“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
There’s a curious phenomenon I’ve sometimes noticed, wherein I find myself not exactly welcoming bouts of depression, but feeling as if they are normal for me—more truly me than other states of being. There’s a dark familiarity that’s difficult to explain, along with a sense that my mind is in some ways clearer, saner, when depressed than it is at other times. Certainly, my concentration often improves when I’m depressed. I’m less easily distracted, whether by good things or bad things; it’s a curious phenomenon.
It’s vastly preferable to anxiety, but I’ve mostly gotten past that over time—having lost one’s career, one’s health, and one’s family, and having spent a few years in Florida State Prison, will tend to make other social concerns seem petty and trivial by comparison. Similarly, fear of pain, and even of death, can be significantly blunted after having gone through enough grief—when one has felt physical and emotional agony that has led one not merely to lose one’s fear of death, but to wish for it, many things lose their ability to intimidate. The greatest fear can then be simply that the pain will continue, that this life will not end. But even that loses its urgency over time, and the pain becomes familiar.
This doesn’t seem to be a universal occurrence, as the many heartbreaking cases of PTSD make clear, but it’s also surely not unique to me. There’s no doubt an accumulation of various life events, interacting with the baseline neurology and physiology of the individual, that leads to some people being hardened by circumstance, and others being eroded or destroyed by it. Which one of these is so in one’s own case can, of course, be difficult to tell, even from within. Even if we accept as a truism Nietzsche’s claim that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” it is no doubt a fact that some things simply kill us slowly.
Anyway, it’s just an interesting fact that often when I’m depressed, I feel sharper, more clear-headed. There’s some data indicating that those with a history of depression are more realistic in their assessment of their own abilities, and of reality in general, than people not prone to depression. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. It’s not that depressed people are more pessimistic in general—though when in the grip of a full-fledged episode, many undoubtedly are—but that they simply evaluate reality more objectively, more accurately, more scientifically.
It may be that taking the blinders of comforting illusion away leads to a truer and more potent understanding of reality, even if it can sometimes nudge one towards despair. Darwin’s “Devil’s Chaplain” has a sometimes-horrifying sermon to deliver on the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” but even such a nature has grandeur and beauty. Its beauty may be all the greater because it does not exist in reference to mere human concerns; rather, our concerns are subordinate to and contingent upon it, and are altogether trivial.
It’s not that the universe wants to destroy us, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has been heard to say in a playful tone (for if the universe really wished to destroy us, we would be destroyed); rather, it’s that the universe does not care about us one way or the other.
There is freedom in this, but as with all freedom, there is responsibility, and the recognition that one’s fate is in one’s own hands, to save or damn oneself and, possibly, the Earth.
Another benefit of the feeling of depression—no doubt part and parcel of the force that eliminates some forms of fear—is the urgency it takes away from mere happenstance.
The Tao Te Ching says that, if you accept death with your whole heart, you will hold nothing back from life (or words to that effect). I’m not sure that’s always true; sometimes accepting death can simply lead to apathy. But apathy can be a form of freedom, too. As long as it’s a position not born of denial, but rather of acceptance, it seems a morally defensible stance, if not one that I want to embrace.
Having accepted that one will inevitably lose everything can be freeing. This is especially so if one has already lost nearly everything that one ever placed real value upon, and come out the other side and realized that one has lived through it—and that one could do so again. One comes to the realization that one is not deeply or profoundly afraid of losing anything, nor even of losing everything. “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.”
I would take this one step farther. Not only do damaged people know they can survive; they know that ultimately they will not survive, nor will anyone else. Far from being crippling, this knowledge can be the removal of an onerous burden. Knowledge that we are ephemeral makes life more precious than if it were eternal, but it also takes a lot of the pressure off. The circumstances of one day, or even one life, are just not all that crucial in the scheme of things. It’s okay if you fuck up from time to time. Indeed, it’s okay if you’ve fucked up your entire life. It’s not a permanent mistake.
That’s some of the freedom, the familiarity, and the perverse comfort that depression sometimes brings me. It has its costs and its miseries—more or less by definition—but it has power, too.