Let me begin with a headline: you may have been born primed to become sad. The “epidemic of depression” it is claimed we are experiencing nowadays may be exactly that: the natural expression of who we were bound to become. Millions upon millions of people who were primed to become sad may be experiencing sadness as their life’s chief background coloration because completely unintentionally, since nature can have no intentions of this sort, and as an artifact of evolution, sadness is the unwanted but predictable guest at our human table.
Imagine that a certain array of traits and attributes with which you were born might lead you to manifest a certain disposition. For example, let’s say that you were born bright, alert, and able to distinguish among the things you see. Even as a child you could easily distinguish between the stories that your parents were telling you about life and the reality you saw with your own two eyes. You saw that one child was wealthy merely because he was born into wealth and that another child was starving because he was born into poverty. You saw the reality behind the smile the clerk at the supermarket and the clerk at the bank were forced to wear. You saw things—and these sights made you sad.
They make you sad for two reasons, that it is dreadful that reality causes children to starve to death and clerks to smile against their will; and that it is dreadful that the adults around you are not prepared to acknowledge these obvious truths. You begin to withdraw into a shell, maybe enjoying some delicious pleasures in that shell (like reading a book or dreaming up inventions) but feel essentially sad in there, cut off from some pleasures that might make you happy, too much in your own company, too busily spinning out your own worries, regrets, and fantasies. That state of “dwelling inside” is a refuge but also oppressive. You may or may not appear it to the people around you, though probably you do, but sadness has now become a constant, background coloration to your life.
The traits and attributes that set you up for that background coloration may be other ones instead. Maybe instead of arising from intelligence and sensitivity sadness arises because you are born both with a temper and a conventional streak that makes it hard for you to express your pent-up anger, so you suppress that anger and create sadness that way. Maybe it arises because you are born with a dream to sing opera and an ordinary voice. Maybe many, many combinations of traits and attributes lead to that same background coloration of sadness. No one has taken an interest in this possibility; no one has researched this (if it can be researched); no one knows.
It should be clear enough what I mean. To say that a person might be “born sad” isn’t to say that he comes out of the womb frowning. Indeed, he may come out smiling: he may be a perfectly happy baby, a perfectly happy little human being who of course cries when he is hungry and defiantly screams “No!” when he doesn’t want to leave the playground but who is not “sad yet” as a matter of chronic, background coloration. Rather, he is primed for that sadness by virtue of his attributes and situation. To put it the right way, he is “born ready to be sad” rather than “born sad.”
He is “born ready to be sad” in the same sense that a shiny new car is “born ready to be dented,” given the reality that its coat of colored paint can’t withstand the kind of banging that is bound to happen if it is parked on the street, rather than garaged, and if it is parked in a city (like Paris) where it is perfectly acceptable to squeeze into tight spaces with your car and bang the cars in front and rear. The shiny car is “destined” to become a banged-up car because its paint job is vulnerable to dents and because the situation in which it finds itself is conducive to banging. The car may be shiny at birth but how will it look when it is 4 years old or 5 years old? Won’t it look sad then?
Consider a second analogy. Let’s say that you built a machine meant to pick the fruit off the tops of trees but also able to tie its shoelaces. Let’s say that you were no better an engineer than nature and couldn’t perfect your machine, since you are in fact a trial-and-error manufacturer and not a genuine designer. You build a machine that is tall and skinny, so that it can reach the top fruit, and also articulated enough that it can bend down and tie its shoelaces. Naturally enough, given its exact shape and mechanics, it will have a tendency to fall down a lot.
It was not designed to fall down—far from it. But its exact nature comes bearing its own downfall. It may come out of the showroom tall, skinny, shiny and unblemished and it may do a beautiful job of plucking the top fruit off of trees—but the first time it tries to tie its shoes, whack! Here comes its first crash. And will it be able to get up again? That’s an open question, since the possibility of it falling down was not considered when it was made. Had it been considered, our fruit picker would have been manufactured very differently. As a function of its “original manufacture,” it was built destined to fall—even though its manufacturer had no such intention for it.
Consider a last analogy. Let’s say that you created a machine to accomplish certain tasks and also gave it the ability to order those tasks according to a set of criteria where it could set the value of accomplishing a certain task as zero, the value of accomplishing another task as one, the value of accomplishing another task as two, and so on. It is designed to handle the highest-numbered task first, based on its own ranking of those tasks, and not bother with tasks it valued at zero. It is also designed to choose zero for as many tasks as it can, so as to leave it time and energy for the more important ones.
But perhaps you’ve already spotted the flaw in this design? In this design, our machine has the capability of assigning zero to any task, which means that it could assign a zero to all tasks. It is also designed to try to assign a zero to as many tasks as possible, so as to conserve itself. This leaves open the likely possibility that it will assign a zero to all tasks, causing it to want to do nothing! Its “original design” includes the possibility that it might decide not to do any of the tasks it was putatively designed to accomplish. It was “born to become idle”!
Our car was born destined to become dented, our fruit picker was born to fall down, and our task-accomplishing machine was born to become idle. In these senses, a human being—maybe all human beings—may be thought of as having been “born to become sad.” You may come out of the womb cheerful, smiling, and singing songs from your favorite musical comedy but that is no proof whatsoever that some years later, and even if nothing traumatic happens to you, you may find yourself singing another tune—a sad tune. Doesn’t this picture resemble our experience of living?
With the car, if it mattered to you that it remained shiny, you would garage it rather than park it on the street. With the fruit picker, you would recall it and redesign it or you would suggest to it that it no longer tie its shoelaces. With the task accomplisher, you would no longer permit it to give any task a zero valuation or you would limit its ability to hand out zero valuations. With a shiny new little human being, you would do all the things we know help newborn human beings: you would provide her with secure attachments, you would love her, you would protect her, you would light up in her presence, and so on. That is, you would try to make it less likely that the coming sadness actually arrived.
But even if you did all of those helpful, loving things, your child would still be “primed to become sad,” given that her particular array of traits and endowments incline her in that direction. Your wonderful efforts don’t and can’t amount to a recall campaign, because you haven’t changed her design or her nature. For all your loving kindness, she might still end up with sadness as her background coloration, since she is primed for that to happen. This means that she also ought to be helped right from the beginning to understand this reality: that states like sadness are not “mental disorders” that blow in through the window but exactly what you would expect to see when a person built a certain way is dropped into the crucible of reality.
The following three questions then interest us:
1. If this is what regularly happens in life, isn’t it fair to say that a person may be “born primed to be sad,” that sadness is part of his original personality, not by virtue of his having a “sad gene” (please don’t look to chromosomes for answers here!) or because of some organic problem (no talk of hormones or neural transmitters!) but because the traits and attributes with which he was born set him up for a chronic, temperamental sad reaction to life?
2. If this is indeed what happens, why then should this sadness, which may be the result of the interaction of traits like, for example, intelligence, sensitivity, and rationality, be called a “mental disorder”? When this sadness arrives, isn’t it the completely natural if unfortunate working out of perfectly commendable traits and doesn’t it have nothing at all to do with “his brain not working right” or “psychological problems”? Doesn’t it have everything to do with the way he was built to react to life?
3. If this chronic sadness is not a medical condition or a psychological problem but instead the natural way that original personality slides into formed personality and leaves us with painful background distress and despair, how could a pill possibly serve as an answer? How can a chemical be an answer to personality? By obliterating all feeling? But dimming our very consciousness? Can chemicals really be the right answer to the vagaries of personality or to situations of this sort, where our inheritance primes us for a certain mood?
If your original personality (as I’m describing it and not as an astrologer might describe it) inclines you to chronic sadness and then as a child you experience trauma, abuse, significant loss, disappointments, humiliations—things which by their nature hurt in the moment, reinforce your view of life as a cheat and a horror, and deepen your chronic sadness—shouldn’t we expect that your formed personality, the you that you become over time, will be awash in sadness? Wouldn’t we expect sadness to become the major coloration of your life? Why would we not expect that?
The National Institute of Mental Health can continue to look for “the genetic causes of the mental disorder of depression,” the American Psychiatric Association can continue to create more and more “diagnostic categories of depression,” and psychology can continue to call “abnormal” the natural distress we experience. But let us hope that someone will look at how human beings come to be themselves, how they become chronically sad or chronically anxious because they are primed for such outcomes and because they are embedded in contexts, like difficult families and unjust societies, that promote such outcomes.
Imagine what would happen if we began to ask the question, “What if a person is primed to have sadness as a background coloration his whole life long by virtue of how he is built and what if he is primed to become very sad if his experiences and his circumstances pile on and deepen that sadness?” If we asked that question, then we would see why it makes sense to separate out those two senses of sadness, the “primary” sadness that arises just because we are built a certain way and the “secondary” sadness that arises because life piles on and deepens our sadness. We could then sensibly say, “I was primed to be sad and my life experiences and circumstances made me really sad.”
This way of thinking about sadness allows us to distinguish between “secondary sadness,” the sadness arising because we are currently unemployed or because we still haven’t healed from traumatic experiences, from “primary sadness,” the sadness that dogs us because we are built in a certain way. If we managed to find you a job, that might help ease your circumstantial secondary sadness but within days or even moments of getting that job, your “original sadness” might well return, making your new “exciting” job suddenly feel lackluster. Healing childhood trauma and landing a job can’t prove complete answers to the “sadness question” for such a person, not if he continues to experience life through a glass darkly. What helps with that—with primary sadness?
Whatever answers we might suggest, they would require a person’s cooperation. This is a big roadblock, as people do not regularly cooperate in their own growth and change and prefer to defensively stand pat, even if by standing pat they remain in emotional pain. If a person who is chronically sad by virtue of the playing out of his original personality will not look at this truth and make an effort to “recall himself” and deal forthrightly with this primary sadness, he will be obliged to continue to white-knuckle life, hounded by sadness, or else opt for a chemical fix. That “personal recall” is the better answer but as likely as not he will be unwilling to try it.
This is a shame, because his “recall campaign” need not amount to something elaborate or difficult. Even in a complex system—and often especially in a complex system—a small change can produce dramatic results. A war may or may not break out because one player in the drama refuses to relent or agrees to relent. We can legitimately say that the war was caused or averted for a million reasons—but if the action of that one person makes the sort of difference that in reality it does make, then we are faced with the truth that a “small thing” can make all the difference even when there are a million other factors involved.
This is a wonderful metaphor to employ in thinking about how we might deal with our original personality. Even though there are a million genetic, biological, experiential and circumstantial factors at play in making us the person that we are, including making us a “chronically sad person,” there nevertheless remains the possibility that we can perhaps rid ourselves of our chronic sadness because we have enough available personality left to accomplish what we need to accomplish. For example, maybe accomplishing just the following two shifts would make a large difference in a sad person’s life:
- The first shift is to make ourselves aware of the exact situation we find ourselves in. Rather than suppose that we have a “mental disorder,” that we have certain “psychological issues,” or that we are “trapped in our own skin” with no way to escape, we could look at our situation differently. We could declare the following: “Caution! I may have been born with a susceptibility to chronic sadness. So I must be on guard against the blues and on guard against evaluating life too negatively. I have been primed to see life through a glass darkly: I recognize that!” Whether as a declaration or a quiet conversation, you acknowledge that sadness dogs you, as a natural although completely unwanted result of your personality butting up against the facts of existence.
- The second shift is to think through what might reduce or (if we dare think this positively) even extinguish this “primary sadness.” For example, what if a person made the decision to arrive at some strong life purposes choices—to perhaps for the first time articulate his life purpose choices and make plans to live those life purpose choices on a daily basis—and added as a “new decision” that living his life purposes would trump any mood he might find himself in? This might sound like: “I know that pesky sadness is always right there, dogging my heels, but I have some important things to do with my life and that’s where I’m focusing!” Isn’t there a chance that this might work to “put sadness in its place” and perhaps even extinguish it over time as you live an intentional, purposeful life?
Let me summarize. First, we currently do not take into account the ways in which our initial endowments like intelligence, sensitivity, and rationality may together amount to a pathway to certain outcomes like chronic sadness. Second, an outcome of this sort must not be labeled a “mental disorder,” as if it were a psychological abnormality or a medical condition. Third, there may be something simple for an individual to try in order to rid himself of this chronic sadness: something on the order of the two shifts I just described.
Think of Lincoln. Rather than imposing the label of “clinical depression” on him, as if he had a mental disorder (which is what “clinical depression” putatively is), wouldn’t it be fairer to say that he was probably primed to become sad because of his intelligent, compassionate nature and probably made doubly and triply sad by the Civil War? It is likely that no one has ever been less “mentally disordered” than Lincoln! If we could stop this false labeling and instead examine how our very nature is primed to produce distress and how that distress is exacerbated by our life experiences, we might finally have a chance to help the millions upon millions of people “born to become sad.”
You can make yourself look taller by wearing high heels but that doesn’t actually alter your height. Your height is your height. But your original sadness is not the same sort of thing. It is a thing mediated by your mind that, if you can manage a deep change of heart and an altered view of life, may just lift. You don’t then become happy. Instead, you become wise about sadness. And maybe over time you even do become happier. It may prove an odd and fragile happiness, since your nature hasn’t changed. But isn’t an odd and fragile happiness rooted in wisdom and courage better than a lifetime of chemicals meant to treat a made-up medical condition?
This post was previously published on Psychology Today and is republished here with permission from the author.
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