Depression And The Threat Of Nonbeing

"The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings. This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the meaning of existence."

-- Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be (1952)

The other day I was sitting in my doctor's office, awaiting his arrival, when I looked up and noticed numerous samples of the antidepressant drug Zoloft on the shelf. "You guys have a pill for everything these days, don't you?" I said as he walked in, pointing to the drug. "Oh yes, oh yes!" he replied. At first I was surprised to see a psychotropic drug so prominently displayed in the hallowed office of a family practitioner. Under what conditions might the doctor readily hand out the samples? Would he only have to hear, "Doctor, I've been feeling kind of down lately; can you give me something?" How much probing would precede the dispensation of medicine? And what if, after a few tablets, the patient was fond of the drug and wanted more of it? What would follow? A cocktail of such drugs? And what if the patient had known the doctor for the better of fifteen years (as indeed I've known my doctor)? Wouldn't it be all the easier to accede to the patient's requests and hook him on mind-altering substances?

It occurred to me, upon further thought, that this may not be the most promising line of inquiry. The notion that melancholy can be expunged by a pill accords very nicely with the temper of the times. In American society today there is little patience for solutions which can't be easily quantified and brought to market. There is the unspoken assumption that one shouldn't toil too long in the fields of introspection and cognitive psychology, that one shouldn't look pensively at the meaning of social experience. The wheels of progress, on this view, are turned not by the levers of criticism and introspection, but by those of technical knowledge and pragmatism.

Like so many other aspects of modern life, euphoria-via-pill is expedient and hassle-free and efficacious (though by no means inexpensive). One needn't look inward to figure out what might be wrong or what it is one stands for in life. One needn't look at the pathology of one's society, or see despondency as possibly admitting of a range of solutions, not least of which is lifelong pursuit of truth. "Take the pill, forget your troubles, relax, be calm, be happy, fit in, and live out your life," society seems to say.

What if sadness and emptiness are the mind's way of saying that something is missing in oneself or in one's society? What if, rather than awful symptoms needing to be killed, they are a siren call to a more spiritual, decent, humane life? What if, far from merely ameliorating the blues, drugs like Prozac block the many paths of self-realization and further complicate things?

"Once the child had an immortal soul; now it has glands," Will Durant once remarked. "To the physicist it is only a bundle of molecules, or atoms, or electrons, or protons; to the physiologist it is an unstable conjunction of muscles, bones and nerves; to the physician it is a red mass of illnesses and pains." It is this crude materialist conception of life that informs our modern perspectives on mental health, on happiness and well-being.

Let me summon the spirits of existentialist philosophy and put forward a quite different view. *

We all, each one of us, turn up in the world assuming that there's a pre-existing meaning to our life -- an ultimate truth hiding in the shadows, a loving and benevolent deity floating about in celestial space, a fate pre-ordained for us. With the lapse of time we begin to question this initial assumption. The transitoriness of experience, the witnessing of injustice and cruelty in the world, the realization that God has no hand in the making of history, the frustration of numerous desires, the race towards old age and death --- these and many similar facts give rise to deep scepticism. Perhaps each such fact presents itself as simple anxiety and uneasiness to us; over time the feeling may be one of subversion.

The cracks and crevices in our belief system are filled by numerous attempts to find meaning in the world. Some try to locate meaning in a citadel or church -- the tried and true way of religion. Others seek it in nontheistic humanism: the aspiration to make the world a better place, to maximize love and understanding, to surmount all the old problems of society (hatred, prejudice, greed). Still others organize their life not around a cause or conviction but around adventure and exploration: life is seen as meaningful precisely if there is an unending number of challenging goals to be realized.

Over time, we feel the pang of dissatisfaction, unfulfillment. No one approach, no one creed or principle or school of thought or ideology of life drives away the demons of anxiety and doubt and insecurity. We are threatened by nonbeing -- the intuition that there is no soliditity and presence in the things of the world.

We realize with Sartre, more or less, that our existence precedes our essence: there is no meaning to our life a priori. Whoever we really are, whatever meaning can be said to exist in our life can only come from the free acts of our will. It is we, not pre-ordained fate, not God, that is in charge of meaning-making, and this realization is the most frightening of all to many of us. People seek, in the words of Erich Fromm, to escape from freedom, because freedom feels like death. The specter of nonbeing looms over every initiative of ours to direct our life, to forge ahead in an affirmative direction. A thousand petty nuisances also enter the picture: e.g., the suspicion that we might be not be good enough or beautiful enough or strong enough or young enough; the doubt that too much time has passed in our life for us to do anything worthwhile anymore.

And then what? People can seek refuge in the whims of culture, in the community of church-goers, in groups and associations of all kinds. They can look unapologetically and boldly at life and conclude, as others have (e.g., Schopenhauer, Nietzsche), that there is no truth, no meaning, no aim, and then contemplate suicide. They can look deep within and find, in Paul Tillich's words, the courage to be, an impulse to lead an authentic and self-affirming life over against the ever-present threat of nonbeing.

Or they can look half-wistfully, half-mindedly at the world and accept technology's panacea to the ills of existence and swallow the coated capsule and little blue pill.

*An elucidation of the philosophy can be found in works such as Kierkegaard's Either/Or: A Fragment Of Life, Heidegger's Being and Time, Sartre's Being and Nothingness, Tillich's The Courage To Be, among many others. The philosophy also comes alive in novels such as Kafka's The Trial, Camus' The Stranger, Hesse's Steppenwolf, Sartre's Nausea, and Heller's Something Happened.

Further Reading

"Philosophy and Depression"