22 Days of Musing: 8

Day 8. Shadows and daylight.

Tonight’s reflection is going to draw on some poncy philosophy, which I hope you don’t mind: as I said to a good friend today, many people have said many things at many points in history, and many of those words are far better than mine. I spoke in yesterday’s reflection about the way in which depression’s intractability is owed partly to the fact that it disables and attenuates exactly that part of the psyche that would otherwise help the sufferer seek treatment for it. For some people, this disabling of their drive to act is so entrenched that it prevents them from seeking that help at all (and I know someone just like this, someone who suffers from chronic untreated depression and a fundamental lack of self-esteem, but who’s rationalised not seeking further help by cultivating in themselves a mistrust of the entire field of mental health professionals based on a prior bad experience). Such is the paradox: those who need the help most desperately are often those who have fallen so far down into their own private abyss that they can no longer see light anywhere. And like the cavern dwellers in the seventh book of Plato’s Republic, who’ve similarly become so accustomed to seeing only dim shadows cast by fires on the wall as their only and therefore apparently “true” perception of reality, they may often lash out at one who’s ascended up out of the darkness to see the world we know illuminated and enriched by sunlight:

Would he not provoke laughter, and would it not be said of him that he had returned from his journey aloft with his eyes ruined and that it was not worthwhile even to attempt the ascent? And if it were possible to lay hands on and to kill the man who tried to release them and lead them up, would they not kill him?
– Plato, The Republic: VII.517a

Plato sought to speak primarily about education – or perhaps enlightenment is better – and its lack, but this is absolutely relevant to understanding depression as well. One who spends long enough in the pit becomes accustomed to the absence of light, and comes to accept an almost perfect dark as the norm, but such a one may also resist all attempts by others to raise them out, either through sheer inertia or active contrariness. My own experiences with depression have shown me that you have to realise it yourself: that if you need help, you must seek it out yourself, and all the help others can give you is of use only if you can first find a shred of will that still survives on the floor of your oubliette, even if it be hidden at first beneath inches of dust. There’s another metaphor involving illumination that I find useful in this aspect, though this one from Egyptian thought rather than the Greek. The funerary texts we call the Book of the Dead were used by Egyptian people to ensure that a part of the soul – the ; roughly, the sum of attributes that go to make an individual unique – was able to continue living after the death of the corporeal body. In Egyptian, these texts were referred to as rw nw prt m hrw “Spells of Coming Forth into Daylight”. I like this phrase and its cultural context as a metaphor for moving forth out of depression as well: emerging from the darkness of an emotional death of sorts, and entering into the daylight of renewed emotion, of being if not fully able, at least better able to feel pleasure; joy; humour; wonder; love. To do so, you have to write your own personal rw nw prt m hrw, in a sense. If you want to come forth into daylight, others can offer “spells” – techniques with great potential or exercises or materials for thought – that have worked for many people before you, and they may well work for you too, but you need to try them in order to discover which ones will succeed for you, and then you can add them to your own spellbook so you can reuse them when necessary. It’s a powerful thought and reassuring, that a written list of thought exercises from the psychologist, loving texts from friends that can be reread later, a folder of silly image macros that always call up involuntarily chortles, a hand-painted canvas with a strong fortifying quotation on it, can together act as a small (or sometimes large) push forward in helping me come forth into daylight – or, at least, come forth out of the darkness.

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