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The Way of Depression

© 1997 by James Dolan


I want to say some words, about fifteen hundred to be exact, on the topic of Depression. Depression the clinical entity. The feared, the hunted, the repressed and medicated -- the great psychic shibboleth of our age and culture. Depression, the horned black beast come to snatch life and health from the grasp of the young and healthy, the old and infirm, the children, barely started in their lives.


It is now touted as "a treatable disease,",or in common parlance "a chemical imbalance." Allergens, insufficiencies of light, inherited tendencies, the too rapid uptake of serotonin in the brain, all of these are postulates in the war against the enemy, Depression. Whatever the specific natural history assigned to the ailment, the fantasy governing its treatment has to do with turning it into something "treatable with medication."

That is, we want it to be something that can be made to go away and not bother us any more, so we can go back to our workaholism and consumerism. Back to ignoring our kids and our souls as we fret about our retirement funds, back to living our lives on the surface of things in which there is nothing troublesome about the depthlessness of existence. "Back on track" as the depressed and non performing executives are want to say.


hen I tell the new patient that he is experiencing depression, his first response is one of denial and fear. His denial and fear also reveal some of his depression's cause. This is so because he does not see himself as "one of them" i.e. one of those so weak and out of it as to be depressed. He sees himself as strong, and powerful, a Herculean fantasy lurking just below the level of consciousness.

If someone such as himself were experiencing something so shameful as depression, surely, wouldn't it have to be some dreadful dysfunction of the brain, or the season, or the gene pool? How could it be something that he himself could own, and be responsible for? How could he have FAILED so utterly? At all cost, he must disown and dissociate himself from something as shameful as Depression.

Before we became smart enough to medicalize Depression, and create it as a disease to militate against with medication (which it is adapting to and learning to resist, by the way, just like colonies of cockroaches and certain strains of bacteria), Depression was known as the Fall. It was understood as a basic condition of human life, and was the result of hubris.

"Hubris" was the condition of the mortal man who attempted overthrow or do without the gods. Such a man was Odysseus, and the entirety of his story has to do with showing how his foolish pride continued to get him into trouble with Olympus.

To the Buddhists, what we call depression was a basic given of existence, the inbuilt 'suffering' of all sentient beings. "Suffering" is synonymous with "longing" and to my mind is identical with what the Greeks called "hubris."


hus it is my understanding that the experience of depression has a story that goes with it. Even the nastiest, deepest, most despairing, black depressions, the kind that seem to emanate from what must be a sick and non-functioning brain. The story has to do with profound rage, the rage of the ego that would deify itself and become equivalent with god.

The ego would eat from the Tree of Knowledge and get away with it. We attempt to become perfect, to control and make the world over in our own image and likeness and we fail, again and again. And we fall into a rage at our own human failures to become perfect, perfect in the eyes of the inner critic that constantly informs us that the only way to avoid utter failure is utter perfection, achievement, and outward 'success.'


To me, depression is about rage, and it is the helpless rage of one who has attempted to transcend his humanity. But it is this depression and the repeated bouts of hopelessness and the search for the way out that is precisely the cure for what is ailing us. What kind of monsters would we be if we were one hundred percent successful in our attempts at control and mastery?

Then we each would be his own God, and this world, already a dangerous place, would become uninhabitable. Depression tolerated and suffered with, eventually accepted, has the capacity to move us to depth. We are no longer the straining, driving Hercules ready to knock over whoever wonders into our paths. We see the folly of identifying oneself with God.

We begin a spiritual search, such as the one Dante wrote about in the Divine Comedy, as he began the business of finding his way out of the dark and dreary wood. Thank God he never found Prozac. Had he, then we would not be in possession of the wisdom that he put in our hands 800 years ago as he showed us the depression that lies at the center of all our lives, and which we each must find our way out of, in our own way.


he Way, as Lao-Tze put it, seems to be the Way stumbled upon as the mists clear and we begin to let go of our compulsive self deification. It is a Way that we recognize because, by being on it, we are at peace. And when off the Way, the misery returns, born of longing and renewed pretension to divinity. As Lao-Tze points out, this Way cannot be spoken, as it lies in one's own heart and can only be followed, not spoken.

I will close by saying let us cherish our depressions, as they humanize us and help us to become ourselves. The search it instigates launches us in the directions our destinies beckon us to, we surrender our heroisms and associated savageries. We come to understand ourselves as dependents of the universe, not one of its rulers, and we find our Prozac in the daily spiritual practice that keeps us "on the beam" as they say in AA -- following the Way that Lao-Tse described three millennia ago.


James Dolan, M.A., is a 46-year-old psychotherapist
practicing in Dallas, Texas. He works with men's and
mixed groups, as well as with individuals, and has
a special interest in the psychology of dreaming,
creativity and imagination. E-mail James Dolan

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