Last week there was a very lucid moment when I realised my physical depression had been lifted off, and I got momentarily confused. When I travel I can’t exercise or be on a healthy diet, so I tend to get worse instead of better. I tried to think of reasons: was it the act of travelling itself, the novelty effect? No, because not all my travels made me feel better. Now that I’m back in the city center I think I have a working hypothesis: crowded cities make me feel depressed. I thought I was imagining this, but initial fMRI studies seem to reaffirm my suspicion.
I think we’re in very early stages of researching how the human body can be stressed by over-stimuli, and I believe one day the science will clearly demonstrate this. I am just not sure if I’ll see this in my lifetime, not because of the lack of technology, but rather the lack of an economical incentive. We as a society just don’t prioritise human well-being enough, it seems like only rich people can get concerned enough to buy Peloton bikes and go for expensive retreats.
These days I tend to differentiate between what I term as “physical depression” and “existential depression”. Physical depression is when the body itself gives up: there is a lack of energy, motivation, and a general sense of malaise. We could probably detect physical depression with MRI and appropriate blood work. The brain atrophies, the immune system is chronically under attack, and hormonal levels are all over the place.
Existential depression for me, is the philosophical belief that life is suffering and no amount of health hacks can fix what we perceive as the existential truth.
We generally try to “fix” depression, seeing it as an illness. I think it is an illness when you actually think life is precious and meaningful, and you want to live, but somehow your body goes into a state where you can’t feel positive about life anymore. I think there is a small number of people like me who struggle to believe that life is worth living even at the best of our states. I often wonder if this is a neurological state or is this an existential truth that I perceive? Am I existentially depressed because I’m born with the neurological lack of ability to feel pleasure from life, or is it because I can’t unsee the unpleasantness of this world?
I can’t help but feel the sinking suspicion that the “happiest” portions of my life were periods when I can be distracted enough with personal developments (like a new relationship or the hope of a new job) enough to forget about everything else that is unpleasant. To be happy, one has to actively filter out knowledge. In a way we have to take what is good about our own lives and try to ignore that a large part of the world is dysfunctional, unjust and full of suffering.
I oscillate between these phases. I get so depressed at times that I know the only thing I can do is to keep myself alive, one day at a time. So I try to eat, sleep and wake up to see another day. I keep repeating to myself the oxygen mask theory, that we need to take care of ourselves before taking care of others. Other times I feel profound sadness for the suffering that exists and on top of that, existential guilt that I exist and I’m lucky enough to be privileged enough to have a certain level of mobility and comfort. It is this part of me that I know for a certainty that I feel this way not because I am ill. In fact, it is probably my feelings about this world that is making me ill. The existential depression leads to physical depression.
People tell me I have very much to be grateful for and therefore I should be optimistic and positive. What they don’t understand is everything that I am grateful for becomes an existential weight that sometimes feels too much to bear. Why is it so unfair that some people are born into poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunities to rise above the circumstances?
Do something about it, people say. Don’t just sit there and complain. I’ll just come out and say this: I am not existentially strong enough to withstand whatever it takes to “do something”. It is perhaps a source of shame to admit this, but I’m really fragile. Maybe if I was born 500 years ago I’ll be dead by now, because natural selection will just ensure my early death. I’ll be socially rejected by my tribe because of my mental weakness and be left out to die. I mean, in some ways, this is still happening in modern times, the stigma against people mentally disordered people. (Although sometimes I wonder who are the mentally disordered ones, is it really a sign of health to be okay in living in an oppressive world?)
But I guess on a meta level, this is the issue I see with the current state of the world. We perceive strength in a narrow way, and we believe only the strong should survive. We celebrate usefulness and discriminate weaknesses. Perhaps physical strength was what that enabled us to survive thousands of years in the wild and that inevitably came with violence and aggression. Without those traits we may be killed by tribes or animals with more violence and aggression. Oppression was a “good” thing in the survival game, because fear is a powerful tool to make other living beings afraid of us and not try to kill us.
Isn’t that depressing? We have somewhat naturally selected into a species of violence and aggression, because the peaceful ones couldn’t put up much of a fight. I mean, we just have to look at the course of history…
So today we are stuck with these people in power who are mostly there because their power is inherited and/or because they were power hungry in the first place. We keep trying to plead for human decency in these people, but the mistake we make is believing they are just like us. Everyone has a conscience don’t they? What if it is the ruthlessness in evolution that has eradicated that trait in them? I think in order to gain power it is inevitable that we have to silence parts of our conscience, if not the entire thing. These people thrived precisely because their conscience is not functioning.
The tragedy is that they are also the ones who designed the systems the rest of us live in. They are the ones who get to decide the education we undertake, the type of financial conditions we commit to, the conditions of our employment, the necessity of employment in the first place. To have any hope of changing this status quo, there are some of us who bravely participate in a massively unequal fight that will invite a lifetime of fatigue and abuse, if not incarceration. We will have to develop a thick skin and be as aggressive as our ethics and conscience allow us to get, debate with illogical unintelligent opponents, try to fight above the belt whereas the opposition will not hesitate to kick us repeatedly under the belt. Well, I can at least say that at least in modern times it is somewhat harder to just outright kill us off. I guess that is progress?
There are bright spots. Like some of the brave women and/or minority politicians out there today. But it is still painful to see the abuse they have to endure. I think there is a heavy psychological cost for this bravery. We have to silence parts of our humanity for humanity. We can have hope in humanity, in the long view that as a species we will evolve. But evolution has no conscience. I don’t believe the universe has a natural long moral arc of justice. Justice is a human concept and we aspire to be just. Yet it doesn’t mean we will naturally evolve to be compassionate and intelligent enough to not self-sabotage.
What can I personally do, as a thin-skinned, physically weak and chronically unhealthy person? I think part of coming to terms with long-term ill-health is the acceptance of my own limitations, no matter how personally shameful it feels, even if knowing the fact that I even feel shame is a consequence of our capitalistic society. I don’t think I’ve fully accepted them yet, based on the number of guilt trips I go on every day. So I do what I can. Like keeping myself alive, because at the very least I should not do harm to people who love me, but this is only possible because I still retain much of my logical faculties, and I just want to make it clear that I remain in solidarity with people who are so haunted by their own brains that there is just no way out except choosing the end. I don’t believe that life for the sake of simply living is ethical, I think life is possibly worth living if we have the possibility to have individual power and agency.
I participate in my own personal rebellion. I try not to perpetuate what I think are unhealthy capitalistic values, as best to my conscious knowledge. I fail sometimes. I am a hypocrite most of the time, like how I am typing on an iphone now. I like my material creature comforts like the bed I sleep in. But I no longer think it is congratulatory for people to raise billions of dollars or to grow disproportionately in power. I find it disturbing that at the verge of ecological collapse we are still not yet questioning our roles and still celebrating Uber-esque IPOs. We are celebrating the people and companies who are destroying us. And we still love power more than we love ourselves.
I think it is very difficult to be an ethical human being in this day and age. No matter where we turn, how we choose, we are inevitably complicit in a system that perpetuates unnecessary suffering. We are interdependent, there is almost no way to opt out of this complicity, the hope lies in collectively improving the system. But I think it is important to bear the entire psychological weight of making choices. Use money, but know what we are paying for, what we are complicit in. In Singapore, by all means vote for the incumbent party if we prioritise certain values, but be conscious what that vote comes with, and what we are giving up.
I don’t believe in absolutes, and I think sometimes in order to have less suffering we do have to choose the lesser of evils, but I believe we have to know what we are choosing.
I don’t pretend to know the answers, or know what is the best way to live. I can only continue to question, challenge and think. I think this is the least I can do with my thin skin. I just want to acknowledge I’m a hypocrite, and maybe admitting it makes my existential guilt a little lighter and doesn’t serve any moral purpose, but for me being human is about bearing the guilt that comes with existence and participating in the web of life. To deny the suffering, to simply focus on the good, I think it invalidates the lived experience of many sentient beings.
I wonder if there will come a day where I can be physically healthy enough to bear my existential depression in the most equanimous, least destructive way possible, or the ill-health is an unavoidable consequence of witnessing, knowing and feeling suffering.