and to feed off of their desperate attempt to deny a simple truth.

It is really amazing how people manage such incredible reasoning acrobatics in their minds, only to support an imaginary version of their world, such as it was in the past. It is truly horrifying how the memory of people that are gone can be erased from existence, as if nothing ever happened. We see it all around us – mothers who throw out all family pictures and memories of the father who passed away in order to “protect” her children. We see young lovers who break-up and immediately find themselves someone new, as if they are replacing a broken TV. We see these parents, who simply cannot let go of their children, cannot accept the end of their children’s childhood or their own role as parents. Maybe this is precisely how a certain incapability is passed on from generation to generation.

Separation is a natural part of life and it leaves a mark on us all. From the multitude of mourning traditions around the world it is evident, that in the past these things were very well understood. People knew that loss was something deeply inherent to life and that it cannot simply be discarded, nor can the past be erased without a trace. It has to be acknowledged and accepted. It has to be given a meaning and a place in our inner world. Otherwise it’s shadow will haunt us forever.

Today the notion of depression has been stretched beyond all limits, so that any form of suffering could medicalized, diagnosed and treated with medications. But such a treatment remains just another way to avoid acknowledging and accepting the loss and the truth about what it meant. Many people blame the pharmaceutical industry for pushing and marketing antidepressants as the preferred treatment for depression, and they have a point. But as powerful as the business really is, I don`t think it is to blame.

Our entire culture has devolved – true sadness and grief have become abnormal, they don`t fit in the imaginary world of “endless opportunity”, movies, TV or in the perfectly photoshopped images on Facebook. On the surface it appears as if grief is accepted with compassion, but in reality you are aggressively pressured to get rid of your misery as fast as possible. Billboards, street signs, TV shows, movies, blinking ads on the internet – in a grotesque and vile manner we are forced to obey the only real laws that remain in our culture – “Enjoy!” and “Do not grieve!”.

If someone is sad, than that obviously can’t be normal, right? “Something” must have gotten into him. It’s much easier to say that someone “has” depression. As if he caught a cold or “has” the flu. When you “have” depression, it sounds like you have an ache that interferes with an otherwise perfect life. It has nothing to do with you, your past or with your life in general. What’s the big deal with taking a pill for your ache?

And so the years go by, the number people with depression skyrockets and so does the use of drugs. And the cured… I don`t know how many people were cured of their depression and what that depression really was. What I do know, however, is that there is simply no substitute for the truth about what we lost and that rejecting our grief can lead to only one thing – a much more painful and different way of suffering.

The saddest part of it all is that many psychotherapists, that ought to know better, are ready and willing to work with people, who sought them out for help, by teaching them new and elaborate techniques for deceiving themselves.

But it is definitely not any innovative therapeutic approaches that we really need. What should happen is that this most human of all torments should be heard and accepted, and one should be encouraged to go back step by step to that place, where there are yet no words.

by Valentin Jordanov