In a previous article I shared some of the books that have been life changing for me. I am presently re-reading one of these books, "The Saints’ Guide to Happiness" written by Robert Ellsberg. I would not identify myself as a person who is religious or of any particular faith or denomination. But I do feel that we can learn a lot from people of all faiths who have written about how to handle life’s challenges. Some of my favorite passages from this book remind me that depression is multi-faceted. Is depression caused by biology? I believe so and so do many doctors, therapists and researchers. Yet biology only gives us part of the picture. Depression is also deepened by loss, trauma, and stress.
Yet probably the biggest overlooked contributor to depression is incongruence with our values and how we actually live our life. In many ways depression may be a wake-up call that something is not right in our life that we need to change.
If you are in a bad relationship, have a job, which is toxic to your mental health, or you are living life unconsciously like an automaton, all the antidepressants in the world will not solve your problems. A pill or even therapy cannot translate to change unless you take that first step. I am in no way minimizing these tools. Antidepressants and therapy can help you to reach that point where you feel strong enough to take risks and enact change. There is a saying, which has been attributed to both Albert Einstein and Narcotics Anonymous that states: “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” If you keep living a life that is incongruent with your values and beliefs and sit around hoping for a change to occur from some external source, it is guaranteed that you will remain unhappy.
In the Saints’ Guide to Happiness a story of transformation is told about a man named James Martin. Martin, who would later become a Jesuit priest, began his life in a very different way than one would expect. He had very high ambitions as a young man and dreamed of a high powered career and making mountains of money. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he had attained some of the "success" he had aspired to achieve. He became a junior executive at General Electric and was quickly becoming a corporate star. Yet despite getting to where he thought he should be in life, Martin felt empty and unhappy. Something was wrong.
He wondered as some of us do, "Is this it?" If this is it, then why aren’t I happy? Martin was searching for that missing essential piece to his life but he didn’t know at the time what that piece was.
It is reported that James Martin felt the wake-up call to change his life when he opened his eyes to how impersonal and callous corporate culture can be. Cold-hearted downsizing and the constant pressure to increase profits at any cost caused Martin to rethink his direction in life. He was feeling a lack of meaning and purpose to his life that money and career could never fill. Martin was inspired by a documentary he saw on TV about a spiritual leader named Thomas Merton, a poet, writer, social activist, and monk. Martin could identify with Merton’s self professed short-comings of vanity and placing ambition above purpose and meaning prior to his life in a monastery. Both men would find their calling in faith.
James Martin became a Jesuit priest and Thomas Merton became a monk.
This type of life change is extremely radical and one which most people would not choose. But their stories do resonate with anyone who may wonder if it is possible to change direction in life and find your true calling.
St. Francis of Assisi is another inspirational figure depicted in the Saints’ Guide to Happiness. This is a saint who is described as the personification of joy. Part of St. Francis’s joy came from the weightlessness of detachment. In a previous post I have written about the Buddhist perspective of detachment. This principle of "letting go" crosses most religious boundaries. Everyone has their own definition of what detachment means but in simple terms it means to let go of those things that enslave you. It could be a dysfunctional relationship, a job that defiles your values, or ambitions that make you feel empty.
Some would say that St. Francis was extreme in his detachment in choosing to live a life of poverty. Even other religious leaders would question how giving away all his material possessions and living among peasants would help anyone. St. Francis had a good answer. He believed that the entrapments of typical success leave us less open to love both God and our neighbor. For St. Francis, detachment meant freedom. It meant that he had more time, energy, and an open heart to serve.
It is described that St. Francis let go of more than just material possessions. In fact parting with possessions may have been the easiest part for him. He also let go of ""¦his reputation and status in society, his fastidiousness, his anger, his pride, his ambitions-everything, in short, that hindered his ability to love."
We live in a society that praises excess. I turned on my television this Sunday morning and in flipping through the channels I came across several televangelists. Mostly I am repelled by such shows and today I was reminded why. Most of these well-dressed preachers were delivering a message to sometimes packed arenas that somehow Godliness is connected to material wealth, success, and power. The audience was shown to nod emphatically in reply. This interpretations of God’s will are sometimes called prosperity theology, which proposes that God wants us to be happy through prosperity and wealth. According to this same philosophy sickness and poverty are curses that can be eradicated by faith. It is a perspective that sells and we are buying it.
I am sure we have also heard of The Secret and the laws of attraction by now. The Oprah show had promoted the movie, The Secret, by depicting this movie as life changing. This philosophy promises to show us a way to get out of debt, find a great job or even fall in love. The movie’s creator, Rhonda Byrne, was depicted as someone who was once in physical, emotional, and financial despair. She was also experiencing grief after her father passed away. What would inspire someone in such depths of depression? For Byrne it was a copy of a book published in 1910 called The Science of Getting Rich. Reading this book reportedly caused Byrne to weep and discover "the secret." Not sure reading get rich schemes would be a pick-me-up for most people but for Byrne it was the key to her wealth in sharing her secret with the world. Are we any happier for it?
In addition to sermons, books, and movies, our society’s obsession for more can also be seen in our newfound technology. We are addicted to websites that encourage us to collect "friends" as commodities. Someone "liking" us translates to more business and greater wealth. We obsess over hearts, numbers, and hits. We own multiple gadgets to stay in touch yet we have a difficult time talking to the person sitting next to us because we have to respond to that all important text message from someone we barely know. We have more opportunities than ever to connect so why do so many people still suffer from loneliness? Could part of our alienation be due to our futile attempts to weed through the mountains of spam and meaningless drivel from those who view us as a mere number to drive their traffic? On any given day it is far more likely that we will be subject to some sort of advertisement or promotion rather than a letter from a friend.
Human connection has been trivialized to a bullet point business plan.
It would be interesting to see how someone such as St. Francis would view our technology driven society today.
The big question remains: Is all this drive for "more" making us happy? We have top ten lists that encourage us to engage in a little retail therapy as a way to ease depression. Is it really so? Can we distract ourselves from despair, depression, or even grief by buying something? Perhaps momentarily, but then what? Will we need more and more to fill up the empty space within us? Does success in being able to buy more possessions translate to happiness?
The tabloids are filled with stories of people who win the lottery and end up wishing they were never "cursed" with the problems associated with great wealth. Celebrities who seemingly have everything including fame, fortune, and prestige sometimes find themselves vulnerable to addiction, depression, anxiety, and even suicide. What we think will bring us happiness or fulfillment quite often does not match our expectations. Not even close.
The answer to James Martin’s question of, "Is there more than this?" is yes.
The key is to stop trying to find happiness in the wrong places.
I am going to propose a radical theory. Perhaps, in some cases, depression is part of our life force whispering in our ear to make a change. Not a change for more but for less. It is not necessary to be a saint to find happiness. It is not necessary to take a vow of poverty or join the clergy. But we can learn a lot about real joy in exploring the lives of people who took that risk to fundamentally change their life.
What is your depression urging you to change? What actions would bring more meaning and purpose to your life? What is your personal meaning of success or happiness?
Nobody can answer these questions for you. For some, it takes years or even decades to find your personal answer. I am here to tell you that it is worth taking the journey.
Please share your thoughts, opinions, and stories with us in the form of a comment. Thank you as always for your participation on this site. You matter.
You can find more of Merely Me on her blog: I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends