Battling Depression in a Recession: the Psychology of the Cave
Do you know the difference between “having NO reason to keep on hoping and trying” and “having a reason to NOT keep on hoping and trying”? You should.
In this period of soul-destroying lost and vanishing jobs, declining incomes, home foreclosures, eroding hopes, crushing debt, crushed spirits and crippled wills, it’s not surprising to hear the worst-affected and afflicted say, “I have no reason to go on”.
What should be more surprising is that any of them would think and act as though it means “I have a reason to NOT go on.”
We frequently come across news reports about individuals and families that have indeed given up and stopped trying to make it, instead, sinking into deep psychological depression, as well as further into their own personal economic depression, living in the family car, under a bridge or even in a cave.
I don’t have to read them, because I have spent the last month listening with grave concern to a lifelong friend plagued with horrible brokerage business setbacks that have led to current hospitalization for acute depression. But I haven’t just listened. I’ve also intervened in the way that I intervene best: by trying to reframe and analyze toxic thoughts to overcome them with very clear, very important rethinking. In this instance, I have endeavored to explain to my friend, who is now very susceptible to feeling helpless and hopeless, the difference she has usually failed to see between (and the importance of the difference between) 1. having NO reason to keep trying and 2. having a reason to NOT keep trying—which are, despite any superficial similarity, fundamentally and importantly not the same.
The Wisdom of Puppies, Dolphins and Flies
As every living thing except us humans instinctively understands, these are indeed not the same. More importantly, having NO reason to go on trying is logically and emotionally no justification for thinking or imagining one has a reason NOT to go on trying. Puppies, dolphins and flies on the wall don’t formulate any reasons(as justifications) for anything, including reasons to keep trying to keep up with life’s challenges.
They simply do keep trying, by their very instinct-driven natures, even though, because they have no concept of “reasons”, they cannot justify trying and effort. But they don’t therefore conclude they have reasons to NOT keep trying to make the most of their lives (again because they have no concept of “reasons”—since, if one has no concept of having a reason for something, one also has no concept of having no reason for that same something or having a reason for not doing that thing).
Even if they could think about it, they don’t need to, since their life force and survival instincts will propel them, like it or not, onward and ahead into life’s stream, assuring they will tenaciously thrash and float in it. Yes, other creatures sometimes seem to “give up”, but that happens from causes, such as exhaustion, injury or starvation, not reasons.
For them and the rest of life’s kingdom (excluding us), choosing to give up is not an option (lemming cliff-leaping apparently being simple miscalculation and stupidity—theirs, or ours in interpreting it, rather than willful self-sabotage). Likewise, what has been described as the “kamikaze” honey bee that dies after stinging is merely a victim of its harpoonish anatomy, not of heroic or world-weary intent. Yes, deer can collapse and die from “adrenal stress” induced by overcrowding and thereby stabilize their numbers, but that is not self-inflicted through altruistic intention and “sacrifice for the good of the species”.
Equally clearly, Homo sapiens, whether defined as “the featherless biped”, “the rational animal” or “the only animal that can be rewarded in advance” (my definition), is also the only animal that can confuse “NOT having a reason to do X” with “having a reason to NOT do X” (again, my definition).
A Metaphysical Presumption of Innocence
Failure to see the difference between these two concepts can have dire consequences, just as failing to grasp or respect the difference between “innocent until proven guilty” and “guilty until proven innocent” can. If a defendant’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty of a capital offense is unrecognized, the burden of proof will be shifted to him, with a much graver risk of conviction and execution.
Likewise, if anyone in distress assumes that for effort to be worth making there must be proof there is a reason (as a justification, not as a mere instinctual cause) to go on making that effort, that burden of proof can be overwhelming and, in the end, too much. To be fairer to life and to oneself, a presumption of “innocence” is the wiser course: Assume that for effort not to be worth making, what has to be proved is that there is a reason to NOT (or, for grammatical purists, “NOT to”) make that effort, rather than to accept the mere absence of a “reason” as grounds for giving up.
Otherwise, enjoy life’s efforts, even if there is no “reason” to—especially in those non-urgent moments and situations, like baking a cake together or searching for Easter eggs, in which the attempt is just as or even more satisfying than the final outcome, successful or not. (But the same applies to more “serious” challenges, such as going to the Moon: Even if the presumed justifications for doing so did not or will not hold up, some of the spin-off benefits of lunar exploration, e.g., of the related technological development, research and science, have been incalculable, and hopefully otherwise worth the costs in dollars, dangers and opportunities.)
For the very serious matter of coping with unemployment, homelessness or demoralization, bear in mind that even an “exercise in futility” can be healthful exercise of the mind, body and spirit when the only alternative is the paralysis of depression. Given the opportunity to stop eternally pushing his rock up a hill, just to watch it roll back, the mythical figure Sisyphus just might have continued the effort, for the exercise and something better to do than brood.
Our Legacy of Cultural Existential Baggage
In addition to being a very unhelpful quirk of our species, this tendency to blur the vital difference between “NOT having a reason to do X” and “having a reason NOT to do X”, may also be a symptom of an unwise cultural confusion both concepts share: the tendency to imagine that life and living must have a “reason” (in the sense of a justification, rather than in the sense of a causal explanation) or a “purpose” to be worthwhile.
This mistake can be blamed on our Greco-Judaic cultural heritage here in the West, which has burdened us with the legacy of the ancient Greek “logos”—the idea of an underlying reason, principle or plan for everything, whether in the form of a cosmic principle (such as “strife”, e.g., “survival of the fittest”, or “harmony”, e.g., “the Secret”, so popular with New Agers) or “God’s/the Gods’ divine will and plan”.
That kind of thinking, compounded by equally Greco-Judaic notions like “in the beginning was The Word”, incorrectly suggest, that like every word or code, life and effort must have a “meaning”—much like a green light, binary digits, a battlefield general’s coded commands, gathering clouds or a stop sign.
Remarkably (except in this culture), when things go awry and people get depressed, the first thing to pop into many of their heads and out of their mouths is, “life has no meaning”, “this is all meaningless”, or “it’s all pointless”—which is then used to make things seem even worse and to rationalize contemplation of giving up and trying nothing. All this hopelessness then comes to seem even more right, given the extra layer of misery laminated onto life’s more urgent, less metaphysical troubles by slapping a metaphysical “meaningless” label on them.
Meaningless, or Just Not Fun?
Without exception, I have observed that when anyone tells me “life is meaningless” or “my life has no purpose, boo-hoo”, or “It’s all pointless because I have no goals (I can achieve)”, they are speaking in, rather than about, a life code: What they really mean (or should mean) is, “life isn’t fun”, “my efforts are not rewarding”, “life isn’t enjoyable”, “nothing is satisfying”, “I’m not looking forward to anything”, or something like that—some sense that there isn’t a modicum of joy, hope of joy or satisfaction in their lives.
Maybe they need a hug more than a mission.
Maybe, too, what they need is a paradigm shift from “ladder climbing” up rungs to goals and “finish lines”—a shift to a different paradigm: skating on a pond, which emphasizes experiencing the breadth of life rather than the challenges of ascending to greater heights or status.
I think the reason many can’t see this coding is that they are Type-A personalities who define themselves by their feverishly pursued goals and ambitions—especially professional ambitions (often experienced as clawing and climbing one’s way to the “top”). When those are thwarted or invalidated, these Type-A people see themselves as also invalidated and stripped of their raison d’être and “reason for living” or for trying and striving.
This outcome is quite predictable when one considers that such plan-fixated personalities will tend to treat their lives like a 1-ring (or 1-rung) circus with only one purpose, one project, one pony. When that project or pony fails, their purpose, circus and, sadly, (sometimes) they too fail and vanish with it.
To stay smart, calm and engaged, it helps to make one’s circus a 3-ring or bigger enterprise and to ride the pony without identifying with it.
Type-Bs, on the other hand, it seems to me, are either more comfortable with living without plans, purposes, ambitions or projects, or are more relaxed about the one(s) they have.
Life’s a Cave
What the Type-As seem incapable of grasping is that Plato was right to compare our lives to being in a cave (in which shadows on its walls can be mistaken for reality, nicely depicted in the linked, 3-minute clay-animation). But he was right for a reason he never suggested: We can learn from being in a cave (as explorer or as homeless), but mostly because it teaches us that even though the cave, like life itself, is seemingly pointless, meaningless, without purpose or code, and maybe even unfathomable, it can nonetheless be thoroughly engaging and worth fully experiencing and exploring. Indeed, a cave’s inscrutability can be a key, if not essential part of its relevance, charm and excitement.
Like a cave, life’s other adventures, such as wild passions, can be meaningless and fun, e.g., a roller-coaster ride; moreover, “meaningless cave” somehow may seem less like an oxymoron than “meaningless sex” does to some, when for others the latter is merely code for “unenjoyable sex”. In any case, it seems that somehow we can more easily conceive of a cave as both “meaningless” and immensely satisfying—perhaps even if we are somehow forced to live in one for some time.
The point is that, meaningless or not, or meaningfully describable as “meaningless/meaningful” or not, some things are worthwhile for other reasons or causes—things that include caves, sex and life itself.
In the campy 1968 sci-fi spoof, “Barbarella”, starring Jane Fonda as the eponymous heroine, a charismatic revolutionary leader says, “A life without a cause is a life without effect”, after she thanks him for rescuing her. Perhaps, but it doesn’t follow that a (wo)man without a reason is a (wo)man without a cause, as an instinctive impetus to act and live, like those of dolphins, puppies, flies and cave(wo)men.
We may freight our spelunking with our own set purposes (including “causes” in the other Type-A mission-driven sense), but if these are not achieved, the experience of being in the cave or pressing on does not automatically become completely worthless.
Far from giving us a reason NOT to go farther, the cave can give us one of the best reasons to do what we have been naturally designed to do: enjoy as we can what life offers and invites us to explore and challenge, not what we imagine, hope or wish it plans for us or we for ourselves.
The takeaway lesson in all of this?
Life may or may not be a bitch.
But it’s probably more like a cave.
Image: THE MAGIC OF CAVES (Yangshuo, China)/Photo: Michael Moffa
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are not to be construed as medical advice or a substitute for such advice to be sought from qualified medical experts.