EXISTENTIALISM, MORTALITY, AND THE HUMAN CONDITION
The history of depression extends far back through the ages. It has affected innumerable people and has likely been in existence as long as humankind.
The experience of being melancholy or depressed is at the very heart of being human: feeling “down” or blue or unhappy, being dispirited, discouraged, disappointed, dejected, despondent, melancholy, depressed, or despairing many aspects of such affective experience are within the normal range. (Zimmerman, 1995, p. 1)
In many respects, all of these qualities are normal aspects of human existence. At some point or another, each person will experience these feelings as the natural and expectable outcome of navigating the course of everyday life. One reason for this propensity toward despair—which is distinct from, but may overlap with depression—has to do with the end result of all life, which is death. As sentient beings who are aware of the fact that all creatures must die, our lives are punctuated by an end that we know will one day arrive, and this affects us in a myriad of ways.
Mortality, and our awareness of it as living beings, evokes all kinds of anxieties and fears, particularly since it limits the amount of time we will have to create meaning from the condition of being alive. Shabad (2006) examines feelings of vulnerability and shame in relation to our position as mortal beings who are confronted with the undeniable fact of impending death. Given that death is inescapable, human beings attempt to transcend their mortality through relationships that are intended to create meaning and significance, thereby improving the quality of their lives. This is vitally important in the face of a finite quantity of time in the grand cosmological scheme of existence (Shabad, 2006). Shabad states, “Our quest for answers to our human condition seems to be met only with an impenetrable silence from a universe that won’t respond to our pleas to spare the innocent from suffering” (Shabad, p. 414). The universe remains silent, so we must turn to each other for solace and meaning.
Relationships become monumentally important in combating this sense of isolation within the universe. One compelling reason for the human propensity toward a depressive outlook is the experience of loneliness that is inherent in our being. McGraw (1992) describes metaphysical loneliness as
a ‘master mood’, an all-pervasive and free-floating apprehensiveness concerning one’s aloneness as an infinitesimal episode within the oblivions of infinite time and space. One may feel anchorless and adrift in the boundless expanse of the galaxy of disjointed belng(s). Things seem out of place; they are without connection and continuity, and one feels the precariousness, fragility and contingency of human existence. (p. 321)
Given that the capacity for loneliness is an inherent aspect of human life, and this leads to the experience of pain, there are many cultures and religions that value a depressive outlook. One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that life is suffering, and only by accepting this can a person prevent the further perpetuation of his or her own angst by faulty perceptions of reality. In fact,
From a Buddhist standpoint, it is not a cognitive distortion to see the world and human existence as dangerous, unsatisfying, painful, and meaningless; rather it is irrational not to see the world this way. Such negative appraisals can be thought of as the beginning of wisdom. (Woolfolk, 2002, p. 22)
In Christianity and Judaism, one of the first human actions as described in the Bible is Adam and Eve’s sin against God, which brings on suffering, sorrow, and death for all of humankind. When they eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Eve is condemned to bring forth children in sorrow, and Adam is told, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:16-17, King James Version). They are expelled from Eden, lest they eat from the tree of life and become immortal. This story sets the tone for an existence in which people must toil all their days, repentant for their inherent sin, only to die at the end of this struggle.
Although there are many variations on Judaism and Christianity, and not all those who practice believe in the presence of heaven and hell, these concepts further reinforce the idea that life is suffering, or at the very least there is something more significant than life on Earth. In this way, the concept of an afterlife is simultaneously a denial of mortality and a fantasy that life will end with a culmination of either our greatest fears (in hell) or our utmost hopes (in heaven). It also provides meaning to a narrative that seeks purpose; for some, the purpose of life can be defined in moralistic tones—if they are good, they will be rewarded, and if they are bad, they risk eternal damnation. This serves as an organizing factor for what can be interpreted as a chaotic existence in which we have little control and must make our own rules by which to live.
The valuing of negative emotional states can be seen in Islam as well. According to Woolfolk (2002),
Muslims, in general, see grief, sadness, and other dysphoric emotions as concomitants of religious piety and correlates of the painful consequences of living justly in an unjust world. The ability to experience sorrow is regarded a mark of depth of personality and understanding. (p. 22)
Conversely, descriptions of the English found in 18th-century French writing link melancholia with moving away from religious orthodoxy by way of political protest and civic engagement, and in this way, melancholia was associated with freedom and liberty (Gidal, 2003; Hopes, 2011). Nineteenth- century English romantics “promoted melancholy as a route to a deeper understanding and connection with human emotions, and as an important component of experiencing pleasure and joy,” whereas the Ancient Greeks “saw melancholy as supporting a balanced life, tempering and refining other emotions,” including happiness (Smith, 2014, p. 448).
Many philosophers since the beginning of time have tried to make sense of the human condition, and their pursuits have led to a variety of conceptualizations that approach the realm of despair. An in-depth exploration of these theoretical positions is beyond the scope of this book, but they are raised here to further contextualize the ubiquitousness of human suffering. Pain is an intrinsic part of being alive. But in many respects, it is our very capacity to feel such depths of sorrow that enables us to experience a wider range of emotions, including happiness and jubilation. In this way, emotional experience can be both a gift and a curse. It is precisely this heightened awareness of pain, loss, and suffering that allows us to become attuned to the rich rewards of life when we encounter them. The difficulty is that sometimes a person can get stuck and become hyper-attuned to his or her own suffering, and at that point the agony becomes problematic because it can be incapacitating. This state is even more dangerous when the individual does not have anyone who is willing to be receptive and to bear witness to the pain so that it can be better tolerated, if not overcome entirely. This conundrum is at the root of depression.
There are many different ways of conceptualizing and recognizing depression. There are physiological symptoms, such as lethargy, insomnia/hyper- somnia, a lack of or increase in appetite, unintentional weight gain/weight loss, and slowed movements. There are the emotional effects, such as sadness and irritability, social withdrawal, a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, diminished libido, and tearfulness. And there are the extremely negative thought patterns that often accompany depressed feelings, such as being hypercritical of self and others, paying particular attention to negative aspects of events and circumstances, and expecting to be ridiculed, misunderstood, and/or excluded. These qualities are merely symptoms of a much larger condition. Understanding them collectively as common manifestations of that condition helps us recognize when someone is depressed, and this, in turn, can lend itself to seeking and providing treatment for afflicted people.
The journey toward developing this understanding has been long and fraught with difficulty and obfuscation. Its place in recorded history can be traced all the way back to the time of Hippocrates, who described what we know as depression today in terms of a humoural theory of the body. In order to better understand any conversation on depression, we will need to go back in time to place modern perspectives into a historical context. For only in looking back can we discover how far we have come and in what direction we are headed.