This was the title of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address given nearly a decade ago, on May 21st at Kenyon College in Ohio. I have not yet been able to read Foster Wallace in long form, but I have read some essays and articles, which I admired.
This is Water threw me. It is so true, and that is what scares me. In the speech Foster Wallace speaks about our reality, how we all choose the meaning we construct in each everyday moment and how, without self-awareness, the meaning that is often automatically constructed is a negative, solipsistic one.
He knew what I know. He, like me, probably happened upon it the hard way. He called it the Capital T Truth of Life Before Death. He knew that it is easy to star in one’s own show; easy when you are young, beautiful, witty and so on. Of course it does not mean that you are any of those things, rather than as the star of your own show, that’s the role one is apt to cast oneself in, at first.
No stranger to depression, did Foster Wallace, like me, kick that persona to one side on a regular basis when the shadow self strutted centre stage. Did he, like me, shrink to the sidelines to watch the world float by, the water, whilst he gulped for air and clung to some mental piece of driftwood each minute, hour, day…
What scares me is that Foster Wallace knew well that there was always more than one way to see the world, and a myriad of interpretations for the self in it. He described in This is Water how to do those cerebral backflips that I do every day: the rigorous workout of the pre-frontal cortex, endlessly seeking alternatives as the meaning of any and every particular reality that will not suck my marrow. What he could not do, it seems, is survive the great weight of feelings that eventually dragged him down. All those headfuck acrobatics could not ultimately escape the gravity of mental pain, which is actually physical, and beyond all other things immeasurably tedious.
So my own prescription is this: choose your thoughts wisely, but feel the pain at least a little every day – and, sadly, some days a lot. There is no real escape. The ultimate avoidance of what seems infinite pain is allowing the shadow self centre stage just a moment long enough to enact a brutal amplification and a passing on to others. It is, as Karen Green, David Foster Wallace’s widow said, always a mistake.
Let the feelings drip, drip, drip. Take the antidotes where one can. For what else can we do? After all, This Truly is Water and This is all there is.
When I first started blogging I was more than happy to rob images off the internet to illustrate my point; in fact, that was half the fun. Now, I tend to use my own photos, and, since I dropped the phone after one too many meetings the other week and it went kaput on me, I also seem to have lost the will to blog.
But not quite.
The problem is, with writing, that if you don’t keep up your daily practice, you sort of create a mental log jam of thoughts and when you sit down to sift through them there are a number of occupational hazards. The first is, that if you are careless, you will end up writing AN UNCONTROLLABLE RANT, TO THE POWER OF TEN. That danger is only amplified when you find you wake up and are living in the UKIP poster county of Great Britain, you still have an OFSTED inspection, a friend dies too soon, a friend of a friend dies (some might say too late), and the 11 plus results are in town.
So let’s not go there.
The second problem is that, if you forbid yourself the luxury of a rant, you will instead find yourself going blank on the idea front. It’s almost as if the rant needs to be cleared out first. Like turning on the kitchen tap in an old house and waiting for the earthy brown flow of water to finally run clear. The thing is, if I even have one reader left, I’d hardly like them to have to read the murky effluent, although I am aware opinion can be entertaining and amusing and, if done well thought-provoking. It’s just that I’m not in the mood. Which brings me to the crux of the matter.
I suppose, to be truthful, I am depressed.
It’s not like I am not familiar with the concept, and accompanying feelings of drag, but, even after all these years (and I suppose it’s thirty at the last count) it still manages to creep up on me and settle in to my bones before I finally catch on. These days I have finally cultivated what could be considered a neat trick to manage it. Feel the feelings and do most of what must be done anyway. Don’t stoke the feelings with thoughts. Retreat to the Inner Citadel, where everything and all is well.
Just do it.
And I do. When I twig on. Which I have.
That’s the statistic in the news this morning; the rise having been measured over the last 4 years.
There are various factors attributed to the increase: the downturn in the economy leading to unemployment and financial difficulties, the improvement of diagnosis, and the lessening of stigma around depression leading more people to ask for help from their GP. And none of that could be logically naysayed.
It’s my *belief however that although these factors no doubt contribute to the increase in prescriptions for drugs that act on our brain chemistry, it is also an indication that we are a society in crisis. I think we have literally lost ourselves amongst all the public selves we construct relative to others public selves, and have constructed for us by the market, education, politicians.
Yesterday I met a girl. I would say, and I have no medical qualification to say this but I have and do work in mental health settings, she is showing some signs of depression. The outward trigger was apparently a lack of money, but on further discussion with her it transpired the lack of money had led not just to practical problems, but was linked to self esteem. And the low self esteem issue, partly engendered or reinforced by lack of money, was compounded by the person’s comparison to others in her circle with more money. And the money represented spending power to create a picture the person has painted in their head about about an imminent life event. That picture is partly generated internally, but it is also linked to and informed by the pervasive images that surround us about how things should look. So we can talk about how humans need to be, but that message is lost because people have been utterly seduced by things and looks. Are we losing sight of our inner selves in the shadow of a manufactured public self which society and the market has shaped and has a vested interest in medicating so that wider society can avoid having to change?
Consumerism has created consumers and the distress that is engendered when they cannot maintain previous levels of consumption is very real.
The sad part of it is that most consumption is entirely ephemeral. No-one asks their lives to be measured at the end in terms of the flat screen tvs, flash motors, or designer clothes they enjoyed. We are being made ill, to some extent, by an illusion and that needs to change but it won’t unless people want it to. And you can bet that the market doesn’t want that at all.
And of course, it’s all good news for the drug companies.
*My bias is this: I have been depressed on various anti-depressants in the past, and I have been depressed without them. No doubt I will be depressed again at some time or another because that is the human condition. I definitely prefer the latter for myself now, but recognise that sometimes, for some people, the drugs do work, so this is not an anti-anti-depressant post…