I know this will come as a shock to some of you, but I’ve been considering depression lately. Not its emotional resonance, the experience of it, but the reasons behind it.
Among the various philosophical camps I’ve found those who believe firmly in a genetic explanation, a sort of depressive’s predetermination. The unluck of the draw. Another camp holds it springs from our own beliefs, the accumulation of fetid thoughts. A subsect here gravitates to traumatic injury, victimization, expressed in the psychologist’s “anger turned inward” definition.
Then there’s the workout club and their physiological explanations. Diet. Allergies. Power lines. Pollution. (Per usual, some ultra-conservative religious thinkers still root into the muck of broken minds to find “sin” behind it all.)
With the malady at epidemic proportions, I hate to muddy the waters even more, but I’m compelled to offer one more explanation for depression’s prolific gestation: social injustice.
Now I was raised on tri-colored parades, colonial-era drums and flutes, pride in the Founding Fathers and that wicked thirst for self-determination that severed trans-Atlantic ties with a violent clap of revolution. While I haven’t entirely abandoned all of that, I’ve had to do some heavy editing to the history I was introduced to as a child, coming out the other side a far less black-and-white thinker.
This grayscale applies to searching out causes behind depression. With so much good material out there, I can’t figure why anyone would subscribe to just one theory, unless they’re trying to sell a book or a religion. I am wary of simple statements.
When it comes to simplicity, the political conservative’s credit for our nation’s wealth, for instance, still being placed at the feet of Providence is one of the nastiest. This ‘hallowed’-but-hollow narrative I’ve had to weigh against the bone-cold fact of early America’s genocidal politics responsible for wresting the already-inhabited land from others one broken treaty at a time. Against the millions of indigenous people killed in various military campaigns and taken by European disease.
Credit for the nation’s startling rise on the world stage overlooks the inconvenient fact that the wealth of the land was stolen from the Indians and mined from the soil with the capture and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of African men, women, and children, consolidated on the backs of the offspring who followed.
In short: The roots of our liberty were not just fed on the blood of tyrants.
I came to learn these things a few years after the close of the war in Vietnam, a few years before I listened to President Ronald Reagan announce that he had signed legislation that would “outlaw Russia forever.” A promise that U.S. planes would “begin bombing in five minutes.”
This is the same time I became aware of the chasm between the poverty of the many and the material comfort I enjoyed among the few (including a wealth of nature despite a nearly inner-city location: lush, sprawling backyard, a nearby park, and a wild creekway not too distant).
I was offended by political leaders who would joke about massive military strikes against civilian population centers. But more than that, I was deeply saddened to come of age with realizations that humanity had reached a point where the very thesis of warfare was not just a bloody win on the battlefield but the extermination of entire peoples.
Against the staggering reality, I became a speck of dust in the gloom of an approaching global internment camp.
Despite the collapse of the Soviet state and Cold War, the world continued to shrink even as the likelihood of our ultimate undoing rose with the specter of global warming and climate change. If it were just a matter of a handful of imbeciles running things, it’d be one thing. They could be dealt with. But we have an institutional dysfunction much more nuanced before us: a conspiracy, in fact, assuming one subscribes the most basic definition of the term: “collusion by those in power in order to maintain power.”
Psychiatrists would have classified my disorder at fourteen as depression surely. Few would have noted the illness’ links to my feelings of hopelessness and despair (that’s understood). None would have tracked it back to historical patterns of injustice or the ongoing global instabilities kept warm by those same institutional power structures.
Just something that’s been buzzing around my head since observing so many smiling photos of myself as a child. So many things I can track it to, my depression. My too-often-absent father chief among them. But my onset of depression was also a philosophical event that diagnosis has repeatedly given short shrift.
Today I answer the challenge of an intentionally destabilized earth with a simple pledge to tell the truth, to live that truth, to the best of my ability. I can’t tell you how many jobs I can’t work because of it, but I’d wager all the major banks and energy companies are on my personal black list.
If only I could play and sing like Johnny.
While maestro Cash reworked the verses of “As Long…” into a mildly insipid love song for his wife, the version that landed on the album Bitter Tears ends with increasingly incensed verses and a chorus that challenges the listener.As long as the moon shall rise. (Look up!) As long as the river’s flow. (Are you thirsty?) As long as the sun will shine. (My brother, are you warm?) As long as the grass shall grow.
And, yeah, it’s depressing to think those aren’t all the reliable metaphors for forever they once were. What are you going to do about it?
Note on the image: Australian silver medalist Peter Norman (left) joined the two Americans in wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his uniform to protest racial segregation in the United States and elsewhere. According to Wikimedia Commons, the source for this image, Australia’s railroad recently built a “noise wall” in front of the well-known mural “that now prevents rail travelers from seeing the work.”