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The On Being Project

Down Is the Way to Well-being: The Dangers of Living at Altitude

Thirty years ago, during one of my three descents into depression, my therapist said:

“You seem to image depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as the hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it’s safe to stand?”

My first thought was, “I need a new therapist.”
When you’re depressed, it seems insulting, even insane for someone to suggest that the soul-sucking spawn of Satan that has sunk its claws into you is your BFF. And yet, as time went by, the image of depression as a befriending force began to work on me, slowly reframing my misery and helping me find a way through. Something in me knew what my therapist knew: down is the way to well-being.
During my first 40 years, I’d been driven by the notion that “Up, up and away!” was the way to go. I had worked hard to achieve altitude because, well, because higher is better than lower, right? Wrong! Living at altitude is dangerous. When we fall, as we regularly do, we have a long way to fall, and the fall may kill us. But a life on the ground — a life grounded in the reality of our own nature and our right relationship to the world — allows us to stumble and fall, get back up, brush ourselves off, and take next steps without doing ourselves great harm.
The altitude at which I was living came from “malfunctions” of four human capacities. When rightly used, they can serve us well: intellect, ego, spirituality, and ethics.

Intellect. As an academic, I’d been trained not simply to think, a capacity I value, but to live largely in my head, the part of the body farthest from the ground. Learning to think “with my mind descended into my heart” — integrating what I knew intellectually with what I knew experientially — was not part of the program.

Ego. We all need ego strength, a viable sense of self. But I’d been borne aloft on an inflated ego, an ego that led me to think more of myself than was healthy in order to mask my neurotic fear that I was less than I should have been.
Spirituality. The spiritual yearning to connect with the largeness of life can be life-giving. But the spirituality I’d embraced was more about flying above life’s mess than engaging with it on the ground. How did the Christian tradition in which I was raised — one centered on “the Word made flesh” — became so disembodied?

Ethics. I’d tried to live by the precepts of an impossibly out-of-reach ethic, an ethic framed by other people’s images of who I ought to be and what I ought to do. What I needed was honest insight into what is true, possible, and life-giving for me — just as I am, broken places and all.

Those external “oughts” had long been a driving force in my life. When I failed to live up to them — see how often “up” sneaks into our talk about the good life? — I judged myself as weak and faithless. I was stuck in that stage of moral development where one has high aspirations and equally high levels of guilt about falling short. It’s a formula for the good life, I tell you: aim high, hit low, and feel lousy about yourself as you go!
As I took on various issues and causes, I never stopped to ask, “Does such-and-such fit my sense of who I am?” Or, “Is such-and-such truly my gift and my calling?” As a result, important parts of the life I was living were not mine to live, and were thus bound to fail. Depression was, indeed, the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand — the ground of my own being, with its complex and messy mix of limits and potentials, liabilities and assets, darkness and light.
Eventually, I developed my own image for the befriending intention hidden in my depression, and how my failure to “listen to my life” had left me in a place of deep pain. Imagine that for many years a friend had been walking a block behind me, calling my name, trying to get my attention because he wanted to tell me some hard but healing truths about myself. But I — afraid of what I might hear, or arrogantly certain I had nothing to learn — ignored his calls and kept on walking.
So my friend came closer and called my name louder, but I walked on, refusing to turn around. Closer still he came, now shouting my name. Frustrated by my lack of response, he began to throw stones and hit me with sticks, still wanting nothing more than to get my attention. But despite the pain I felt, I kept walking away.
Since calls and shouts, sticks and stones, had failed to get my attention, there was only one thing left for my friend to do: drop the bomb called depression on me. He did so not with intent to kill, but in a last-ditch effort to get me to turn toward him and ask a simple question: “What do you want?” When I finally made that turn — and began taking in and acting on the self-knowledge he’d been waiting to offer me — I took first steps on the path to wellbeing.
Thomas Merton’s name for that friend is “true self.” This is not the ego self that wants to inflate us. It’s not the intellectual self that wants to hover above life’s mess with logical but ungrounded ideas. It’s not the ethical self that wants to live by someone else’s “oughts.” It’s not the spiritual self that wants to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” and fly nonstop to heaven.
True self is the self with which we arrived on earth, the self that simply wants us to be who we were born to be. True self tells us who we are, where we are planted in the ecosystem of life, what “right action” looks like for us, and how we can grow more fully into our own potentials. As an old Hasidic tale reminds us, our mission is to live into the shape of true self, not the shape of someone else’s life:

Before he died, Rabbi Zusya said: “In the world to come they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

Memo to myself: Stay on the ground, turn around, ask and listen! True self is true friend — it’s a friendship we ignore at our peril. And pass the word: friends don’t let friends live at altitude!

Author’s Note: Depression is a complex topic, and I’m qualified only to write about my own experience of it. So what appears above is not meant to apply to all cases of depression, let alone write a “prescription” for them. It’s simply part of my story. My focus in this post is on the situational element of my depression — but in my case, elements of brain chemistry and genetics were also involved. People sometimes ask if I’m “for or against” antidepressants. In all three of my depressions, I was on meds for periods ranging from six to twelve months, and I’m grateful for the relief they provided.

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