Friday Flotsam: Depression, Introspection, and History

1. Last weekend I had one of, if not the worst depressive episode I’ve every experienced, amounting to a full breakdown. I was pretty much riding on the aftershocks for most of the week, hence the lack of postings.

2. My depression doesn’t usually amount to feeling bad about myself; it’s more of feeling intense frustration at what seems the incomprehensible labyrinth of life and my own inability to navigate it. I’ve heard people describe the voice of depression as saying things like “Kill yourself you waste of space.” Mine doesn’t; it’s more along the lines of “You were supposed to learn / do this earlier; guess it’s too late now.” Or “What’s the matter? Can’t you figure your way out of this? Then I guess this is all you’re good for.”

3. The other day I was sentenced once again to attend the quarterly ‘All IT Meeting’ at my company. This is a gathering where all twelve-hundred or so IT employees are assembled in the auditorium for what amounts to a department pep rally, with a few anemic announcements to try to justify it (and which typically apply to only a portion of the department, and which could just as easily been sent via email).

I found myself seated a few rows behind a young lady I knew slightly from my training class: a very lovely young lady, who is also (what is rarer) a fairly good dresser. As her red hair and patterned dress were by far the most worthwhile things in view, my eyes kept drifting toward them during the presentation.

It was the same nonsense as always, made worse by the fact that I was still suffering the effects of that depressive episode. So I sat, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes absently looking at the back of the redhead’s eponymous feature, trying to block it all out so that I could rest my nerves.

But then the final pep talk by the head of the department got to me. The big news was that we are now poised to become the top mortgage lender in the company, and he used this to urge us all to give more and more effort to the company, to give ‘a hundred percent’ and so on. He spoke of how proud we ought to be of our achievements, about pushing our dreams and accomplishments…meaning the success of the company and, in our case, ephemeral bits of code that help it along and will be obsolete almost before they’re written.

I can’t recall the exact words; I usually can’t. But the impression was of urging us to identify our success, our life’s work, our purpose with this generic, silly little corporation catering to one particular corner of the economy, urging us to give it our all so that we can aspire to a higher point on some board that no one else cares about.

Sitting there, in that emotional state, listening to this with a beautiful woman sitting a row away was profoundly affecting. This, I felt, is my life right now: all prospect of romance far out of reach behind cultural and personal barriers as I spend day after day doing completely meaningless work for a preeningly narcissistic corporation, all while grinning idiots tell me how happy I should be about it. It is as if I am watching my life and dreams pass me by, just out of reach, restrained by petty accidents. And the whole time those around me are cheerfully inviting me to sit down with them and accept my place in the dull, empty, and purposeless world that they enjoy so much and that I am trying so hard to escape.

4. Wrote most of the above the other day, when I was still feeling the misery. Good news is that it’s now mostly worn off and I’m feeling a lot better now. Still, I thought I might as well share a glimpse into my thoughts under those conditions.

5. Enough about me; let’s talk history.

Fun fact: we usually think of debtor’s prison as a peculiarly English practice. As a matter of fact, the U.S. also employed them along much the same lines for our first half-century or so. Robert E. Lee’s father, for instance, did time for debt, as did two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (James Wilson and Robert Morris). Congress voted to abolish the practice in 1833, and the states slowly followed suit, with Virginia being (I think) the last in 1849. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1983 under the terms of the 14th Amendment (I’d have to see their reasoning, but that sounds off to me; how does imprisonment for debt violet equal protection of the law? But never mind), though in many states you can still be jailed for not paying alimony, court fees, etc. Just where debtor’s prison ends is kind of a grey area, so arguably we still have them in many states.

Of course, there is a big problem with abolishing imprisonment for debt: namely, what is the alternative? If a man incurs a legal debt and does not or cannot pay, what ought to happen?

Say Judge Judy imposes a $100 fine on Joe Doakes. Doakes is broke. Does this mean that Doakes gets the joke on Judge Judy? That is, has Doakes gotten off scot free? And if so, then would that mean any crime punishable by fines alone is unenforceable on anyone under a certain financial level?

There’s a principle in law and ethics that holds that, in the end, every right implies a right of enforcement. So, if A has a right to $100 from B, A has the right to enforce collection of the fee.

Not saying the debtor’s prison system was a good one, only that it’s a tricky situation. There has to be some kind of penalty, otherwise a legal fine on someone with no available capital would simply be a non-punishment. Such a person would be effectively exempt from any laws enforced through fines, among other problems, such as encouraging risky debts and defalcations.

Me, I don’t have an answer; just one of those infinitely tricky societal problems.

6. There are many reasons, historically speaking, to criticize John Quincy Adams: his virulent anti-Catholicism (part and parcel of being a New England Puritan), his scorched-earth campaign against Jackson, signing the Tariff of 1828, his anemic Presidency (not entirely his own fault of course), and so on.

But I don’t think anyone can maintain a serious dislike of the man after reading the first chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, which sees the aged former President quietly escorting a truculent young Henry to school. It would be a good thing, I think, for all the horrible old men of history to be seen as kindly grandfathers at least once, just so that we won’t be so tempted to turn them into simplistic caricatures and forget their humanity.

7. On that note, do you ever consider how harsh we tend to be on historical figures? It’s very easy to say something like “Franklin Pierce was an ineffective President.” Okay that’s true, but do you realize how difficult being President was?

Or take someone like Jefferson Davis: consensus is that he was “not as effective” a leader as Lincoln. Okay, what does that mean? “While leading an embryonic nation in an existential battle against a militarily and economically superior foe and lacking any of the advantages his predecessors in the first American Revolution had, he could have done better.”

Really not very harsh criticism when you put it that way. But, since we don’t usually put it that way, we don’t really look into the man or realize that he may have some first-rate abilities and be worthy of admiration regardless. Just food for thought.

2 thoughts on “Friday Flotsam: Depression, Introspection, and History

  1. Adam Lane Smith makes Youtube videos about attachment theory and mental health in modern society, and he has said before most depression in men is about a feeling of helplessness. Having been pretty much chronically clinically depressed since I was twelve, that sounds about right to me. When there is no way out, when a man is helpless and powerless, his soul begins to gnaw at himself.

    Adam says women’s souls implode when they feel they are useless to those they love. This too matches what I have seen.

    What you describe sounds like the way I have seen/felt it progress in the early stages (growing up in a family of people with depression and having been chronically and/or clinically depressed for over two decades.)

    Guard/pray against despair, get sun and do activities out of doors when you can, and keep a list of all you get done and the obstacles in the way overcome (even seemingly small things.) I will pray for you. God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 3: The funny thing is that this description, so far from bearing any marks of mental illness, sounds like an admirably sane and eloquent description of day-to-day life in the modern world. But I suppose the depression part lies in the fact that you couldn’t see any punchline for it.

    5: “There has to be some kind of penalty, otherwise a legal fine on someone with no available capital would be a non-punishment.” Perhaps I just have a simplistic mind, but isn’t this like complaining about someone getting out of going to prison because he’s trapped in a caved-in mine shaft? If you have no capital whatsoever, you’re already in a worse predicament than anything a mere fine could do to you, surely.

    7: Not even that, really. More, “Lincoln was a world-class political genius and perhaps the firmest believer then existing in the principles he was fighting for, whereas Davis was just an ordinary competent Senator who hadn’t even been a secessionist a year before the war started.” (Which still doesn’t excuse you from letting Leonidas Polk invade Kentucky, Jeff – but never mind.)

    Liked by 1 person

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