October 19, 2014
Recently I violated my self-imposed code of conduct by appearing on television. It was for a so-called discussion program on which one of the subjects was the overdiagnosis of depression as a medical condition. Of course I knew the futility of such programs, in which a serious subject is discussed by four people (plus the presenter) for a maximum of 10 minutes, so that there can be no consecutive argumentation but only a kind of fruit salad of opinion, with facts thrown in like the chopped basil that is now fashionable in such salad. The question is not who is right, but whose sound bite is best.
My opinion is that depression has been trivialized. It is a long time since I have heard anyone admit to being unhappy rather than depressed, as if not to be happy were in itself pathological, and the normal state of man were contentment; and thus we medicalize life until the world is a great hospital and life itself a medical procedure, to the detriment of our character and the weakening of our understanding.
“So I suppose you think that people ought to pull themselves together,” one of the guests replied (more or less).
Now I had never denied that some people cannot get better by the mere exercise of their own will, determination, and intelligence; but when they can and when they can”t is a matter of judgment. What I found most interesting about the guest’s remark, however, was the cultural shift that it implied, for the notion of pulling yourself together is apparently now applied only in the context of ridicule. A person who calls upon another to pull himself together is thereby showing himself to be a crude, and possibly a vindictive and cruel, person, a kind of psychological primitive whose geographical equivalent would be someone who believed that the earth was flat.
Now let us examine the matter in slightly more detail. If it is always absurd to tell people to pull themselves together, is it sensible always to tell them the opposite, namely not to pull themselves together, that they should collapse in a heap? Or is it that the behavior known as pulling-yourself-together either doesn”t exist or is simply irrelevant to human life?
An appeal to pull oneself together is an appeal to fortitude, a virtue that was once regarded as cardinal, though it seems since to have become the subject of a gestalt switch and relegated to being, if not a vice exactly, at least a form of treason to the self. Far from pulling yourself together, then, you should let yourself fall apart. That, at least, is the natural thing to do, the default setting of the human character in difficulty.
By contrast, it is unnatural to pull yourself together. By falling apart, you will attract more consoling attention to yourself and provide employment to those whose professional task it is to put you back together again. It will display your vulnerability to the world, involve you in no false pride, and demonstrate that you are part of the common run of humanity. Fortitude, by comparison, is often laced with a streak of superiority, and of course only postpones eventual collapse: for emotion is like a liquid, incompressible, and therefore it must come out one way or another.
No doubt fortitude can go too far: like all virtues, when pushed to extremes it becomes a vice, in this case that of pride. But such is not why people object to it nowadays: vice in general does not seem to them so bad a thing, nor does it excite their condemnation. Rather it is because fortitude gives people no opportunity to talk about themselves, whereas vulnerability does.
A lot of conversation is monologue posing as dialogue. There is a tacit agreement that I will let you bore me with details of your uninteresting life provided that you will let me express my interesting, not to say immortal, reflections upon my own fascinating and unprecedented condition. What others say is a regrettable interlude in my message to the world.
In this world, bravery in the face of misfortune or grief has changed its meaning, from remaining silent about it and getting on with one’s life as best one can, to a public relation of the most minute circumstances of one’s feelings. Nothing must be left out, not even the laboratory results. How many times have celebrities been praised for their bravery in coming clean about their conditions, moral and physical? Where film stars confess, can ordinary mortals be far behind?