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The Shadow of Joy
The Relationship Between Joy & Depression
There’s a path in the middle of the lawn in my backyard, trod into existence by the
countless trips of children and dogs going in and out of the house. In the Winter you can
see the barren earth squeezed lifelessly between the abundant blades of grass, browned
from their season of sleep. In early Spring, when the grass greens again, the contrast
between it and the path is even more stark. But soon thereafter the dusty patch
disappears, replaced by a lush carpet of grass all its own. What’s even more remarkable is
this new grass grows much taller, thicker, denser, even deeper green than the rest of the
If we consider the grass in my backyard in terms of emotions, we might find it analogous
to the states existing between depression and joy. The barren path, obviously, is likened
to the depression we feel when the burden of life becomes more than we can bare, when
we are constantly beaten down by the weight of it, when we have lost the Spring
step, the bounce and vibrancy in all we do. Yet if the season of Spring represents life’s
joy, the springing forth of life, then the abundance of dense green grass that eventually
overtakes the barren path of depression, represents a state of being overjoyed. Still, even
in this state of growth and living, the path stands out from the rest of the lawn, as if it
were an overstatement of life, an overreaction to its harshness. In light of this dramatic
contrast between being barren and overgrown, depressed and overjoyed, we might say
that I have a manic-depressive path in my backyard. Although today’s psychologists
would prefer to say it simply demonstrates bipolar tendencies. Perhaps I could solve the
entire problem by mixing a little Prozac
with lawn fertilizer. Bipolar
is actually not a bad term because it reminds us that depression and joy are really
two extremes of one condition, two sides of one coin, the beginning and end of a
continuing cycle. If this is true, then joy is born out of depression, and depression out of
joy. We can’t have one without the other. As Kahlil Gibran reminds us in The Prophet;
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into you being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with
When you are joyous, look deep into you heart and you shall find it is only that which
has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in you heart, and you shall see that in truth you are
weeping for that which has been your delight.
Yet, it seems, both as a culture and individually, we would much rather go through life
experiencing only joy. Of course, this can never really happen because, again, to
experience joy, is to know sorrow. Instead, many of us learn to compensate for times of
depression through denial or escape. Denial can be likened to the maiden Persephone,
goddess of vegetation, entranced by the lovely flower filled meadows of life, dancing
naively with her nymphs, completely unsuspecting that Hades, god of the underworld, is
waiting for her in the shadows. Or, we escape depression, like Icarus, the god who flew
out of his prison with wax wings, only to fly so close to the Sun, so close to his ideals,
that his wings melted and he came crashing down—another manic-depressive, too high
one moment, crashing down the next.
Naturally we would all rather experience joy than depression. Joy feels better! But, it
appears, there must be some balance, some equilibrium between the two extremes, just as
my lawn, for the most part, doesn’t completely die away in Winter, or grow out of control
in Spring. If we become accustomed to depression we can enter into it without it killing
us, or completely controlling us. Persephone, you’ll recall, after her initial shock of being
abducted by Hades, eventually finds here way out of the realm of shadows, and Spring
once again returns to the world above. Likewise, joy is something we cannot force into
our lives. It just sort of happens whenever we experience something that unexpectedly
stretches a smile across our face, or touches us through its beauty and goodness. To force
joy, to endlessly pursue and hound it, is to treat it like a drug, like an addiction. Life’s Seasoning
I use the analogy of my lawn, partly believing its no analogy at all. The grass really does
get depressed from the constant flow of feet and paws tromping over it. Later, as a
reaction to this extreme depression, it becomes overjoyed with growth. But the rest of the
lawn also goes through this cycle, though in a less extreme manner. In Winter it become
dormant and turns brown, and in Spring it turns green and begins growing again. In
Greek mythology Demeter, goddess of agriculture, mother of Persephone, so mourns the
loss of her daughter that she isolates herself from the world by entering into a cave. This,
according to Greek myth, is the cause of Winter. When Demeter enters her cave, the
world becomes cold and dead. In this sense, depression can be understood as a Winter of
I like this idea, because it makes the point that depression, like a season, is part of a
necessary cycle. These seasons of the soul may not always correspond with nature’s
cycles, but there remains in us a wheel spinning between these two poles. John Denver
was an individual extremely close to nature, as is witnessed in his songs. One song, in
particular, Looking For Space
, has the following lyrics;
All alone in the universe, sometimes that’s how it seems.
I get lost in the sadness and the screams.
Then I look in the center Suddenly everything’s clear I find myself in the sunshine and my dreams. And I’m looking for space And to find out who I am, And I’m looking to know and understand. It’s a sweet sweet dream. Sometimes I’m almost there, Sometimes I fly like an eagle and sometimes I’m in deep despair. It’s obvious by many of Denver’s touching songs, that have the paradoxical ability to lift us to state of melancholy, that there is a depression in nature, a sadness in beauty. Zeus, in response to the many requests pleading for him to do something about the endless Winter that has set upon the world, commands Hades to release Persephone. However, because she has eaten three pomegranate seeds while in his dark realm, she must agree to return for three months out of each year, which explains the seasonal Winter. No matter how happy we are, there is always a part of that must return to the depth of hell, to the winter of our discontent. The point I’m making in all this is that depression is quite natural. And this is no trivial point because our culture treats depression as though it were the enemy, rather than a natural part of our process and experience. As James Hillman reminds us, "Depression is still the Great Enemy. More personal energy is expended in manic defenses against, diversions from, and denials of it than goes into other supposed pathological threats to society: Psychopathic criminality, schizoid breakdown, addictions
."[Revisioning Psychology,98] Today, after experiencing a long period of unprecedented economic growth, there seems to be some concern that we are entering into a recession, a recession that may eventually lead us into another Great Depression
. As a culture we would rather remain manic, in constant Spring, springing forth new ideas, new growth, new technologies. Any sign of slowing down, of the encroaching Winter causes us to panic. God forbid we should ever let our technology slow down, to let the world catch its breath and recover from the impact of this technological avalanche. As individuals, we also have an aversion to depression. I heard somewhere that Prozac
is the number one prescription in America! I even hear some veterinarians are prescribing it for pets! I’m not one of those who places a great deal of faith in the medical model to begin with. I think our diseases and symptoms are of the soul—they are psychological. But let’s say I’m wrong, that unhappiness is biological, the result of a chemical imbalance. Does this necessarily mean we must treat the condition with drugs? Does it mean we must treat the condition at all? Again, biology is merely a part of nature, and it seems natural to me that we should experience winter now and then, a depression in our bodies. I’m not saying there aren’t those who are chronically depressed, or, as the psychiatrists put it, suffering from clinical depression. Again, in the story of Persephone, when Theseus and Pirithous enter the realm of Hades to rescue her, Theseus stops to rest on
against a rock to which he becomes stuck. Hades then binds Pirithous to a constantly
revolving wheel, representing those who can’t seem to ever break out of the cycle of
depression, break free of Winter, those who are clinically depressed. Theseus eventually
becomes free of the rock, free of his depression, after Hercules gives him a hand up. The
point here is, sometimes we need a little help out of our depression, and drugs may
sometimes be that hand up, I’m not certain. Still, I think, in viewing depression as the
enemy, we all stand too readily poised to do battle with something that, in most cases, is
perfectly natural to us, something that ought to be allowed to come and go.
Although we can experience all the seasons in a moment, or in a single experience, I
think we also experience the seasons during the entire span of life. Children, for example,
usually remain in Spring until they’re teenagers, constantly growing and on the go, little
balls of energy that never seems to wear down. Then, in our youth, we enter into the
Summer of our lives, into the heat of passion for life and for others. Then, in mid-life, we
enter into the Fall. Sometimes, as Carl Jung believed, this can be a literal fall like the
failure of a relationship or the loss of a job. This usually happens, according to Jung,
around the age of 45. He held that there comes a time in our lives where we must
necessarily lose all that we have built up and accumulated in our youth in order to realize
there is something more in life we must obtain, some deeper and more meaningful
treasure. Today psychologists refer to this as a "mid-life crisis," again, as if any kind of
depression at all is a crisis. But Jung was on to this years before this term became
popular, referring at one point to it as the "Demon at Midday;"
This peculiar change begins to take place after forty, really, as though the wind were
taken out of [one’s] sails; [one] doesn’t know how or why, but it is a subtle fact. So
normally the beginning of the new phase of life is characterized by a sort of revolution
that may be slow or acute. There is often a sense of resentment against life, because
either one has not accomplished what one might or one has not lived what one might
have lived. Then people are apt to do something stupid in business, or, more probably,
they fall in love, for that is the side they have neglected.[Dream Analysis,300]
Finally, after our fall, we enter into the winter of our lives, which will eventually lead to
the close of life, before the cycle, somehow, begins all over again. This, again, doesn’t
mean we can’t experience the heat of passion, or walk with a spring in our step, or fall
down in old age. It simply means, biologically, we are winding down, entering into
biological winter. Sometimes we even say of those who have had lots of experience, that
they are well seasoned. The Gift of Joy
It’s important to think about Winter and depression in these terms so that we understand
where exactly joy come from, and that it doesn’t come to us in any other way. This is
precisely the meaning of Santa Claus coming once a year, in the dead of Winter, to give
us a gift, a surprise, a jack-in-the-box. Through the experience of winter we receive joy.
In Slavonic folklore, Winter is personified as Father Frost, or Old Man Winter, who also
enters homes a few nights before the New Year with a sack of gifts for children. There’s a beautiful story about his daughter, the Snow Maiden, the heroine in many Russian myths, beloved for her beauty and kindness. In the story, the Snow Maiden pleads that her father allow her to go out an meet new people. But Father Frost is reluctant because his enemy, Yarilo, the Sun god, the god of fertility, love and joy will kill his precious child. Eventually, however, he agrees and the Snow Maiden makes her way into the world of experience. As kind and beautiful as she is, she cannot fully comprehend human love. So she begs her mother, the Spring Fairy, to allow her to feel love. Her mother granted her request and the Snow Maiden fell in love. As a result, however, she didn’t notice the slow arrival of Yarilo, the gradual warming from the Sun’s rays, and, alas, upon her wedding day the rays touched her and she melted away. Once Yarilo penetrates through the clouds and the daughter of winter is gone, the Sun is able to return to the people of the village who begin singing praises in his honor. This story reminds us that we must not remain stuck in hell, that there is an end to depression, a season of joy and lightness. If we are to know love and joy we must allow Yarilo to melt our icy hearts. There is pain in life, and loss, but we don’t have to stay with it. Father Frost wants us to remain in Winter, in our cold, emotionless depression, to protect us from the pain, and, sadly, from really feeling anything at all. But the Snow Maiden knows she must go, she must feel the brief touch of the Sun’s warmth before melting away forever. Persephone realizes, on some level, she must be abducted by Hades. We all know this is so, that we can’t escape pain and sorrow through depression, without forsaking life itself. At the same time, there is a gift in the depression. To enter into depression is to go inside ourselves, into the hermetic cave, like Demeter, where we realize our own depth. It is only through this depression, this entering inward, that we come to our depths. This is the place Father Frost, Santa Claus, comes to us with his gift of childhood, the gift of Spring. Spring is born of Winter, joy emerges from our sorrow. As Jung says, "When one’s mood reaches the deepest blackness, then the light comes. That is the sun myth.
"[ibid.,680] In closing, I’d like to mention an experience I had this week while jogging. Many years ago I was in the habit of jogging about three miles every day. I fell out of the habit and it has been quite difficult getting back into it. When you’re not conditioned for it, running can be absolutely miserable. But when I was in shape for it, I loved to run, not for the exercise, but because I experienced what some call "a runner’s high." I absolutely loved this feeling, because it felt as if I could keep going forever, as if I weren’t running at all, but was existing somewhere else, in a perfect state of rest, even as my feet plodded against the asphalt. Over the years, I’ve attempt to take up jogging again, not for the exercise, but to recapture that incredible feeling. In the film, Chariots of Fire
, the lead character defends his choice to run rather than pursue his religious obligations be claiming, "When I run, I can feel God’s pleasure
." For those who’ve experience what I’m talking about, there’s really something to this idea.
Anyway, this past week, I began running again. And, as usual, I’ve found it to be extremely painful and exhausting. In fact, it was so exhausting that, about my third day of it, I found myself, quite accidentally, focusing on the brief moment of rest between steps. Suddenly I realized I was existing in those moments entirely, that I wasn’t in the stepping part of the process at all. It was as if I was gliding effortless through the air, flying, floating. That’s the feeling I’ve remembered and missed over the years. My point in this, again, is that pain and joy are really part of the same process. At times we feel the pain of it, and at times the joy. We must not avoid one for the other, or we’ll experience neither. Rather, we must embrace these forces as part of life’s rhythm. Sometimes we feel the depression of our feet pounding against the pavement, and other times we find ourselves resting between the steps. But in both cases, its really the same experience.
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