Robin Williams: Searching for Community

Robin Williams DespairI recently read a very moving article, Deadly Depression, by Larry Wines . Mr. Wines addressed Robin Williams’ recent death, and the subject of clinical depression, which tortures the lives of so many people. I certainly agree with Mr. Wines’ plaintive and clearly heartfelt plea that medical assistance should be made available to anyone suffering in the throes of depression. The suffering that deeply depressed people experience is recognized as among the worst pain that a human being can feel, often exceeding the severe physical pain associated with some of the most dire medical conditions. People who have never experienced the pangs of deep depression cannot possibly imagine the ‘hell’ that deeply depressed people live in (and hopefully through, though in Mr. Williams case, he clearly did not).

What we must recognize, however, is that even with the best of modern medical attention, clinical depression is very hard to treat. One out of every ten Americans is currently taking an antidepressant drug. But recent studies are very discouraging, as they indicate that in mild, moderate, and even severe cases of depression, these drugs have been proven, in double blind studies, to have no more effect than a placebo. Only in cases of the most extreme depression can these drugs be shown to have more efficacy than a placebo, and even in those cases the advantage over a placebo is very small.

If one in ten Americans is being treated for depression, how many more are depressed but not being treated? I think we have to ask ourselves why so many people are struggling with despair in these times. It this a natural phenomenon? Is it natural for over 10% of individuals (10% being treated, who knows how many suffering) to be experiencing depression at any given time? Is this typical of the human experience? Would we find over 10% of any population of people depressed, anywhere we went, in any era? Or is there something characteristic of our environment that is causing this?

Yeats’ words could have been written yesterday: “The best lack all conviction. The worst are full of passionate intensity.”

It’s been quite a long time since I last encountered the term Weltschmerz, but it suddenly springs to mind. Weltschmerz is a German word coined as a name for the concept of a socially shared sense, a shared mental condition, of sadness and pain. The word translates roughly to “world pain,” or “world sadness.” Everyday we are forced to confront a world that seems to be insane, and growing more so all the time. We have seen the public death of honor, as lies have become routine from our most prominent people. We have come to regard as routine the sight of truth stood on its head. As Orwell predicted, up is claimed to be down, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and reality is tenuous and inconvenient, to be ignored when it counters a desired purpose, and cited passionately if it happens to serve that purpose. Yeats’ words could have been written yesterday: “The best lack all conviction. The worst are full of passionate intensity.”

As a progressive community, we conjure a shared sense of hope that somehow we can make a better world. Is this shared hope not the glue that holds us together, not only as a community, but also as individuals who must struggle to remain sane amidst the pervasive insanity? Where would any of us be without the hope we share with others? Which of us has not sometimes lost her or his grip on that sense of hope? Which of us has not felt the inexorable pull toward hopeless despair? It is our community that sustains us when our grip is weak, and our fear of losing it grows strong, as we consciously reconjure hope together, and feed it to one another, to sustain our spirits.

Robin Williams DespairIs depression a biological disease? Or is it a spiritual disease, rooted in a failure to sustain a sense of hope? No one knows, of course. When antidepressants were newer, depression was touted by the medical establishment as a biological disease, and they had just the medicine to fix it. Now that we know that these medicines are mostly ineffective, I wonder what they are saying?

Many years ago, (half my lifetime ago) life handed me some very difficult spiritual blows, and for a time my spirit was broken. My beloved children were already born, else I have my doubts that I would have survived. A dear friend could see I was close to that edge, and pulled my coat to say through gritted teeth, “Don’t you DARE! Your children are going to NEED you!” And that thought haunted me enough, even in the blackness of despair, that I forced myself to keep living. To pick up a foot, and put it down, when doing so to cross a room seemed like an immensely foolish and impossible task. So it was for my children I kept going. I made myself stay alive, and I am very glad for it, of course (and I’m reasonably certain they are as well).

I never believed the biological disease explanation of depression. I always knew the pain I had was not created in my brain chemistry. My neurotransmitters may have been badly screwed up, but that was the result of, not the cause of, this pain I felt.

Anyway…..as a person who once knew the full extent of the black pain of this disease, I believe that it is a social disease. It is a failure of our community efforts to sustain each other, especially at a time when an environment of insanity closes in insistently, and constantly, on every side. When some are cut loose from their community, and find themselves adrift, reeling dizzily, with all sense lost of up or down, or truth or lies, they often fall into a dark lonely pit where the light of hope cannot enter. I believe that in our times we are in the grip of Weltschmerz. A shared social sadness, a sense of pain, that threatens us all. We must recognize this. We must hold to one another with the awareness that we depend on each other for our very survival. We never know when a blow might send us reeling, but when such a blow comes, we will need a community to sustain us.

The world is insane. Surely few of us would argue that. As progressives we believe that we can save it. We believe that we can bring it to its good senses. We believe that our children can live in a community that sustains their hopes and dreams.

ray zwarichIt’s very likely few, if any of us, knew Robin Williams. (My younger sister actually went to high school with him.) But he was a person who touched all of us, and now all of us share the sadness of his death. Those of us who ever experienced the pain of deep despair,understand the pain that killed him. May his more hopeful spirit rest in peace.

Ray Zwarich

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