I feel depressed because I have needs that are not being satisfied.
Well, maybe. Indeed it’s one way to frame and explore a depressed state. There’s more to the story however than what the above diagnostic statement suggests. We risk framing and treating people’s problems superficially if the prevailing reflex around what troubles them is primarily based in the identification of one’s personal needs as being the most effective means for resolving issues. What we often overlook in client-centred conversations is the degree to which one’s individual health and well being is greatly dependent on the state of health of everything that surrounds and sustains us in our human lives. This is an understanding that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves at the best of times and is even less likely to be considered by someone in a depressed state. This is especially true in a culture that promotes and reinforces the doctrine of being self-made.
Imagine that a plant is withering in your garden. Would you concentrate solely on the plant and its drooping leaves or would you examine the soil and the plant’s placement. You would likely consider the temperature, light levels, look for signs of pest infestation. When it comes to our gardens, we are likely to consider the WHOLE. We recognize the that the plant’s health is entirely dependant on the health of everything around it. And yet when it comes to human health, we are much more likely to proceed with a pointed focus on the individual.
At this time of writing 10.4% of American children are taking Ritalin or Adderall and that number is rising at an alarming rate according to experts. An even greater percentage of adults are taking psycho-stimulants. Let that sink in.
Canadian physician Gabor Maté speaks and writes on the subject of addiction. He consistently draws a parallel between socio-cultural factors and the individual’s state of health and choices. “We keep trying to change people's behaviours without a full understanding of how and why those behaviours arise.”
Marshall Rosenberg wrote: Depression is the reward we get for being 'good'. He wasn’t making the case for ‘poor’ behaviour. Rather he was asserting that we are educated to believe that our ‘goodness’ stems from our allegiance to the status quo. We eventually learn, typically after a spell of disillusionment, that we have been sorely led astray around what constitutes integrity and well being. It’s tragically all too easy to be blinded to the ways in which we regularly violate our own needs and the needs of life for the sake of the rewards we get for being ‘good’ members of a regime that is itself removed from what serves life. It’s no wonder then that so many suffer from depression or lack of focus. As Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
What if we were to reflect daily on the following questions:
What’s worth living for?
What’s worth focusing on?
What am I ultimately connected to?
Is it possible that I have been educated to hold values and live in a manner that are not in alignment with sane and healthy living?
What has happened to a culture where these questions aren’t raised or even worse where raising such questions is seen as being defiant?
Each one of us lives inside our own personal narrative which takes its cues from the larger cultural narrative of the society into which we are born. We embrace some aspects of the narrative and reject other aspects. Certainly our social and economical survival relies on our engagement with our culture to some degree. Even in cases where a person turns away from their native culture, it is virtually impossible to make a clean break from its influence. I’m not suggesting one should either, only that it’s prudent to reflect on the whats and whys of what we think we’re overcoming. It’s prudent to wrestle with the fact that the seeds around beliefs and behaviours were well planted before we were able to decide whether or not we wanted to adopt them. It’s prudent to wonder about the implications and cultivate some discernment.
I can never be entirely free from the impact that my culture has on me anymore than I can be free from the impact that literacy has had on me. Even if I decided to divest myself of all my belongings and head for the heart of the Amazon rainforest to live out the rest of my days with an oral tradition tribal culture who commune with the aliveness of everything around them without ever referring to a book .. even if I never again look at a written word, I cannot be free from the impact that the written word has had on me. For better or worse, my ability to read and write has shaped my brain and shaped how I perceive the world and consequently how I engage with it. It’s important to bear this in mind and to consider just how far reaching cultural influences actually are. And then to wonder what this also says about our ability to make choices that hold an enduring regard for life. How well honed is that ability?
In terms of my depression: I may reach a point where I decide to pay a visit to a counsellor or mental health worker. I might say to them: I feel depressed because I have a need for meaning and relevance in my life that somehow eludes me at this time. This might in turn lead to an exploration, led primarily by my counsellor, of various strategies I could take to meet those needs. I might start meditating or journaling. I might take up yoga or swimming, change my diet, sign up for personal development workshops or join a support group. I might take anti-depressants. I may return to school and acquire new skills leading to employment that brings greater satisfaction into my life. And while my depression might lift, the society around me remains unchanged. It chugs along at the speed of progress.
For a good many people, strategies such as medication and re-skilling will have little effect other than numbing or reducing the angst that stimulated them to seek professional help in the first place. I’m not downplaying the merits of pain reduction; rather I’m pointing out that the problem, which in many cases extends far beyond the individual seeking help, is not being effectively diagnosed or addressed.
I need to know that I belong to a culture that is ultimately sane and healthy
Perhaps a more comprehensive expression of a person’s depressed state might be articulated as follows: It’s true that I feel depressed because I have a need for meaning and relevance in my work and in my life overall. But there’s more .. I also have a need to see meaning and relevance reflected around me in how people live and work together as a society. I need to know that I belong to a culture that is ultimately sane and healthy .. a society that has a recognizable regard for life. Without that, all I see around me is dissonance, fragmentation and distraction. All I see is people coping, some better than others. All I see is a society that makes no sense and is rushing towards its own demise. Yes I have a need for meaning and relevance but at its best, healthy meaning and relevance is first culturally derived so that it can be individually adopted and lived. I am at a loss to know how to generate something that requires a collectively shared understanding to bring it about. Everything seems pretty fucked up around me and I’m merely a symptom of that fuckedupness displaying my own unique expression of fuckedupness. Not much of an achievement.
And just because some people appear to thrive in a malignant consumer culture doesn’t mean the culture is healthy. Nor does it mean that my inability to thrive indicates a failure or imbalance on my part. From the crib to the daycare centre to the classroom to the boardroom to the bank to the retail outlet and back and forth between these various prisons and finally to the senior’s residence and to the palliative care unit, my life is one long tedious exercise of coping with incoherence and trying not to go crazy. This doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful or resentful or that I don’t experience moments of joy. The truth is I have enormous gratitude for life, but the things I’m grateful for have little to do with my boxed-in institutionalized life. In fact my gratitude is fueled by the aliveness that occasionally manages to break through the cracks of the grinding societal machine.
It’s not enough to speak to me about my personal needs and explore strategies to satisfy them when the entire conversation and exercise takes place within the silo of a cultural narrative that pretends to serve life while marching to an agenda that is primarily concerned with its own solipsistic survival. It’s simply not enough. I am a canary in a coal mine and I’m telling you the answer has to be larger than my own individual symptoms and needs. It has to be larger than the myriad of strategies prescribed to treat my symptoms .. strategies which are born out of the same sickness that generated my affliction. I don’t want to learn to cope with the noxious gases that are slowly killing me .. I want to get out of this sick place and live in the way nature intended me to .. and the great tragedy is that all I have ever known in my small lifetime is the coal mine. I was born inside it. I believe you were too. Now dear counsellor, what do you have to say to me?
For starters, it’s a good idea not to burden NVC or psychology with the impossible task of trying solve the world’s problems or your own. And if NVC is the lens through which you approach challenges, consider exercising caution and not moving too swiftly through NVC’s first step in a feverish rush to get to the alleged goldmine of needs. I’m speaking here about the capacity to OBSERVE. In photography the aperture or “f” stop refers to the depth of field of the lens. The greater the depth of field, the more rich and detailed the visual information that will be recorded once the shutter is released. When someone is in pain, it’s useful to increase our depth of field vision so that we can appreciate the larger story. We can remember the words of the Sufi poet Rumi ..
My heart is so small
it's almost invisible.
How can You place
such big sorrows in it?
"Look," He answered,
"your eyes are even smaller,
yet they behold the world.
If we aspire to become wise humans, we need to train ourselves to see far more than what is directly in front of us. There are many influences that we overlook entirely or dismiss as being irrelevant to our malaises simply because we can’t immediately see them or link them to our symptoms. For instance, most of us never consider how sleeping in a crib alone in a bedroom as infants has shaped us, or being fed formula from a bottle or placed on a “schedule”, or being raised in nuclear families, or being subjected to both human-centric and consumer values, or not being initiated into adulthood, or not having real elders in our midst, etc. Depressions isn’t typically due to one thing. It is quite often an aggregate of many things accruing over time. To see these various influences and their different ways of appearing as signals or symptoms requires that we see the inter-relatedness of all things. It means observing relationally. It means seeing beyond what we have been taught to see.
If I were depressed, I would long for the following: I would want the person I was speaking with to have significant depth of field vision, someone in no rush to get me out of my dark night .. but rather someone who knew something of its rough and challenging terrain and was not afraid to spend time there with me .. someone well acquainted with the particular flavour of madness that our culture traffics in .. someone who could open my eyes to that very madness and help me become aware of its long shadow over our respective personal and collective human lives. Perhaps in that person’s presence, I could begin to re-member an ancestral song deep in my bones recalling a vibrant sunlit horizon where my yellow wings could fly beyond the coal mine. Yes, that’s what I would want, even if I didn’t know it.
Rachelle Lamb’s tenacious interest in human development, relationship dynamics and the roles that culture and ecology play in people's lives, along with her ability to skillfully pave the way for transformational dialogue between people consistently produces powerful learning experiences for individuals and audiences. Learn more about her at www.RachelleLamb.com.