How I avoided Depression

The original title of this article was “How I Overcame Depression” because it sounds more spectacular and is more likely to propel me into the realm of fickle yet immensely enjoyable Internet fame. But I didn’t want to lie. I don’t believe my symptoms, burdensome and debilitating as they were, warranted the diagnosis of clinical depression. I just experienced mild despondency. To be sure, I did live in an alternative universe, but that by no means justifies labeling my experiences at will.

 

Symptoms

Around the shortest day of the year, which happens to be my late mother’s birthday, I found myself in the corner of the smallest room of my house, hunched over my most loyal companion, my laptop. I was binge-watching the Netflix series The Walking Dead. There were no weekdays, there was no difference between day and night. It was an escape into a more meaningful world, a place where all the character’s actions had immediate relevance for the group. Watching the series and identifying with its protagonist Rick Grimes made me vicariously relevant. I was needed in Georgia, where I combated formidable foes with Daryl and Michonne, where I routinely butchered walkers, where I even suffered (spoiler alert) the terrible loss of my beloved wife and then my son — but it was all bearable because I didn’t lose my sense of relevance. Until the end of season eight, which happened on a nondescript day sometime around 4 am. I would like to say next that I just got up and went on with my happy life, but the reality is messier than that. I underwent the festivities at year’s end and stumbled into 2019. I didn’t crave another escape, but neither did I feel relevant. This might sound like a central symptom of depression, but I think it is pointless and inept to self-diagnose.

 

Midlife crisis

Perhaps I am dramatizing my rather mundane experiences too much. As it happens, a few weeks after my exile in the land of the Walking Dead, I celebrated my fortieth birthday. I realized that this could have been about celebrating my achievements, but there were none to speak of. No merry band of friends and family. I spent the days in relative poverty with the two women I love most in this world. On my day of honor, my wife was angry because in a pizza restaurant I couldn’t stop kvetching about our penury. Society would call me a loser, and society would be about right.

A friend on social media told me that I was experiencing the midlife crisis. For someone who isn’t entombed in a formal 9–5 job, this comes pretty much exactly at the halfway mark. A lot of bad boys grow a backbone only after four decades on earth. Hollywood actor Robert Downey Junior seems to have found himself around forty, as did rock star philosopher Slavoj Žižek. I believe that in both cases women were involved. Other male superstars like Jim Carrey and Brad Pitt have battled with depression and they, too, quite gloriously prevailed. What exactly does the trick differs from person to person. I have read about diets, health supplements, sleep, exercise, cold showers, making friend and meeting friends.

I think all of these can be incredibly helpful, and I do pretty much all of them, but it seems to me that they all presuppose some initial spark. Why bother with bench pressing and broccoli when you feel utterly irrelevant and can’t find any meaning beyond the next episode of your show, or your next fix? There must be some ulterior motive to get back on our feet. There must be something that clicks into place, in a way that should be quite visible on an MRI scan of your brain.

 

Narratives

What matters most for our emotional well-being is the story we tell ourselves. What we do every day happens in the context of the story we are telling. We understand how adversity can seem completely different if embedded in a narrative of failure. A bump in the road or a healthy challenge becomes an obstacle that confirms our sense of worthlessness. Rather than auguring future reward, they are an omen of ultimate defeat. We interpret everything in the light of our current narrative, which Žižek calls an ideology. The impossibility to rid ourselves of this private ideology is what makes the illusion of an ideology-free society so dangerous. As my experiences taught me, our identity narrative can be extremely sensitive.

 

Recognition

Last December, I participated in a Dutch national poetry competition, rather bizarrely named after the great Alan Turing. Out of over 7,000 paying submissions, my verse was among the 100 to be published in a book. Finally, I felt a glimmer of recognition. A fragile strand of hope, waiting to be woven into the fabric of my narrative. For a moment, I believed this was not a coincidence, that I had actually reached the point where society saw me for what I am. I was rewarded for something I thought was a meaningful contribution.

But I had also sent a book of poetry to a publisher. Early January I received the rejection Facebook message, and I felt the neural pathways of self-pity activating themselves. My mind, like water, sought the lowest point, it followed the easiest path to the drain. The narrative that matches this pattern best was the narrative of failure, the edifice that I had built around myself, a place utterly devoid of passion or pleasure, but at least one that allowed for coherence. I believe that there is an evolutionary root of this narrative coherence. In a group of primates, you can be more successful if your behavior is predictable. If your peers can count on you in the role you assume, even if that is the role of the feeble and downtrodden. In our complex society, this evolutionary tactic has become useless. Whatever these evolutionary origins may be, I did experience my inner narrator seeking coherence.

Within seconds after receiving the message, I had projected myself back into my gloomy castle of negativity, where I derived a modicum of affirmation from the coherence of its interior. The lazy, self-fulfilling story of the loser had again taken the upper hand.

 

Choosing my story

Why did I shift my attention back from the mild exaltation about the poetry prize to the poignancy of the rejection letter? Why did it feel so much more natural to accept the affirmation of my failure than to see received praise as the seed of my success story? Why does my life narrative prefer to slip into failure?

The narrative of failure is compelling because it easily achieves coherence. This can quasi-intellectually be associated with the law of increasing entropy. When you are used to the failure story, it takes tremendous effort to replace it with a narrative of success.

I didn’t, of course, exchange my narratives overnight, both were always there, competing for dominance. About the reasons why the narrative of eventual success prevailed I have as good a guess as anybody. It may have something to do with the awareness of mortality since it was around my birthday that I quite naturally began to move in the proper direction. I became more goal-oriented, I became more interested in food (the other animal pleasure was strangely never absent during my depressed episode), I slept better, I gave up procrastination and even faced one of my most gruesome fears head-on: the taxman.

The result, though not instantaneous, felt a little bit like a miracle. At least, that is how I am likely to weave it into my narrative. It is a fine example of self-reinforcement because the interpretation of something as a miracle clearly opens up possibilities. More precisely, it conflates our idea of the possible with that of the imaginable. The world lied at my feet again. Obstacles have become challenges, the possibility of failure has become less haunting. Uncertainty does no longer scare me into conformity and escapism.

In my new story, I became my own toughest critic. It felt delighted when I edited last year’s embarrassing poems. Meaning, if it is not too hackneyed a phrase, lies more in the process than in the outcome.

I probably will experience some backlash in the coming months. Money trouble can drag me down, toxic people or rejection can make me revert back to the narrative of failure.

Depression is gone. But I will have to keep writing to keep it that way.

How I avoided Depression was originally published on Meandering home

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Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Seven years after his The Better Angels of our Nature, the book in which he presented abundant statistics and reasons why violence has declined, Steven Pinker has published an even more ambitious tome defending the idea and ideals of Enlightenment. The controversy that arose from the ‘cautiously optimist’ view he presented in 2011 might have come as a surprise to the esteemed Harvard professor and has likely motivated him to double down on his claims in this new book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress‘.

It is a delight to digest the statistics of progress (decline in crime, war, disease, poverty, slavery, racism) that Pinker presents and discusses in the second and strongest part of the book, although at times it seems that prof. Pinker has made the stats look prettier than a scientific worldview would allow. In that sense, the book is Enlightenment propaganda, and this has backfired as we can read in the many reviews on Goodreads and especially in this in-depth rebuttal by Jeremy Lent and this critique by Guardian columnist George Monbiot that focuses on the environment.

Every serious critic agrees with Pinker’s enlightenment worldview. Unfortunately, as these critics have pointed out, he might have succumbed to enlightenment zealotry, which might have led hem to defend the Enlightenment against a benighted strawman rather than against its own unforeseen and unwanted consequences. There are some occasions of cherry-picking and rather annoying ridicule of Marx, Nietzsche, environmentalism and the dangers of strong AI.

The Enlightenment cannot function without a healthy dose of skepticism. Monbiot writes: What looks like a relentless enhancement in human welfare could emerge instead as an interlude between one form of deprivation and the next. Another reviewer accuses Pinker of defending an ‘anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt.’

The story he presents at places like the Economic Forum in Davos, the story that is bought by the likes of Bill Gates, is a heart-warming and hopeful one, to be sure. The idea that we humans have come so far can foster more solidarity as we go forward solving the remaining problems – and the new problems that will arise as an indirect result of the enlightenment, such as environmental degradation and rising inequality, which Pinker has attempted to defuse out of fear they could be used as an argument against enlightenment thinking. There is the irony of this book: By exaggerating and massaging the numbers on the enormous progress we have made he seems to obfuscate the most important property of an enlightened position: that of relentless self-criticism and the willingness to engage with opposing views, so long as they are reasoned.

This critical self-awareness has now come from his serious critics – a reminder that the Enlightenment is indeed not advanced by lone intellectual behemoths, but by the concerted efforts and dialogue of humble minds. It is Pinker’s merit that he uses data rather than ideological narrative, and his book is a fruitful starting point of a debate that eschews the ideological in favor of the factual. That doesn’t make the vitriol of either ideological camp disappear, but it forces both sides of the aisle to think more scientifically. A world in which both progressives and conservatives are equipped with better reasons is a better world;-

Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker was originally published on Meandering home

Be careful

Be particularly careful about the following four words: sacrifice, eternity, purity, redemption. If you hear any of these, sound the alarm. And if you happen to live in a country whose leader routinely says things like ‘Their sacrifice will redeem the purity of our eternal nation’ – know that you are in deep trouble. – Yuval Noah Harari, 21 lessons

Be careful was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Persons

The question: What is a person? is more complex than it appears. Indeed, when we recognize the complexity of the question, and forget our assumption that a person should be a human being. We can no longer thing of a picture of homo sapiens, Vitruvian Man or his slightly obese contemporary counterpart, so the concept of a “person” becomes enigmatic.

What about: the bearer of something? The bearer of free will, or rights, or responsibilities? But this is begging the question. A person is recognized as a person when he is considered the bearer of these dignities. Francis Fukuyama writes about this in his recent book on “Identity”, following Hegel that history is the dialectical play of recognition, resulting in the liberal democratic society at the famous “end” of history. Philosophy in this sense is translating common sense into notions, not investigating some underlying substance.

Such “substance” is the domain of metaphysics and it seems dangerous to let that discipline decide what (who!) counts as a person and who doesn’t. This theoretical question will become extremely relevant of course in the impending era of artificial intelligence. As soon as “chatbots” portray the characteristics of personhood and manage to obfuscate the algorithmic origin of their utterance, we can expect action groups advocating a bill of rights for these computer programs. The right to live, for example, translates into a right not to be shut down.

Machines have to pass the Turing test, or generate enough doubt so we have to assume they could pass, in order to be considered persons. The ability to have a human-like conversation appears to be the only criterion for personhood. This seems to excludes other animals. I would argue that we should be as benevolent as we could be in our interpretation of what we count as a conversation. We talk to our companion animals or pets, and there sure is mutual understanding. Some animals also partake in the life of the mind. And just to be on the safe side, why don’t we include them all and assign them some sense of personhood, and a right to life, dignity and the pursuit of happiness?

Judging if we are dealing with a person becomes the responsible task of other persons, in which they give their best effort to discern symptoms of personhood. We are generous with personhood.

Meditation on Persons was originally published on Meandering home

Daniel Bennett (6 Poems)

Discovering new poetry via @underfootpoetry

Underfoot Poetry

Bermondsey Spaces

By the corner forecourt of the Shell station
the man eating ribs from a paper bag
lets a crutch dangle on one elbow,
as he picks his way through want
and circumstance, under the gloaming,
the overpass, beyond the river’s abstract mass.

A light like fine quartz inside concrete
ghosts our day. Low rise houses
shelter amongst apartment blocks
hunkering from the bomb blasts
which preserved them –Bang!–
like a camera flash. Here’s your landscape.

Late spring but winter has returned,
freakish and grey, an old friend talking
about jobs and money, a scavenge for work.
Boys aim bikes down pavements
with thin-eyed accuracy. Or else they strut
hands pushed into undershorts

or they walk, shout and fumble
eat sweets and pledge their eternities
to the craziest of quests. Two young girls
play in the dust blown across plane trees
and scrambled time, the pollen filaments
mixed with…

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