Back in 2008, I was recovering from a terrible bout of depression. I wrote often in my journal and on a (now defunct) blog about depression, desire, and moving forward. This post was one of my favorites.
The thing one learns about depression is that is primarily a crisis of desire. It isn’t a spiritual or a philosophical problem, nor is it a degree of sadness. Sadness and depression are not analagous. Sadness is a thorny flowering of a deeper happiness. Depression, on the other hand, is a lack of momentum in desire.
What is it that we desire? Commonly, we are wont to think of the particular objects that we desire: success, love, etc. The list is lengthy—and irrelevant, because underneath or behind all our particular visible desires is a deeper nonspecific desire, a generalized wanting. There is a void at work in the human person that is akin to the weatherman’s low-pressure front. It moves forward, drawing itself along and drawing others into itself. Along the way eddies of wind and even torrents of rain are produced, but these are just the visible effects of an invisible movement.
And this is good! This desirous gap is what drives us out of bed in the morning, what propels us after the things we want, what enables the human dynamo. When this void is moving forward, it does so in part with the help of inertia, and all is well. But when that inertia is threatened, when the generalized wanting comes to a halt, well, then everything is in a shambles! The self loses the motor force that sent it springing off the mattress every morning in hot pursuit of fame or fortune or a better sandwich cookie. The self despairs of its visible objects, feels its desire fading. It remembers what it was like to want, but only dimly. One finds oneself saying things like “I want to want…”
The problem doesn’t end there, however. The self, at some level, recognizes that behind all its particular desires, there once was a broader desire (I think the Greeks called this void eros but I may be mistaken) that made wanting possible, but now that desire is gone, collapsed, stagnant. In its frustration, the self tries to forcibly, muscularly jumpstart the ailing eros by various fixations and obsessions. One sees such a person resurrecting old abandoned hobbies and passions, or calling up wistful memories of “the one that got away,” etc. When this fixation occurs, when the self becomes obsessed with the always-already-defeated task of wanting to want again—that is the start of depression proper.
So what is the solution? I don’t know for sure, but I have an educated guess. I think that the void is only able to regain its momentum to the degree that one avoids interference with it. The void works best by being allowed to be a void, pure and simple. In other words, leave it alone. Depression is one of those rare problems best solved by doing as little as possible. It is for this reason that one who is depressed needs friends so desperately. Without desire, the task of daily life becomes an unbearable burden. Even the will to make toast, for example, has disappeared. But the only way to keep one’s mind distracted from the recovering void is to press-on through all the mundanity of life. The act of making toast takes on a self-salvific importance it never had before. It is imperative that I make this toast in order that I avoid the temptation to try to resurrect my desire to make toast. It is making toast as an end in itself, which, as anyone who has been through depression can tell you, is no small task. If one has friends to encourage him and to, ultimately, distract him from his depression, the problem will solve itself. What a strange problem, that.
Originally posted November 12th 2008.