But despair isn’t mandatory
Recently I’ve been thinking quite a lot about depression and about Chateaubriand’s statement that forms the title of this article, though I think it can apply to all of one’s life rather than simply to old age.
There are at least two basic types of depression, though each can be sub-divided into many additional variants:
That which is primarily caused by neurochemical imbalances in the brain; and that which is primarily caused by an awareness of our surroundings.
Neurochemical imbalances appear to result from a combination of factors, the exact mix of which is likely different in each person suffering from the impact. Our brains rely on a delicate balance of neurotransmitters and on the physical composition of the neural tissues; meanwhile dietary inputs and lifestyle factors can nudge neurotransmitter balance in one direction or another, resulting in exacerbation of underlying vulnerabilities.
Studies have shown that good self-administration can significantly mitigate chronic neurochemically-based depression. Unfortunately when a person is suffering from chronic depression, taking care of themselves is often the very last thing they can bring themselves to do.
In such cases a knowledgeable and patient care-giver can make a huge positive difference by taking over some of the tasks of basic self-care such as ensuring daily exercise and adequate uptake of essential micronutrients such as omega-3 acids, zinc, magnesium, and various B vitamins while removing elements like alcohol, mood-altering substances (including most prescription medications, which merely serve to sedate rather than to ameliorate), and excessive dietary inputs like sodium chloride and sugar along with any foods that appear to trigger or exacerbate the depression.
(The obvious exception to the “reduce or remove medications” rule is lithium salts to mitigate bipolar disorder, but most sufferers of chronic depression don’t respond positively to lithium because it appears the mechanisms of action for chronic depression are not the same as those for bipolar disorder.)
The second type of depression arises from a realistic appraisal of the world around us. While most of us seek to distract ourselves with must-watch TV series, social media, and televised sports during the gaps between work and sleep, those individuals cursed with a desire to learn about and understand the wider world will inevitably conclude that for the most part our species is hopelessly incompetent and on balance a very malign phenomenon.
History is little more than one lethal idiotic blunder after another, our social organizations are risibly incapable of dealing with even fairly rudimentary problems, and our advanced technologies are merely permitting us to despoil the planet at an ever-increasing rate. Meanwhile our tiny ape brains remain firmly hardwired for circumstances that pertained over the vast course of our evolutionary history and therefore we are to all intents and purposes asleep at the wheel.
Falling into a deep and persistent depression, however, has no utility regardless of how ably one can defend despair from a purely intellectual or physiological perspective. Few wish to suffer despair; many struggle heroically against it in every minute of their lives.
How, then, may we attempt to resist the deadly downward pull of depression lest we disappear into the quicksand and never thereafter resurface?
For myself, I know from long experience that staying on top of my self-administration is essential. A daily regime of strenuous exercise, a healthy diet based on both the latest scientific data and an awareness of our evolutionary physiological inheritance, and an intentional focus on positive factors makes for me the difference between despair and resilience. I cut away from thoughts I know will be unhelpful and force my mind onto topics I know will help me resist feeling like I should just give up. I let myself feel but I don’t let myself dwell.
I remind myself that our species has made significant progress over the last several thousand years. Slavery is now confined to a handful of backward nations; superstition and religion still stunts the minds of most of the people on Earth but in Western Europe the influence of primitive modalities has been at least a little attenuated. Women in many countries have rights rarely if ever enjoyed since the development of agriculture some 11,000 years ago.
While perfection is unlikely ever to be attained (not least because everyone’s idea of perfection is different and often mutually contradictory) we have in the West recovered from the collapse of the Rome and over a millennium of barbarism and ignorance. We know far more about reality than any human has ever known and although few minds encompass much of this knowledge it is nevertheless available to anyone who seeks it.
Meanwhile our modern technologies, while today being utilized for little more than electronic graffiti, nevertheless could hold promise of so much more.
On a personal level, though I’ve experienced great losses that have left me utterly bereft for long periods of time I’ve also experienced moments of joy I never imagined possible. I celebrate every tiny endorphin jolt that comes from exercise; I revel in the color of a leaf newly-fallen and damp with fresh rain; I breath deeply the air filled with the scent of Autumn and run my fingers over a damp stone wall to savor its cold persistence. These are intentional acts, placing my focus on the myriad small miracles that come from being a sentient creature temporarily able to experience life.
My existence was not a foregone conclusion so I’m determined to make as much of it as I can during my precious moments in this vast and impersonal universe.
My mental image is of someone, pace Chateaubriand, who’s adrift: it’s a vast and inhospitable ocean but if we can find just one thing to cling to, we can stay afloat. We don’t need the positive to be as large as or greater than the negative. Just a small bundle of positive memories, thoughts, or feelings can be enough to hold our heads above water.
And while we’re holding on, we may be able to signal to others likewise adrift and let them know they are not alone.
We may be few, but sometimes it only takes one to see a distant shore and by pointing the way be of help to the many who would otherwise be left to drift in whatever direction the currant takes them.