The Power Of Suggestion

I don’t shy away from discussing the realities of my depression. This blog is a fine example of my candor. I find writing about my struggles to be a major part of the healing process.

I often tell people I care about (not long after I realize I care about them) that I suffer from depression. Sometimes I use it as a test. If they’re still standing near me instead of running away, they’re meant to be in my life.

My friend Dzmitry, whom I’ve known for about eight months now, had a test for me recently. He challenged me with a seemingly simple thought. “Maybe someone told you a long time ago you were depressed and you still believe it,” he said, urging me to see myself from a different perspective.

Dzmitry doesn’t notice my depression. In talking with me early on, nothing seemed amiss, even though I sensed my illness lurking in the background, hell-bent on fracturing a friendship before it could form.

What if I saw myself as a person with depression rather than a depressed person? What did I feel so powerfully that Dzmitry didn’t see in our meetings?

Of course, I can’t deny the physiological effects of my illness. Someone did indeed label me depressed a long time ago and I believed him because of the pain I felt and the discomfort I displayed. It’s one thing, though, to admit that I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life, and another to assume I’ll always be miserable. But this is how depression affects me: in feeling like shit, I often tell myself that feeling shitty is my destiny.

The power of Dzmitry’s suggestion—that a diagnosis of depression might become a self-fulfilling prophecy—helped me reevaluate my illness. In the process I found comfort in Dzmitry’s friendship, in his being there next to me. And I was glad that this time I didn’t run away.


The Truth Of The Matter

I had a professor back in the day who told me some twisted folks think ideas are more important than people. For some, furthering a cause means everything, even if it requires killing (often innocent) people in the process.

We don’t know exactly why the Boston bombers chose to blow up people (we may never find out), but it’s clear that as they carried out their “mission” the brothers believed (thanks to God, no doubt) in the validity of their own truths.

All of us maintain beliefs that are not rooted in reality-at-large. Most of us, though, don’t kill people to prove our points.

If I believe in a cause and you believe in an opposing cause, whose truth is closer to the Truth? Can’t anyone with a strong set of beliefs and an ax to grind simply start shooting and bombing at will?

We’re still not sure if the Boston bombers acted alone or if they had outside help (beyond learning online how to make pressure cooker bombs). The questions raised above focus on individual attackers. What does it mean when governments and religious groups and political organizations kill people to further a cause?

What does it mean that America is no different?

Great Expectations

I once wrote on this blog that everything that happens in life, as it unfolds, is neither good nor bad but instead neutral, and that thinking about events after they occur gives our experiences meaning(s). It was a very sophisticated, quasi-spiritual approach. Today I’d like to make an adjustment to this concept.

There is no self without society, no thought without culture. Nothing in life is isolated; we never live out an event without considering how things happened in the past. We each have expectations before we encounter an experience—expectations based on our individual histories, our loved ones’ histories, and the culture in which we operate. All of these forces affect how we “feel” future events.

Meaning is thus constructed not just during or after an experience but before we approach it.

Take a first date, for example. However it turns out, I have a script in my head as I drive to meet my potential mate. I recall how my past dates have gone (usually terribly), I remember how my parents met years ago, and I turn to images from American pop culture, possibly referencing an episode of The Bachelor to determine how a date “should” work.

This entire process originates in the unconscious mind. It’s not as if we have an experience and it simply happens without our constant pre-framing, framing and re-framing. Complicating matters is the realization that often our expectations don’t mesh with reality. Also, nothing is static. We are never locked into one interpretation of an event but are free to re-frame our re-frames. (This is where psychiatrists and professional counselors make their money).

Though it may sound rather Zen that nothing has meaning in and of itself, the truth is that we can’t escape value judgments about anything. We want meaning even if the universe just throws experiences at us, and the meanings we provide often stem from forces outside our conscious control.

I Must Confess

The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote back in 1976 that “Western man has become a confessing animal.” Foucault was referring to (post)modern man’s desire to humble himself while under the pressure of institutional forces like mental hospitals, prisons and schools. He argued that, like inmates under constant surveillance, the average citizen today has internalized the gaze of invisible prison guards. First to protect ourselves—and then out of habit—we end up self-correcting even if we’ve done nothing wrong.

Imagine if Foucault had lived to see the rise of reality TV and celebrity news channels.

We used to rely on the Church for our confession rituals. By the late nineteenth century, however, people started turning to psychotherapy for the sharing of transgressions. Folks still consult priests and therapists, of course, but over the years new digital outlets have emerged.

Now we have programs like Big Brother to witness on a global scale the trials and tribulations of misbehaving contestants. The Bachelor shares his personal struggles in the hopes of landing an equally troubled “wife.” We have Katie Couric to feel our pain and filter it to her wide-eyed viewers, all in the service of our rehabilitation, which is often court-ordered. Barbara Walters still makes celebrities cry when discussing their unbearable childhoods and subsequent drug, alcohol and sex addictions.

But what are we so guilty about? What impels us both to watch these less-than-intimate confessions and then repeat the process to strangers on blogs, followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook? Everybody does things he or she regrets, but it seems like we’ve made a competition out of who can repent the loudest.

Americans love a good comeback story, or at least the illusion that all of us can achieve spiritual renewal if we try hard enough. Our obsession with guilt is just the first step. The next phase involves giving stars like Charlie Sheen a chance at redemption. Until he—and you and I—screw up tomorrow and feel compelled to confess new sins. As we spin our truths for higher ratings, the world sits back and sets the DVR.