There’s something about depression that makes it unlike any other infirmity to which a human being might be subject. Whereas other infirmities affect the physical existence of the body, depression is something that affects our very Being. Of course, there are many other mental infirmities to which we might be subject, but depression is something that seems to ride along with all the other mental infirmities. Depression does not seem to come upon us from the outside; rather, it seems to be something that reams out the very substance of our souls from the inside. While neuroscientists and psychologists alike appear to have done a good job of understanding depression, they yet have not managed to explain what is perhaps the most profound dimension of depression. This dimension of depression is something which the sciences and self-help gurus can’t quite seem to get at. Despite these experts’ best efforts, depression, in many aspects, yet eludes their understanding. I suspect that what they fail to understand is that the individual experience of depression—or of any conscious experience, for that matter—is something that is irreducible to some material cause. No one person can fully experience another person’s first-hand experience, notwithstanding the greatest advancements in brain-monitoring technologies.

It is in this sense that we must inextricably face depression alone. There is no one that can fully walk alongside us in the wilderness of our despair. Each person’s experience with depression is his uniquely his own. This is not to discount the efforts of doctors and concerned individuals in helping someone to overcome depression, but it is to say that there is a limit to which these individuals can do so. When I think of this, I am reminded of a rather ubiquitous Friedrich Nietzsche quote: “And if thou gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”[2] Of course, Nietzsche is hardly the person you should be reading if you are feeling depressed (or perhaps he might be precisely the person you should read from when depressed). That being said, there is something that we can loosely extrapolate from his statement: that in order overcome depression, one must face it head-on.

Staring depression in the face is something that can be very hard to do. As I said before, depression seems to ream out the very substance of the soul, leaving us as the spiritual husks of the people we once were. At the same time, however, it becomes slightly necessary that we let depression ream us out. Depression is something that helps us to come to know ourselves in a more profound sense. As it is when a home that has been emptied of its furnishings seems unfamiliar to the person who has inhabited it for years, so also is the soul to our very selves when it is emptied of its many accretions. It is with this emptiness that we come to be even more familiar with ourselves.

Contemporary depression treatment methods are terribly deficient in that they fail to remind those who suffer that it is oftentimes OK to hurt. Of course, there are instances in which it is genuinely not good for us to suffer, but that is not always the case. In our day, depression seems to be viewed as an illness that can be overcome in much the same way as one would overcome an infection of some sort. Happiness has become fetishized in our society, and thus we look upon anything less than happiness as undesirable. As a result, happiness-mongering has become a booming business. The more mental disorders doctors can diagnose, the more anti-psychotic drugs can be sold.[4] With this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that an ADHD diagnosis under the etiological criteria of the DSM-IV manual (used in the US up until the instatement of the DSM-V manual in 2013) is three times more likely than an ADHD diagnosis according to the etiological criteria of the ICD-10 manual (currently used in Europe).[5][6]

I do not mean to discredit contemporary psychiatric treatment methods, but I do not find them wholly pragmatic. In a society that is obsessed with being happy, the quick, easy, and ultimately fruitless paths to happiness are the ones most people seem to opt for. And thus we see that the technocratic supremacy of contemporary happiness science has dominated the conversation on depression for quite some time. Though most in our contemporary society do not subscribe to the materialistic notion that human beings are entirely reducible to matter, many seem wholly sold on the idea that there is a material solution to our innermost afflictions. This comes as quite a surprise to me, since one would expect that a predominantly Christian society would carry with it a predominant belief in the existence of some sort of immaterial soul that is wholly distinct from the body.

Nevertheless, the materialistic account of our Being seems to be the measure by which people address their mental infirmities. It is William Davies has so brilliantly stated:

What has always been so seductive about the science of happiness is its promise to unlock the secrets of subjective mood. But as that science becomes ever more advanced, eventually the subjective element of it starts to drop out of the picture altogether. Bentham’s[7] presumption, that pleasure and pain are the only real dimensions of psychology, is now leading squarely towards the philosophical riddle whereby a neuroscientist or data scientist can tell me that I am objectively wrong about my own mood. We are reaching the point where our bodies are more trusted communicators than our words.[8]

By all that I can identify, this utilitarian takeover of contemporary happiness therapy is the work of the aforementioned Jeremy Bentham, who, with John Stuart Mill, made popular the notion that the whole range of human emotions is ultimately attributable to measurable levels of pain and pleasure, and that we should do all that we can in order to increase pleasure and reduce pain for the greatest number. Bentham’s influence becomes all too apparent when we see that the World Happiness Report, a committee appointed by the UN to analyze the collective happiness of the world’s nations, explicitly states in its report that its purpose is in accordance with Bentham’s philosophy.

But the utilitarian approach to happiness seems quite unsatisfactory because, as it seems, there is a dimension to our very being that, despite our best reductionist explanations, cannot be entirely reduced to matter. To me, this is the most compelling argument against materialism: that our materialist approaches to resolving the infirm nature of the human condition have been unsuccessful. Inasmuch as we treat ourselves as merely matter, we will miss the mark of unlocking the secret of happiness. It is when we start to recognize and treat ourselves as transcendent beings that we will come closer to understanding our infirm nature. Some of our infirmities simply cannot be figured out by looking at our brains with an fMRI machine, nor can some of the most penetrating infirmities of the soul be healed with a simple pill. This is not to say that such treatments are wholly invalid, but I fear that our society has placed far too much faith in them.

I suppose the only alternative to the hard materialist approach to happiness is that we start treating human beings as actual human beings. And yet what a strange notion that has become in our day. I should not hope to suggest that we turn away from materialism when addressing our innermost problems, but I do mean to suggest that we not become dependent on such approaches. Let me be clear: If you, the reader, are suffering from depression, you ought to get adequate professional help as soon as possible, especially if you are feeling suicidal. Should you be having suicidal thoughts, I strongly encourage you to get professional help immediately. It is not my desire that you completely turn away from the contemporary methods of addressing depression. My only intention is to show that facing depression will ultimately require more of us than merely taking a pill or undergoing psychiatric therapy.

As I said in the beginning, the most profound dimension of depression is something that penetrates to the deepest layer of our Being, and thus it is something that no neuroscientist, or pill, or psychologist can get at. But I doubt the happiness technocrats of our day would be willing to acknowledge such a truth, as such a concession would do much to undermine their credibility, and with that their ability to make monetary gains. But reducing monetary gains in the happiness business seems to me to be precisely the thing that should happen. If our approach to dealing with depression is going to be founded upon some underlying business model, then the secret of happiness at a societal level will remain forever from our reach. We are human beings, and we need to be treated as such. I don’t mean to sound cliché here, but finding a way to get through depression will not ultimately come from the happiness technocrats; it will come from within. Depression is an infirmity of Being, and thus it must be dealt with at the individual level of Being.

I have dealt with depression many times in my life, and I have even dealt with thoughts of suicide at times. The point in my life at which I had my harshest bout with depression was my first year at college. Despite the exhortations of friends and family, I adamantly refused to take antidepressants for reasons which even I didn’t fully understand at the time. I can only describe my feelings at that particular point in my life as a perpetual emptiness. I would look upon sleep with yearning, and upon waking with dread. It was a truly terrible time in my life, and yet I look upon that period with a sort of fondness. Though I did suffer, I also learned a great deal from that experience, both about myself and the world around me. It yet remains a mystery that I managed to get through it without appealing to some form of professional treatment. I suppose I could tell you about how I managed to escape, but I don’t think that such an explanation would be particularly useful to anyone other than myself. Each person’s path through depression is going to be unique; thus, there can be no universally applicable solution. As I said before, overcoming depression is something that occurs from within. You must both stare into the abyss, and let the abyss stare into you.

I don’t intend to be melodramatic here; my past experience with depression pales in comparison to some of the sufferings and experiences I have witnessed in other people. That being said, I should not understate my former situation. I truly was having sincere thoughts of suicide at one point. I do often find it strange that I, having lived such a privileged and fortunate life, should have found myself in such depths of woe. If anything, this should suggest that the causes for depression cannot necessarily be attributed to the circumstances in which an individual might find himself. I should acknowledge that there are many individuals who have a genetic inclination toward depression. But, if there is any merit to my criticism of materialism, that should suggest that our genes does not fully determine the nature of our Being.

At any rate, my ultimate purpose in writing all of this is that we not wholly rely on the technocratic supremacy of happiness gurus and doctors to overcome depression. Depression is more than just an illness; it is an experience. We should not hope to find the solution to our woes by only looking outside of ourselves. Once you begin to search the abyss that is your soul, you will start to find that there is a profundity to your soul of which you were not previously aware. If you wish to escape from the abyss, you must first search it. And in so doing, you will have to let the abyss search you.


[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p. 41

[4] Healy, David. “The Latest Mania: Selling Bipolar Disorder” PLOS Medicine, vol. 3, no. 4, 2006.

[5] Singh, Ilina. “Beyond polemics: science and ethics of ADHD” Nature Reviews of Neuroscience, vol. 9, 2008.

[6] Augusto Rohde, Luis, Cláudia Szobot, Guilherme Polanczyk, Marcelo Schmitz, and Silvia Martins. “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in a Diverse Culture: Do Research and Clinical Findings Support the Notion of a Cultural Construct for the Disorder?” Biological Psychiatry, vol. 57, no. 11, 2006.

[7] A well-known 18th century philosopher who perhaps made utilitarianism—the notion that we should do our best to effect the greatest good for the greatest number—popular. While I view most of his theories with nothing but contempt, I must recognize that he is perhaps one of the philosophers that has influenced our modern society more than most people realize. But more on this later.

[8] Davies, William. The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. Verso, 2015.

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