I have been having conversations with students lately that have been based around their struggles with depression and anxiety.
So, what is the consolation of philosophy for this era where people are being treated for mental health issues more than ever before and yet the suicide rates continue to go up?
Let me first assure you that serious mental illness needs to be treated, often with both medicine and therapy. I do not want to downplay that at all. I know from my own struggle that this kind of help has saved my life many times.
With those qualifications hopefully clear, I wanted to write about the overall feeling so very many of us are experiencing. Does wisdom have any offerings? I think it does.
Life is difficult! Suffering is normal if we live as an isolated ego feeling separate from all other egos. Life is suffering when we feel misunderstood, disconnected, and alone. So where does the idea that “life should be easy” come from? Most people I know have had difficult lives in one way or another. I have yet to meet someone who has not suffered.
There is a whole book to write here, but I will just mention two things.
First, if you are at all awake to what is going on in our world, the humanitarian crisis in not just Ukraine, but in Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, etc. then something would be wrong with you if you do not feel the weight of all of that misery. That is one reason “ignorance is bliss.” To see what we continue to do to one another and to our planet is depressing.
In this sense, depression is a good sign that you are thinking about others and not just yourself. To be happy in an insane world is its own problem.
Second, everything society pushes on us makes us more miserable. Too many studies have shown the mental health toll that is directly related to social media alone. But society also pushes us to look to money — materialism — and the approval of others, and success and popularity and how we look, among many other things, is where we will find happiness.
But this is completely the opposite of what philosophy teaches! Wisdom, from every tradition I have studied, including atheistic views encapsulated in philosophies such as Existentialism, teach that we can only find happiness by working with our own minds. Happiness is an inner job and we will never find it outside of ourselves. We may find temporary gratification, but not lasting joy and serenity.
Happiness comes from giving rather than getting. And yet our society gives us the opposite message. So, we must be strong, we must think for ourselves, we must seek within, if we are to find contentment and peace. We need to stop buying into what the media teaches, in all its many forms, when it tells us what will make us happy.
Just a little thought proves that we are being brainwashed and conditioned into constantly seeking what we are looking for in all of the wrong places.
When we embrace suffering, we let it teach us compassion and wisdom. When we run from it with distractions, drugs, money, alcohol, etc. we are playing into the conditioning we have received.
I want my suffering to break my heart open so that I will love more, not less. That is my wish for you too. And that is the consolation of philosophy.