Last week, a reader called Tom wrote in with this story:
I am finally coming out the other side of a pretty deep existential crisis (possibly a result of drug use) and I am seeing the colour flood back into my life. I have just turned 29. The last 5 years have been pretty bleak and filled with crippling anxiety. Everything I once believed and valued seemed to be lies and the world felt hollow. I then began looking for the truth.
The deeper I looked into philosophy, Buddhism, meditation, health and fitness etc the more questions and uncertainty I created for myself. This ramped up my motivation to find the answers. The more I looked, the more uncertainty I created, and the more I needed to look. During this period my anxiety became crippling.
Fortunately I was able to realize what was going on and pull myself out of this cycle. I decided for a period that I would cut everything out of my life that caused uncertainty. This included reading or listening to any self help, philosophical, health and fitness etc article or podcast. I focused on filling my days with play, eg frisbee, non-fiction books, comedy, eventually friends. Within two weeks to a month, I felt like a completely different person.
I think there is a tendency for thinkers/sensitive types, whatever you want to call us, to over-think and intellectualise depression. I think in hindsight, if I had just ridden out the depression, I would have fallen back into life fairly quickly. However, my need to find answers lead me down a rabbit hole of depression and anxiety.
I will still have questions because that is my nature. However, I now understand the importance of diverting my attention and hope I am now better able to ask whether a particular line of intrigue is helpful or unhelpful to my quality of life.
I like Tom’s advice. Sometimes, in the darkness, we need to give our minds a rest, and find a distraction. Games are good for that. It reminds me of Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment. Shirley Maclaine’s character has tried to kill herself with an overdose. Jack Lemmon’s character finds her, resuscitates her, and then tries to keep her awake and busy by playing cards with her. When she asks him what’s the point in life, he replies: ‘shut up and deal’ – a line she repeats to him at the end of the film, when she has recovered and they’re in love.
One of the few philosophers who understood our need for distractions amid the existential confusion was Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician. He’s a fascinating figure – he was one of the leading mathematicians of his age, he almost died in a riding accident, and then had a sort of near-death experience (known as his ‘nuit de feu’ or ‘night of fire’), after which he became a religious philosopher. But he’s fascinating even if you’re not theist - he’s really the first existentialist philosopher, in that he has an acute sense of the mystery of existence and the absurdity of human endeavour.
His Pensees, or ‘thoughts’, are a collection of brief meditations on existence. Here’s one of them:
The only good thing for men is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short what is called diversion.
That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness…What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think about our condition, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.
That is why this man, who lost his only son a few months ago and was so troubled and oppressed this morning by lawsuits and quarrels, is not thinking about it any more. Do not be surprised: he is concengrating all his attention on which way the boar will go that his dogs have been so hotly pursuing for the past six hours. That is all he needs. However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts….Without diversion there is no joy, with diversion there is no sadness.
Now, Pascal is being somewhat hyperbolic here. His ultimate hope is that we will make a leap of faith beyond boredom and diversion and put our trust in the Christian God. Personally, I believe in the Socratic approach – I think we can learn to discover and challenge the core negative beliefs underlying our suffering. But we can’t do that all the time. Sometimes we just need a break from our ruminations.
There is even a type of therapy built around just this insight, called ‘Distraction Therapy’. Therapists have experimented with using different forms of distraction to take patients’ mind off their physical pain, such as games, videos and music. One experiment projected nature sounds and images into hospital rooms when patients were receiving a painful bronchoscopy. The ‘significantly reduced pain’ in the patients, apparently.
Many hospitals now use distraction therapy, like Chelsea and Westminster, which is teaming up with the musician Brian Eno to design ambient light and sound installations to take patients’ minds off the pain. Imagine Brian Eno jumping into the operating theatre, in full glam regalia. That would be distracting.
So the next time you have the blues, you could go to a psychodynamic therapist, lie down, and really pick that scab. Or you could try the Billy Wilder approach: shut up and deal.