My mom has told me on several occasions that I was a very happy baby, a tiny smiling alien-like blob in a stroller (her words, not mine). I feel like most of my childhood that was the case, not the stroller part but just being content in general. Now, roughly twenty years after that careless time and seven years after being diagnosed with depression I feel quite a bit of recognition for the newspaper headlines talking about the decline of people’s mental well-being. So what better time to dedicate an article to how much life sucks than now; the jolly grey festively cold time of seasonal depression.
When you get older childhood’s naivety slowly fades away and the will to understand increases. This led me to a problem: the more I wanted to understand life, the less I actually understood. There is an infamous stage in growing up that I would call the “why phase”. Kids usually go through this phase when they’re about four years old and it’s very important for their development, both for their understanding of the world as well as for language acquisition. But an eighteen year old who can’t stop asking “why” to everything will eventually find himself at a depth where little light shines. That’s where you end up when descending into the realm of existential uncertainty and you’re only able to keep digging deeper.
There was a time that the chain of why-questioning had an end. When reaching the point of pure abstractness, the incomprehensible itself was the answer: God.
God was the explanation for everything; the comprehensible and incomprehensible, the suffering and beauty, good and evil. Despite the fact that we couldn’t grasp it all, there was faith. He offered us an afterlife, a better place as salvation for our mortality. The answer to all our shortcomings and misery was his divine plan. Everything had purpose, meaning! But then Nietzsche crashed the party and pointed to the fact that the music had been silenced, the garlands had fallen to the floor and god didn’t serve the purpose with which he was entrusted anymore. Life turned barren, that which gave meaning was no more. That sounds rather catastrophic, but it doesn’t have to be. With “the death of God” Nietzsche pointed us to actual human nature. It’s a liberation from the illusion of that which soothes us by answering the tough questions.
The meaninglessness of life and the suffering it entails is quite a burden to bear. Especially in an age where this burden is avoided. And I often feel like that is where we find ourselves right now. There is nothing wrong with the realisation of the meaningless, the problem lies with the society that tries to avoid and suppress it all costs. By pretending to be a utopia it serves the illusion of reaching a goal that sounds amazing in theory. However, in reality it doesn’t work that way. The consumer is overwhelmed by false promises of joy and happiness (as long as you drink the right brand of alcohol life becomes one big party, and if you use the right deodorant you’ll be swarmed by women). The patient receives medicine and has to see a shrink to feel better, cause that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and above all: that’s the way it can be. Social media is the proof of how this norm has integrated into our mindset. You present yourself in the best way possible with the greatest moments, in the best light, a good filter and voilà: your life is amazing. Because that’s what we strive towards, an amazing life, and a life that above all is defined by “happiness”.
April was the month of philosophy. For this occasion, comedian Tim Fransen wrote a book called life as a tragicomedy (het leven als tragikomedie). In his book Fransen points to what he calls “the five dimensions of human deficiency” which make life almost unbearable. One of these deficits, the psychological, revolves around the fact that we are doomed by evolution to pursue our desires. Our feelings tell us that when we fulfill a desire we’ll be happier. In reality we only get a brief moment of satisfaction before a new desire takes the place of the former, bringing with it the same illusion. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer stated the same according to a universal mechanism. We generate desires due to our physiological drives, for example for food and sex, and all these desires implicate a deficiency. But, as mentioned before, the happiness we receive is only temporary. For this reason we are doomed to chase happiness with the illusion of a great outcome, one we’ll never reach.
Schopenhauer makes another point when he said: “There is only one innate misunderstanding, that being the idea we exist to be happy.” Think of all the human rights we invented and all the charity’s we support (or should be supporting). All are intended to shape a better world, one we are all entitled to. But nature doesn’t give a shit. The only thing evolution gave us is the ability to survive. This just happens to work better when we’re unhappy, chasing that which we feel entitled to.
The influence of our desires and the suffering it entails is found throughout the Eastern philosophy as well. The first noble truth of the Buddha is that of suffering. We get older, get less satisfaction from the objects of our desire than we thought and keep wandering around with the feeling that something is missing. The solution that Buddhism gives is to face our human nature. It entails a realization of the influences our desires have in order to gain control over them. In Taoism there is a notion called “wu wei”. The idea here is that we should not try to resist the way things are, especially if they don’t plan out as we’d hoped or expected. This will only bring frustration. The most important thing is to surrender yourself to the universe. Where we don’t have an influence on certain facts, we can influence the way we deal with those facts.Of course this is all easier said than done, but it starts off with a realization. A realization of human nature and the ideals, norms and illusions we expose ourselves to. There is a choice; on the one hand to resist our nature, which has had millennia to develop to what it is now, on the other to accept it, creating a consciousness and making an attempt to live in harmony with what we are. Realizing this is what has helped me in the past years to cope with my depression. I don’t mean to imply that this is the solution for everyone struggling with mental health issues, I’m simply wondering: a world that sees through its illusions, would(n’t) that be better?