I wrote about facing despair a couple of days ago, and received a letter from a reader. She advised me to seek treatment for depression.
I recall the first time I got this advice, about fifteen years ago. Had I followed it back then, I would have never returned to painting. It is in the darkness of depression that my way back to painting lay hidden — back to painting and, eventually, to my real life, out of the confines of my mind’s constructs.
Back then I was indeed depressed. But I didn’t go to a doctor because I knew — without knowing why, but with unmistakable certainty of inner conviction — that pills are not the right way to face the dark nights of the soul.
Now, I know — as I did even as I was writing it — exactly what in that essay about despair rings this alarm bell, “depression”. It mentions dying — and even the will to die.
When I first came to America, I was amazed at how the whole cultural fabric of this society is woven in such a way as to imply there were no death. As though for people who did everything right — ate all the right foods, exercised regularly, didn’t smoke, and generally kept everything under control — there would be no death after all. And when a death did happen, people would talk about being suddenly reminded of their own mortality — and, quite often, seek medical treatment for this affliction.
From the vantage point of the deeply fatalistic Russian culture, all this seemed strikingly naive — if not mildly psychotic. But what do I know, I kept telling myself — after all, it was a country of freedom and prosperity; the land of the free, the home of the brave. Can it be that this strange illusion of having everything under control, this collective effort of forgetting mortality — can it be that this is the price one has to pay? But when 9/11 tore apart the carefully woven veil of illusions, the land of the free and the home of the brave embarked on its quest for the lost sense of control by waging wars and sacrificing freedom for security — and I suspect we are now living through the ugly climax of this doomed quest.
Fear of death is the cause of all our vices.
— Montaigne wrote this on the margins of his copy of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (which was found not so long ago). I found this note in Stephen Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern — a fascinating story of Lucretius poem’s windy path back into the realm of European thought. The quote kept popping up to the surface of my mind these days — because Epicurus’s vision of the universe was supposed to cure humanity from the fear of death.
Here is the gist of this philosophical cure: if there is nothing but atoms in the universe, then there is no reason to fear gods’ wrath after death — and if not for that, how can one possibly fear death? Epicurus recommended telling yourself — again, and again, and again: “atoms and void and nothing else”, and then — he promised — your life would change. If we see our feelings, our fears and our pleasures for what they are — as a part of the natural order universe, some complex and intricate movements of invisible particles — then we cannot be scared of them anymore.
This cure didn’t really work, did it? But even so, the modern “cure” of choice is eerily, absurdly Epicurean. If it is all “atoms and void”, if its all chemistry and nothing but chemistry, then it stands to reason — doesn’t it? — that appropriate chemical compounds are a much more efficient and straightforward solution to our problems than any philosophy, poetry, or mantras. They will take away our pains and fears, and bring us all the pleasures we desire.
But here is the rub: our organisms — these infinitely complex and finely-tuned biological vehicles, the natural environment for the events we call “feelings” — have evolved to process these events in more sophisticated and nuanced ways than crude chemistry. Isn’t this what their in-built subjective consciousness and its experience of free will are for?
From the point of view of subjective consciousness, these events are information; they are life’s way of telling us something essential — perhaps our main (if not the only) compass in this grand affair of life, an instrument for aligning oneself with its flow.
To dull them with drugs — or to drown them in noise — makes about as much sense as to hide the compass on a long and perilous journey (or to surround it with magnets), least it may show you that you’ve lost your way — or, worse still, remind you that the journey will be over one day.
We all know our mortality anyway: not of it, not about it — the mortality itself. Every organism knows it is always in the process dying: some cells die, others are born — and so it goes. It takes an enormous amount of energy to hide this inner knowledge from oneself, to keep “forgetting” it — so it’s really a huge relief to stop doing it and just face the fear as it arises (“atoms, and void, and nothing else”), and then it’s suddenly not there anymore, and there is no need to wage wars or build walls.
Because there is no security in this world, there is only a sense of security, and it is all within — atoms, and void, and nothing else.