On Despair and Depression Being A Disease Of Certainty

I’ve been toying with nihilism quite a bit as of late.  Ecclesiastes’ author has become my friend.  I start with everything is meaningless and then build from there my own sets of meaning that I hold to by faith.  This can be freeing, but at the same time isolating.  What is more lonely than only finding meaningful what you have deemed for yourself as meaningful, and everything else meaningless?  Despair comes when you believe in your own beliefs of meaning and meaninglessness to be the only legitimate way you derive meaning.

I haven’t stayed too long or gone to deep into nihilism precisely because of how depressing it is, and I don’t know what to do with depression.  It isn’t a state of mind I’m very familiar with, and I tend to be quite the optimist.  So while I’ve been able to recognize the likely meaninglessness of everything, it never comes without the equally plausible reality that everything is meaningful.  And if everything is meaningful, then there is endless opportunity and growth in uncovering and discovering this meaning.

Even terms like meaning and meaninglessness may not always be helpful, but I cannot deny the deep resonance that I have with what they imply.  I cannot stare at mountains and waterfalls and sunsets and babies and oceans and friends and animals and stars and call the world void.  I am drawn into beauty and mystery and love and it humbles me to accept that I would be foolish to dismiss all of life to the limits of my understanding.

James Shelley wrote this a few days ago, and it beautifully articulates my journey from nihilism back into wonder.

Only an eye so foolish to claim that it has seen everything can claim there is nothing worth being seen.

Despair is certainty. Absolute certainty. Certainty that you have apprehended the universe in its entirety and found existence wanting.

Despair is a destructive self-delusion — the foolish conclusion that you have perceived the whole of everything. Hopelessness is the inability to see any possibility beyond the horizon, yes, but who are you to project your own blindness onto the cosmos? Who are you, ant, to profess such omniscience?

How did you reach this all-encompassing certitude? When did you decide that your knowledge reckoned and beheld the totality of all things? Congratulations on your laughable achievement.

When, my mind, did you assert your claim to infinity?
Depression, a disease — yes! The disease of certainty; a malignant growth of self-assured confidence. There is nothing for you, you say? Ah, tell me about this time you gazed upon the sum of omneity and justified your declaration!

What is hope, if not the conscious, humble acknowledgement that everything you perceive and contemplate is but a sliver of what is? How foolish, indeed, to project your fractional perspective onto everything you have yet to see and examine.

If despair be the disease, curiosity be the cure. Doubt, self-doubt, is the antidote. Be suspicious, mind, of your despair: for only an eye so foolish to claim that it has seen everything can claim that there is nothing worth being seen.

3 Comments

  • When did you decide that your knowledge reckoned and beheld the totality of all things? Answer. : When I saw that the totality of all I ever knew was just too painful to inspire me to be curious of the future………. Pretty condescending poem from someone who has never been depressed. Faith to believe that life is good because God said it’s good is really the only way out of depression and despair… Not to just sit around and wait till we know more than the totality of what we know today. Sometimes it takes an outsider to show the empathy and embrace that darkness of the soul and learn from it… The whole beauty of Ecclesiastics is that it is not meaningless….It’s man’s mind that see’s the futility .. The resurrection should light that fire to believe in something greater than all the world delivers that is designed to bring on despair. Praise Jesus.

  • Thanks for this post; very encouraging.

  • As a major part of my personal ‘journey’ if you will, major depression means that every day starts with meaninglessness and fear. Any meaning and security that is present in each day comes about because of conscious effort on my part, and the efficacy of whatever drug and management skills are helping at the time. I think I understand where the Myth of Sisyphus comes from. Hefting that rock uphill every day, only to find it right at my feet the next morning… that’s pretty much my reality. Depression also clouds and complicates the issue of spiritual faith, since (with major levels of depression at least) one can become close to comatose, unable to think or feel, and certainly (for some) unable to conceive of existence in any terms other than malignant. The level of malignancy varies, of course, and on good days, doesn’t ‘factor in’ at all. But the fact that it can be a reality for some sufferers for decades, means that the fight for spiritual meaning is a rather macabre version of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel. Long-term depression means that the pain and nihilism become ‘hard-wired’ and must be managed every day.

    Sorry for the downer comments. Depression is not a pleasant subject if one is being forthright.

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