Is depression a physical or a mental state of being? Can it be caused by one state or the other?
I believe that both states can be guilty, but which state bears the greater guilt I do not know.
I have a good friend about my own age and we talk to one another frequently. From time to time, he has had periods of depression, which, at our age can be natural. We are at the stage of our lives when we count the number of years remaining to us. That, by itself, can be very emotionally depressing.
My friend was a professional who hated the thought of eventual retirement. And when it came, he hated it even more. He lost interest in many of the things that were once important segments of his earlier years.
He has three grown children, all with respected professions. One is extremely devoted to him and visits him every day. One lives a great distance, but speaks with him often on the telephone and visits when her work schedule permits a brief vacation. And one counts the few hours daily when he can spend time with his wife and children. His work simply does not afford him extra time to visit with his old father.
So my friend tells me he is depressed and recalls his life of forty or fifty years ago, the adventures, travels, vacations he and his wife had together with their children. “Then”, he tells me, “we were a family; now each one goes about their own lives, too busy for a cup of coffee with Papa.”
I think he misses that part of his life very much. Father and son would take their meals together, take vacations together, talk intimately with one another..not just as parent to child, but as friend to friend. After the son’s marriage and his professional duties demanded more and more of his time, there was less and less time for Papa. That, says my friend, depresses him.
In addition, most of his long-time friends are now deceased and he feels lonely and abandoned. I informed him of all the leisure activities available to him in his community. Lectures, concerts, book reviews, chess games, card games…. whatever was of interest to him. But he won’t go. He just won’t budge out of his home where he sits glued to his television programs. Even the nightly news broadcasts depress him. (The truth is, they depress me also very much. Always news of killings and attacks, if not here in Israel, then in France or some African country).
I ask him why he refuses to join a community group. And he tells me, “Listen, my friend, those groups are for old people”.
I laugh loudly and ask him, “Well, what do you think we are?”
And he replies: “My body may be 80 plus, but my mind is still 20. What do I have in common with those old folks?”
After many conversations, I finally begin to understand him. His physical aches and pains limit his abilities and so aspirin and other pills become an essential part of his diet. I understand that. I too need to take pills for my aches and pains, but I attribute it to a part of life called “aging”.
Physical pain can be very depressing. But it can be remedied with medications.
Mental anxiety and anguish, on the other hand, requires much more than a simple aspirin. Depression, a sense of loss, a feeling that the end of life is nearing, the emptiness, the loneliness, the loss of personal esteem, is an illness that neither time nor pills can quickly heal.
When I hear my friend speaking of his depression, it depresses me also. So I go to a window, pull up a chair, and I look outside. There are green leaves on the trees, birds are sitting on telephone poles chirping melodies which only other birds can understand, young children are playing, couples are strolling holding hands. The sun brings warmth by day and the moon and stars bring comfort at day’s end.
I walk to my book-shelf and retrieve a slim volume of verses by the great British poet, Robert Browning.
As I flip the pages gently, I stop at “Pippa Passes” which Browning wrote in 1841. In its most famous passage, the poet attempts to sum up the meaning of a happy life.
“The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Mornings at seven,
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorns;
God’s in His heaven —
All’s right with the world!”
Reading the poem to my friend will not make his depression disappear, but he asks me to repeat the last line: “God’s in His heaven — all’s right with the world!’
And having repeated it to him twice more, I instruct him to print up a sign and post it on his front door and to look at it each time he enters and leaves his home…
DEPRESSION: NOT WANTED HERE.