Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Per aspera ad astra: ‘Through adversity, to the stars’

A famous study cited in Wikipedia showed that people suffering depression had a more accurate understanding of the world than their more optimistic congeners, and plausibly it has been argued that depression may actually be the rational response of an intelligent mind to a human world spinning into self-obliteration. Paradoxically, too, some of the world’s funniest people — actors, talk-show hosts, humor writers and comedians — tend to suffer from depression, and some say they have saved themselves from going truly crazy by finding the lighter side of the darkness.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Moon explorer Buzz Aldrin was weighed down by depression but achieved escape velocity.
[ Image Source ]

I, too, have much personal experience of this. Ever since childhood (and if you experienced my childhood, you'd understand), I have in varying degrees experienced the anguish of this condition. Sometimes, it’s the voice of depression whispering insinuations of self-contempt and resignation to injustice; this voice is the most insidious of them all, for it speaks to me in my own words and in my own tones and timbre, and it calls itself the voice of reality.

At other times, especially when we’re assailed by neighbors who want to prove their wood smoke is harmless by asphyxiating us with it, sewage fumes seep noxiously from under our bedroom floor, officious sociopaths plot our destruction, and I can find no ally with both the power and the desire to help, black tsunamis of despair tower so high on every side that I can only hope for the end to come as soon as it can — or wish to help it along.

I know the signs of depression better than most. My wife was diagnosed a decade ago with chronic clinical depression so severe and disabling that, thanks to her having been abandoned by every significant male figure in her earlier life, she cannot be left alone without collapsing into anxiety. I know, too, despite my lack of a formal diagnosis, that I am also depressed.

Why have I not sought diagnosis and treatment? I think it’s mostly because I know I’d get little real help in dealing with the roots, and be given instead an anti-depressant to prune the branches. And such psychotropic medication, I think, would dull me to the very real darkness that must be overcome by the power of moral intelligence lest despair become pandemic.

The master metaphor I have in mind is that of Odysseus and the Sirens.

You will recall that in some translations of the Odyssey, the ship making its way back to Ithaca had to pass a perilous coast surrounded by rocks that would sink it if it were not steered with precision. On that coast were the Sirens, who sang a song of such lethal loveliness that any who heard it had to sail closer that he might hear it the better, and would founder among the rocks and perish. But to pass the coast in safety, one had to hear the tide among the rocks.

There was only one way to survive this test, and only Odysseus knew what to listen for, so he had himself bound to the mast, telling his crew, in essence, “No matter what I might say to you, no matter what inducements or appeals to friendship or threats I might utter, no matter how I may scream and thrash and cry out to be freed, promise me this: that you will not heed me.”

He then had all the other members of his crew seal their ears with wax, that they be not tempted by the song.

His ship approached the coast. Odysseus heard the song of the Sirens, and screamed in vain for his deafened crew to free him, that he might cast himself into the sea and swim alone to hear the song that they could not. But Odysseus also heard the tides, and as he pointed the way among the rocks, the steersman followed his direction, and the ship was safe.

I have found a few strategies that sometimes — not always! — help me resist the Sirens’ song while I yet hear the tide. For me, chess has been of aid at many times throughout the years, for in it I can lose myself and silence for a moment the insinuating voice and find a tunnel through the black tsunamis. And still better is to write, for then the darkness becomes my muse and I can hope to contribute something of lasting value and beauty to the world that will remain when I am dust.

In Arabic: Al-alami ilhami: My pain is my inspiration.

Originally published as a review of a article on depression and how to survive it.

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