LACKING AGENCY: WHEN EFFORT IS FUTILE
The unbearable riddle of the other is a term used to describe a sense of helplessness that is involved in understanding the behavior and intentions of significant others within the context of depression (Vanheule & Hauser, 2008, p. 1316). According to Vanheule and Hauser’s (2008) model, there are four components required for feelings of helplessness to occur: (1) The person must be a significant other to the individual; (2) she or he must behave in an unexpected way (which is unsettling); (3) the individual attempts but fails to make sense of the action, thereby concluding that either (a) there is no stable law with which the other’s behavior can be consistently predicted or (b) the unspoken rule governing their social interactions has been violated by the other; and (4) the individual therefore becomes perplexed about the other’s intentions, which are often interpreted as threatening or malignant. This paradigm shift can be traumatic. When someone previously held in positive regard as a benevolent other behaves in ways that are at odds with the individual’s expectations of a benevolent figure, this behavior can feel like a betrayal; someone trusted and safe (who has been let into the inner circle of identity) has become sinister and predatory to the unsuspecting individual.
A key component of feeling helplessness in this scenario is in the attempt to understand the behavior and, in so doing, predict it. When meaning cannot be made of social interactions, the person becomes helpless to behave in a way that will alter them.
Many people who are severely depressed experience social isolation or feelings of alienation from the general population. They begin to feel that they are Other from the common discourse of humanity. The unbearable riddle of the other may be one explanation for these feelings. If this phenomenon were generalized to all human interactions, then the result would indeed be a devastating social loss. After all, one requirement is that the Other must be a significant figure in the individual’s life. But when a person feels socially isolated and rejected, every interaction becomes significant in punctuating that loneliness.
The orality characteristic of depressed people in some ways reflects their struggles with attachment and individuation. Many yearn intensely for a gratifying person to share their experiences with, just as the infant yearns for the gratifying breast. However, the nourishment they seek is of a different kind. It is the precarious balance of attachment, of wanting to be connected emotionally and cognitively in a state of existential unification, yet simultaneously needing to be agentic, autonomous, and individuated. Unfortunately, this often feels like an unattainable goal because it is impossible to ever know another’s experience completely. Although we have some symbolic tools at our command, the ultimate conclusion for many depressed people is that we are born, we live, and we die irrevocably separate, the Other to all others, a fact that is painfully at odds with the human necessity for social connectedness. It is also in opposition to perhaps the most important human need: to be able to represent one’s experiences as lived in a meaningful way to others, to create significance of one’s life so that it is not completely annihilated in the face of impending death. Depression is the microscope that magnifies this struggle, making the depressed individuals uncomfortably aware that no metaphor will ever be sufficient. Impotent to convey a magnitude of meaning, they fall silent, as words fail.