“Why should you want to exclude any anxiety, any grief, any melancholy from your life, since you do not know what it is that these conditions are accomplishing in you."
- Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet
I am only as 'out,' if not more, about my depressions as I am about my sexuality. Most friends know about it, and many strangers read it from my face. My dear friend Shakthi once told me that I am one big heart walking around. It is a very flattering description. But to someone prone to depression, it points to other things as well; primarily to the degree of vulnerability we experience. I have also been quite vocal about my bouts of depression, my different modes of combat, etc. But I feel I have reached a crucial phase where I am engaging with the issue in a very committed way, informed by my rather new sense of importance of my own emotional and spiritual well-being. That's where these notes come from.
I am reading this beautiful book, "Sunbathing in the Rain - a Cheerful Book about Depression," by Gwyneth Lewis (Flamingo, London 2002). I find this book very insightful, the writing very honest but also very gentle most of the time. Whenever I think of honesty and truthfulness, I am reminded of one particular session during my Yoga course. We were discussing concepts. Our beautiful teacher, Jyothsna, explained the twin concepts of Satyam and Rtam, truth and the appropriateness of that truth. We talked about the possibility that we walk all over someone in the name of honesty, wielding it like a dagger. We discussed the importance of considering if the utterance of a truth is appropriate for a time and context, if the intended recipients of the truth are in a position to engage with it, if the manner in which that specific instance of honesty is performed is appropriate to that setting, if it would do more damage than good. Considering this book is written for "those who are depressed at the moment and who are looking for something nourishing to read as they go through their terrors," (p. xx) understandably, it has been written with what Amitav Ghosh calls the one word in English language that is known only by its absence - ruth!
However, Gwyneth has a brilliant note on truth and truthfulness in her introduction, which is very strong, and hit me right at the spot that I was shielding from such intelligent attacks. It is not about living truthfully as much as it is about living one's truth. Gwyneth Lewis clearly explains that she is aware of several kinds and levels of depression and that her discussion is "not about the catastrophic events in the blood chemistry but about the kind of depression which seems to be a combination of genetic inheritance, emotional habit and stressful life events" (p. xvi). Her sharing of how she has come to see her depression as "an important gift" is not a sign of nauseating positive thinking but one of acute self-awareness and self-reflection. This journey, she says, began for her when she met the Australian poet Les Murray for the first time. Though Gwyneth Lewis starts this anecdote with a specific reference to her artistic activity as a poet, and its links to mental illness, she expands the understanding as she proceeds. Here's the excerpt:
When I first met the Australian poet Les Murray, who has written his own book on the black dog, he suddenly turned to me and asked, 'Do you suffer from depression? I was very taken aback, as I was then perfectly well and hadn't mentioned the disease. 'Ha!' he exclaimed, when I confessed that I did. 'I told you I could see round corners! ...Later, I asked Les what was the cure for depression. He didn't hesitate: 'The truth.' We are all artists of our own lives. We shape them, as best as we can, using our experience and intuition as guides. But we're also natural liars and we get things wrong. It's so easy for the internal commentary that forms how we live to become a forgery. Approached in a certain way, depression is a lie detector of last resort. By knocking you out for a while, it allows you to ditch the out-of-date ideas by which you've been living and to grasp a more accurate description of the terrain. It doesn't have to come to this, of course, and most people are able to discern their own truths perfectly well without needing to be pushed by an illness. But my imagination is strong and it takes some people longer than others to sort out pleasing fancies from delusions. (p. xiv and xv)
Personally, I found it important to stay with this paragraph for a while. In fact, I continue to stay with it. Nothing has, in recent times, propelled me into a committed introspection and self-reflection as these lines have. But, interestingly, I proceed in an almost neutral frame of mind. It has not further depressed me. It feels like an interesting project with myself. For today, I will end with another quote from the book:
If you can cope with the internal nuclear winter of depression and come through it without committing suicide -- the disease's most serious side effect -- then, in my experience, depression can be a great friend. It says: the way you've been living is unbearable, it's not for you. And it teaches you slowly how to live in a way that suits you infinitely better. If you don't listen, of course, it comes back and knocks you out even harder next time, until you get the point. (p. xv)