Another Way of Looking at Fatigue and Depression
Original Essay by Charles Eisenstein
Depression, anxiety, and fatigue are an essential part of a process of metamorphosis that is unfolding on the planet today, and highly significant for the light they shed on the transition from an old world to a new.
When a growing fatigue or depression becomes serious, and we get a diagnosis of Epstein-Barr or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or hypothyroid or low serotonin, we typically feel relief and alarm. Alarm: something is wrong with me. Relief: at least I know I’m not imagining things; now that I have a diagnosis, I can be cured, and life can go back to normal. But of course, a cure for these conditions is elusive.
The notion of a cure starts with the question, “What has gone wrong?” But there is another, radically different way of seeing fatigue and depression that starts by asking, “What is the body, in its perfect wisdom, responding to?” When would it be the wisest choice for someone to be unable to summon the energy to fully participate in life?
The answer is staring us in the face. When our soul-body is saying No to life, through fatigue or depression, the first thing to ask is, “Is life as I am living it the right life for me right now?” When the soul-body is saying No to participation in the world, the first thing to ask is, “Does the world as it is presented me merit my full participation?”
What if there is something so fundamentally wrong with the world, the lives, and the way of being offered us, that withdrawal is the only sane response? Withdrawal, followed by a reentry into a world, a life, and a way of being wholly different from the one left behind?
The unspoken goal of modern life seems to be to live as long and as comfortably as possible, to minimize risk and to maximize security. We see this priority in the educational system, which tries to train us to be “competitive” so that we can “make a living”. We see it in the medical system, where the goal of prolonging life trumps any consideration of whether, sometimes, the time has come to die. We see it in our economic system, which assumes that all people are motivated by “rational self-interest”, defined in terms of money, associated with security and survival. (And have you ever thought about the phrase “the cost of living”?) We are supposed to be practical, not idealistic; we are supposed to put work before play. Ask someone why she stays in a job she hates, and as often as not the answer is, “For the health insurance.” In other words, we stay in jobs that leave us feeling dead in order to gain the assurance of staying alive. When we choose health insurance over passion, we are choosing survival over life.
On a deep level, which I call the soul level, we want none of that. We recognize that we are here on earth to enact a sacred purpose, and that most of the jobs on offer are beneath our dignity as human beings. But we might be too afraid to leave our jobs, our planned-out lives, our health insurance, or whatever other security and comfort we have received in exchange for our divine gifts. Deep down, we recognize this security and comfort as slaves’ wages, and we yearn to be free.
So, the soul rebels. Afraid to make the conscious choice to step away from a slave’s life, we make the choice unconsciously instead. We can no longer muster the energy to go through the motions. We enact this withdrawal from life through a variety of means. We might summon the Epstein-Barr virus into our bodies, or mononucleosis, or some other vector of chronic fatigue. We might shut down our thyroid or adrenal glands. We might shut down our production of serotonin in the brain. Other people take a different route, incinerating the excess life energy in the fires of addiction. Either way, we are in some way refusing to participate. We are shying away from ignoble complicity in a world gone wrong. We are refusing to contribute our divine gifts to the aggrandizement of that world.
That is why the conventional approach of fixing the problem so that we can return to normal life will not work. It might work temporarily, but the body will find other ways to resist. Raise serotonin levels with SSRIs, and the brain will prune some receptor sites, thinking in its wisdom, “Hey, I’m not supposed to feel good about the life I am living right now.” In the end, there is always suicide, a common endpoint of the pharmaceutical regimes that seek to make us happy with something inimical to our very purpose and being. You can only force yourself to abide in wrongness so long. When the soul’s rebellion is suppressed too long, it can explode outward in bloody revolution. Significantly, all of the school shootings in the last decade have involved people on anti-depression medication. All of them! For a jaw-dropping glimpse of the results of the pharmaceutical regime of control, scroll down this compilation of suicide/homicide cases involving SSRIs. I am not using “jaw-dropping” as a figure of speech. My jaw literally dropped open.
Back in the 1970s, dissidents in the Soviet Union were often hospitalized in mental institutions and given drugs similar to the ones used to treat depression today. The reasoning was that you had to be insane to be unhappy in the Socialist Workers’ Utopia. When the people treating depression receive status and prestige from the very system that their patients are unhappy with, they are unlikely to affirm the basic validity of the patient’s withdrawal from life. “The system has to be sound — after all, it validates my professional status — therefore the problem must be with you.”
Unfortunately, “holistic” approaches are no different, as long as they deny the wisdom of the body’s rebellion. When they do seem to work, usually that is because they coincide with some other shift. When someone goes out and gets help, or makes a radical switch of modalities, it works as a ritual communication to the unconscious mind of a genuine life change. Rituals have the power to make conscious decisions real to the unconscious. They can be part of taking back one’s power.
I have met countless people of great compassion and sensitivity, people who would describe themselves as “conscious” or “spiritual”, who have battled with CFS, depression, thyroid deficiency, and so on. These are people who have come to a transition point in their lives where they become physically incapable of living the old life in the old world. That is because, in fact, the world presented to us as normal and acceptable is anything but. It is a monstrosity. Ours is a planet in pain. If you need me to convince you of that, if you are unaware of the destruction of forests, oceans, wetlands, cultures, soil, health, beauty, dignity, and spirit that underlies the System we live in, then I have nothing to say to you. I only am speaking to you if you do believe that there is something deeply wrong with the way we are living on this planet.
A related syndrome comprises various “attention deficit” and anxiety “disorders” (forgive me, I cannot write down these words without the ironic quotation marks) which reflect an unconscious knowledge that something is wrong around here. Anxiety, like all emotions, has a proper function. Suppose you left a pot on the stove and you know you forgot something, you just can’t remember what. You cannot rest at ease. Something is bothering you, something is wrong. Subliminally you smell smoke. You obsess: did I leave the water running? Did I forget to pay the mortgage? The anxiety keeps you awake and alert; it doesn’t let you rest; it keeps your mind churning, worrying. This is good. This is what saves your life. Eventually you realize — the house is on fire! — and anxiety turns into panic, and action.
So if you suffer from anxiety, maybe you don’t have a “disorder” at all — maybe the house is on fire. Anxiety is simply the emotion corresponding to “Something is dangerously wrong and I don’t know what it is.” That is only a disorder if there is in fact nothing dangerously wrong. “Nothing is wrong, just you” is the message that any therapy gives when it tries to fix you. I disagree with that message. The problem is not with you. You have very good reason to be anxious. Anxiety keeps part of your attention away from your tasks of polishing the silverware as the house burns down, of playing the violin as the Titanic sinks. Unfortunately, the wrongness you are tapping into might be beyond the cognizance of the psychiatrists who treat you, who then conclude that the problem must be your brain.
Similarly, Attention Deficit Disorder, ADHD, and my favorite, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) are only disorders if we believe that the things presented for our attention are worth paying attention to. We cannot admit, without calling into question the whole edifice of our school system, that it may be completely healthy for a ten-year-old boy to not sit still for six hours in a classroom learning about long division and Vasco de Gama. Perhaps the current generation of children, that some call the Indigos, simply have a lower tolerance for school’s agenda of conformity, obedience, external motivation, right-and-wrong answers, the quantification of performance, rules and bells, report cards and grades and your permanent record. So we try to enforce their attention with stimulants, and subdue their heroic intuitive rebellion against the spirit-wrecking machine.
As I write about the “wrongness” against which we all rebel, I can hear some readers asking, “What about the metaphysical principle that it’s ‘all good’?” Just relax, I am told, nothing is wrong, all is part of the divine plan. You only perceive it as wrong because of your limited human perspective. All of this is only here for our own development. War: it gives people wonderful opportunities to make heroic choices and burn off bad karma. Life is wonderful, Charles, why do you have to make it wrong?
I am sorry, but usually such reasoning is just a sop to the conscience. If it is all good, then that is only because we perceive and experience it as terribly wrong. The perception of iniquity moves us to right it.
Nonetheless, it would be ignorant and fruitless to pass judgment upon those who do not see anything wrong, who, oblivious to the facts of destruction, think everything is basically fine. There is a natural awakening process, in which first we proceed full speed ahead participating in the world, believing in it, seeking to contribute to the Ascent of Humanity. Eventually, we encounter something that is undeniably wrong, perhaps a flagrant injustice or a serious health problem or a tragedy near at hand. Our first response is to think this is an isolated problem, remediable with some effort, within a system that is basically sound. But when we try to fix it, we discover deeper and deeper levels of wrongness. The rot spreads; we see that no injustice, no horror can stand in isolation. We see that the disappeared dissidents in South America, the child laborers in Pakistan, the clearcut forests of the Amazon, are all intimately linked together in a grotesque tapestry that includes every aspect of modern life. We realize that the problems are too big to fix. We are called to live in an entirely different way, starting with our most fundamental values and priorities.
All of us go through this process, repeatedly, in various realms of our lives; all parts of the process are right and necessary. The phase of full participation is a growth phase in which we develop gifts that will be applied very differently later. The phase of trying to fix, to endure, to soldier on with a life that isn’t working is a maturation phase that develops qualities of patience and determination and strength. The phase of discovering the all-encompassing nature of the problem is usually a phase of despair, but it need not be. Properly, it is a phase of rest, of stillness, of withdrawal, of preparation for a push. The push is a birth-push. Crises in our lives converge and propel us into a new life, a new being that we hardly imagine could exist, except that we’d heard rumors of it, echoes, and maybe even caught a glimpse of it here and there, been granted through grace a brief preview.
If you are in the midst of this process, you need not suffer if you cooperate with it. I can offer you two things. First is self-trust. Trust your own urge to withdraw even when a million messages are telling you, “The world is fine, what’s wrong with you? Get with the program.” Trust your innate belief that you are here on earth for something magnificent, even when a thousand disappointments have told you you are ordinary. Trust your idealism, buried in your eternal child’s heart, that says that a far more beautiful world than this is possible. Trust your impatience that says “good enough” is not good enough. Do not label your noble refusal to participate as laziness and do not medicalize it as an illness. Your heroic body has merely made a few sacrifices to serve your growth.
The second thing I can offer you is a map. The journey I have described is not always linear, and you may find yourself from time to time revisiting earlier territory. When you find the right life, when you find the right expression of your gifts, you will receive an unmistakable signal. You will feel excited and alive. Many people have preceded you on this journey, and many more will follow in times to come. Because the old world is falling apart, and the crises that initiate the journey are converging upon us. Soon many people will follow the paths we have pioneered. Each journey is unique, but all share the same basic dynamics I have described. When you have passed through it, and understood the necessity and rightness of each of its phases, you will be prepared to midwife others through it as well. Your condition, all the years of it, has prepared you for this. It has prepared you to ease the passage of those who will follow. Everything you have gone through, every bit of the despair, has been necessary to forge you into a healer and a guide. The need is great. The time is coming soon.
Read more of Charles’s essays here.