By Prakash Kona
In the popular imagination, reality is about coming to terms with an unjust world where things almost never happen according to one’s sense of deserving. Certain kinds of suffering without a satisfactory explanation often revolve around the perception of having been treated unjustly by circumstances or other people. It could be existential where one may lose a child or suffer the loss of limbs owing to an accident; it could be human-made where one may be denied a promotion despite having all the credentials for a position or be sent to jail despite being innocent. The need for meaning, as Viktor Frankl affirms, is the most human of all needs: one needs to know why one has been deprived of what one rightfully deserves in his or her own view.
This article looks at non-clinical depression, to be distinguished from major or clinical depression, the former being a logical response to perceived injustices of the world. One could be depressed to the point of a near-breakdown, exhibiting symptoms such as fatigue and boredom despite medical diagnosis showing a person to be perfectly normal. Depression, when it is not revealed to be a clinical condition, is much more insidious because psychiatric treatment demands diagnosis through the examination of symptoms based on which conclusions leading to a treatment are drawn.
If being normally depressed is a psychological state in which most people persist with or without being aware of it, one could be in the best of health and still show signs of dysfunctionality for all practical purposes. Most people are readier when it comes to accepting circumstance-based misfortunes rather than those caused by fellow human beings. In an era of uncannily high aspirations and abilities that often do not match those aspirations, non-clinical or state-of-the-world depression is bound to be a normal phenomenon becoming almost synonymous to what we term as real life.
What is Non-Clinical Depression?
“Perfectly normal people” — there is something furtive in the expression itself like a spy in an enemy camp trying to fit in by making all the right gestures that the situation demands. What does a perfectly normal person look like? What are the parameters we associate with perfectly normal behavior? Where is the perfectly normal person? What does he or she do in order to make a living?
For years, I managed to convince myself that if I had enough money or a stress-free job, I would be perfectly okay. That never happened. No matter what I did, in the end I became stressed and was waiting to leave. I could never say I was perfectly okay or even just okay for that matter. What I ought to have asked all those years was: what does it mean for me or for anyone to be perfectly okay?
I did not think a question like that mattered.
I was impressed by Viktor Frankl’s idea that people need meaning in their lives and meaningful relationships could give one a sense of belonging. But, then, how do we measure what is meaningful in a relationship? To what extent can we ascertain when a relationship has attained meaningfulness? But, yes — I do strongly endorse the view that meaningfulness is vital for any relationship. Trust, for example, could be an important aspect of meaningfulness; knowing, for instance, that you have people in your life that would live up to your trust in them. A feeling associated with trust could make you less afraid of circumstances.
The emotional investment we make in meaningfulness is for the simple reason that we do not want to be threatened by unpredictability. Fear of uncertainty is perhaps the most natural of human fears. A trust-based relationship can allay some of those imaginary fears and allow us to be normal individuals because of the confidence that we have people in our lives who are there to be with us in case of any eventuality. At some point in the remote past, this kind of trust must have gone into the making of social groups that took the form of families, communities, and social and political institutions.
Yet, meaningfulness can be as abstract as a cloud in the shape of a face, and a search for meaning could mean hoping that the cloudy face never changes its form. Ultimately, we are individuals before we enter a relationship, while we are in it, and if we happen to leave it. There is a sense of the world around us that makes us who we are: essentially beings that are condemned to be alone. We are alone; therefore, an understanding if not a complete appreciation of one’s aloneness is important for matured social behavior. It makes us less self-imposing on others and a little more respectful of the spaces of others which we know we cannot violate without taking their consent.
Can one’s sense of aloneness be reconciled with one’s need to find meaning in one’s life? As an individual, to what extent am I able to convince myself that I can obtain satisfaction through a relationship rather than through an individual pursuit of goals?
My aloneness is about what I am to myself. It doesn’t mean that I cannot have a friend or a partner who feels with me in the things I do. I can come close to being happy with a partner or friends who give me the time of the day. That doesn’t, however, define me as an individual.
There is a side to the human person which is about finding oneself in the world. Usually that happens through accomplishment of some kind, which brings satisfaction.
The point I am trying to make is that one could have all the reasons for being perfectly happy without actually being satisfied with one’s own life. A person could be depressed to a suicidal point while having a content personal life. A satisfying relationship does not necessarily dispel the need to figure out one’s relations with the world as such. That would be a rather naïve belief to say the least. The role of meaningful personal relationships is when certain conditions are met, such as one’s professional goals are achieved to a fair extent. Broadly, it indicates a society that has attained a certain level of economic development and where individual persons have the time and space to focus on their personal lives. Where that kind of a development does not happen, the personal life is about relating to the world around oneself.
For most humankind, it is about the world. For the fortunate few, the time is given to work on their relationships instead of compulsively going after goals at the expense of their personal lives. At the personal level, it is often about working on exploring meaning through communication. At the public level, questions related to the perception of justice become much more important.
It is in the encounter with the world that one actually gets to know how others evaluate one’s individuality. Through that evaluation, I, as an individual person, am able to come to an understanding of who I am. The quality of the evaluation and the fairness and unfairness of it makes a difference to me as a person. The friction we experience with the world around us, which takes the shape of other people, does not always mean that we are anxious about how people feel about us. It also does not mean that we could stay detached from what is happening around us and happily lock ourselves away in a personal relationship that proposes to give satisfaction.
In any normal setting, people experience feelings of isolation for multiple reasons. However, to say that life is depressing or that people are depressed simply being alive is simplistic and ends up becoming an explanation for what needs to be proved or understood in the first place.
I am restricting my argument to people who are not under a depression as a clinical condition, but are depressed nevertheless because they think that the world is an unfair place or that they have not been given their due as individual persons. This is not just about feeling misunderstood or not understood at all. As individuals or as members of a social group, we have expectations from the group we belong to just as the group has expectations from us as persons. An ideal life would be where synchronicity is achieved between the group and the individual. When that kind of synchronicity is not achieved, people are not necessarily depressed in the clinical sense of the term. They may show signs of perfectly normal bodily health and easily blend into a crowd without showing symptoms of isolation. Yet, they may be plagued with extreme feelings of insecurity which comes morbidly close to a depression.
Non-clinical depression is simply having feelings of dejection without carrying the usual symptoms associated with a major or clinical depression. In this context, it refers to carefully hidden feelings of isolation that the world has either been an unfair place or has treated one in an unfair manner. The condition of the world becomes a cause for depression. A person might have a reasonably good family life — that does not hinder him or her from feeling that that he or she could not make it in an unfair world because it is unfair and nothing could be done about it. This sense of unfairness about the state of the world can be deeply depressing without, in fact, constituting a medical emergency.
Is non-clinical depression synonymous with the human condition?
Are we talking of the human condition as being in a state of depression because everyone has one reason or another not to be happy with the world? Will adding the word “non-clinical” make a difference to how we understand depression in a new light? How is it possible that someone could be normal for all practical purposes, display no symptoms of going through struggle of any kind — in fact, have no crisis in their lives — and yet be going through a terrible depression? Are we depressed by nature as members of the human species, or is it a feature of modern life that is essentially isolating in a way that makes depression real for everyone?
The thing is that happiness as the goal of life has been privileged way too long, blinding us to the fact that most people might not be looking at all for emotional contentment in their lives. What, instead, they might be seeking is to find the best possible way to be reconciled with their situation without having too many contradictions in their minds. How best one is reconciled to oneself will depend to a large extent on what one obtains as reward or as the result of his or her work and the kind of person one is.
In Shakespeare’s sonnet 66, the deserving are reduced to beggary; the undeserving enjoy finery; faith and trust are broken; honors are bestowed upon those who have not earned it; women with dignity are forced into whoredom; truthful people are disgraced; the strong of heart and mind are crushed by the weak and cowardly; art is controlled by authoritarian structures; intelligent men and women are controlled by fools of the worst kind; and truth is made fun of and the good are forced to attend on those who are evil. Tired with the world that does the opposite of what it should be doing, the poet-persona asks for “restful death,” though the only thing that keeps him back from taking his life is the love of a friend.
What holds us to life is perhaps more important than what makes us wish for a painless death. Nevertheless, as Shakespeare’s poem reveals, it is the injustice of the world or the perception that one is not given what he or she legitimately ought to receive that is the source of enormous pain for most people. There might be genuine unfairness, or it is possible that someone might have a notion of themselves which might not correspond to their reality. For various reasons, I might feel that I should be given a salary that is much more than what I am getting because I possess certain abilities that I bring to my job. This does not have to be either true or untrue. The fact is that more and more people subscribe to the view that that their real situation is nowhere near what they deserve. This can be pretty off-putting and could lead to a sense of being unwell without in fact having symptoms of unwellness.
This does not mean that eventually they don’t actually start showing symptoms of illness, whether mental or physical, once they have convinced themselves that something is wrong with them. However, in the beginning at least, we can safely assume that they are well enough to be depressed without it acquiring the status of a medical condition. Therefore, non-clinical depression does not pose an immediate threat to the individual, though he or she could show signs of boredom, restlessness, or feelings of disconnection from the world around oneself. A satisfying personal life in the form of a partner or friends who care, could play a supportive role in preventing one from losing sight of oneself despite being depressed. That, in itself, might not guarantee that someone could be descending into a feeling of listlessness thanks to an internalized sense of failure.
Should such a depression be left alone since it does not translate into any major problem that requires medical attention? Is non-clinical depression a misnomer confusing ordinary feelings of sadness or disappointment with a term like “depression,” which is more or less a medical condition? Of course there is something called “normal disappointment” or feelings of self-pity that everyone occasionally experiences.
There is little doubt that human beings are sentimental creatures — a daily dose of laughter and tears that everyone experiences is as inevitable as the sky above our heads. Every slight feeling of boredom does not automatically imply depression.
The online tests usually given for self-analysis regarding depression often tend to be flawed in terms of the choices given or even the way in which the questions are posed. Anyone who has done those tests knows that you score fairly well on the side of depression. Questions related to feeling the need to be alone do not necessarily mean a negative state of mind. In fact, learning to be alone as a facet of autonomy can actually boost one’s sense of well-being. The tendency to constantly look for company could display a morbid kind of dependence which is not positive and could be a sign of depressed behavior.
Therefore, we have to be careful in providing the parameters we associate with depression. They are definitely not the usual feelings of being bored or sad, which is temporary. Nobody can be excited or happy all the time. Nobody can derive joy from the act of living as if it were a normal state of affairs. Some pain, some joy, some music, some silence, some pudding, some apple pie, some rainy days, some unbearably hot days, some cold nights, and some allergies in the queen of all seasons — spring — that’s what life is made of. We can celebrate variety without having to fear change.
What we call “non-clinical depression” is an acute sense of isolation, a profound self-consciousness that one is standing on the edge of nowhere and staring at the sunset with no emotion as if it were a painting on a wall; a sense that one is uncomfortably lodged within oneself; a tiredness one feels in the flesh and bone without being physically exhausted; a despair bordering contempt for the ordinary joys of life; a deep pessimism that refuses to entertain the possibility of another way of looking at the world; a failure to find beauty in those elementary things that make life infinitely lovable despite all the pain and disappointment; the inability to appreciate the vastness of the hills, lakes, mountains, riverbeds, seas and oceans; the lives of people in other parts of the earth so different from our own and everything about this planet that makes human existence fascinating — such a state of mind eminently qualifies for a depression of sorts without having anything clinical to do with it.
How do we come out of a non-clinical depression?
We are trapped in time, but our life is about space. People are essentially spaces. Either they are spaces in our memory or spaces in how they connect to us. In a poem “The Little Black Boy,” Blake says, “And we are put on earth a little space,/ That we may learn to bear the beams of love.” Once I am aware of the “little space” that constitutes my sense of being, I won’t let my aspirations defeat my sense of well-being. I connect to people in how I am able to absorb the space they bring into the dialogue or the relationship. To acknowledge that people are spaces makes us much more empathetic to individual feelings and less judgmental of how people conduct themselves or the background they come from. A certain language is born in and through a relationship — we need to understand the language or create such a language that enables us to be close to people. In giving words meanings beyond the standard ones, we strengthen the basis of relationships. That act of reaching out to another person happens through a difference I sense between me and another being. It is not a difference that threatens or intimidates me, but one that challenges my imagination and insists that I work on my relationships and not take people for granted.
My space is filled with silence in the same breath that it has both words and music in it. Through silence I learn the meanings of an unstated yearning that makes another person who he or she is just as I discover who I am.
Non-clinical depression is a fairly normal condition because we live in a world where accomplishment is unfortunately measured by having to go through no pain at all. Religion, philosophy, art, and literature would be impossible if we did not have to answer questions related to why we suffer. A world of only science and technology would be a violent and dangerous world where no questions are asked.
The crusades were one of the destructive periods in European history, yet it had a Saint Francis in it who loved everything. Saint Francis combined the poet, the artist, the mystic, and the lover in one and the same person. The happiness of Saint Francis came from absolute love. It would be unfair to expect normal men and women to be in love with water, fire, sun, moon, the birds, and the fishes with the same passion as Saint Francis. But, we need something of that love, a fragment of it, an understanding of human limitation in order not to be carried away by obsession with things like fame, power, beauty or money. After a point of satisfaction, none of those things translates into a sense of well-being, but, in fact, might turn into the source of a depression of the worst kind.
Blake rightly observes that we need to “learn to bear the beams of love.” That is the meaning of the space we occupy as human persons. What the “learning” is all about is not a deep, philosophical question, but a practical and kindly way of responding to life on a daily basis.
My grandmother lived a long and fruitful life. She came from an extremely difficult background and raised ten children. It was a dozen actually, but two of them passed away in infancy. Yet, she was never bitter or resentful and did not suffer from that deadly feeling that life was unfair to her. Having never suffered such a feeling, she took joy in children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Her longevity and fair amount of good health came from a stress-free living, in which she felt satisfied daily without making plans beyond the sunset. She treated every complete day without mishaps as a blessing for which she was genuinely thankful.
If the roots of non-clinical depression are in an over-aspiring society that sees an individual as an end in itself, the answer to it lies in a humane and benevolent attitude towards the world we encounter in the form of people. But, such humanness and benevolence must begin with oneself. I don’t believe that we are born to save the world; I certainly endorse the view that saving oneself is within our purview. All we need to do is to take twenty-four hours as a unit of existence and refuse to aspire beyond that one day of our life. We could have plans that stretch into the long future, but, as far as investing our feelings in those plans, a day is more than enough.
A version of this article was first published in The Abstract Elephant Magazine.