The Thinking Jewish Teenager's Guide to Life
For Jewish teens & Jewish adults who think about Judaism: A lucid, life-changing explanation of Jewish ideas important for today's Jewish teens & their choices.
What is the cause of depression? Depression is one of the major problems of our age. The ideas we have studied will give us an insight into this area.
A central feature of the sensation of depression is the feeling of hopelessness and despair, the feeling of no movement toward any goal, the feeling of the impossibility of reaching any goal. And the cause of depression is exactly that: absence of movement toward a goal. When the neshamah, the soul, senses that life is sliding by and no meaningful progress is taking place, no real development is occurring, there is a sense of stagnation, of despair. Happiness is the response of the neshamah to its journey through life, the response of the neshamah to its own development, its own growth and achievement. And depression is the response of the neshamah to stagnation, to a situation of motionlessness and the absence of achievement.
Your neshamah knows that it is here to grow, to develop. That journey is the essence of life. So when your neshamah senses that the journey has come to a halt, that life is sliding by and you are going nowhere, you will become depressed. The journey is life itself, every step on that journey is essential and priceless (you cannot get to your destination unless you walk the entire road that leads there), and therefore when time is passing but the journey is not progressing the neshamah feels the cold hand of death. Depression is no less than a minor experience of death itself; that is exactly why it is so painful.
A depressed person may not know that this is the cause of the problem, but the soul knows. It is weeping, crying out to be allowed to move on, to move actively and urgently to its destination, and it is being obstructed. It is being held back from the most urgent and important task that there is, the task of building itself and its eternity in a race against time. If it fails to build itself now, it will exist forever incomplete, deeply lacking. That would be disastrous, painful beyond description. So the response of the soul is a feeling of deep pain, of life and its opportunity lost. And it is possibly the deepest pain there is.
The problem of organic (or medical) states of depression is outside the scope of this discussion. Here we are referring to the depression experienced by people who have not yet discovered their unique path in life, those whose lives seem pointless because there is no real work being done, no meaningful exertion being expended in a positive direction.
What is the cure for depression? What should we tell someone who is depressed? What does such a person need to do?
The answer is, get moving! If the problem is lack of meaningful movement, get busy moving in the right direction. As soon as the soul feels that it is moving and on the correct course for its own development and fulfillment, it will forget all sadness; the depression will end. You cannot feel depressed when you know you are moving correctly toward a correct goal.
You may feel pain; you may feel agony. Your face may show strain and your eyes may fill with tears, but if you are winning the battle and moving ahead you cannot be depressed.
Sometimes it is necessary to start the movement in an external area: getting the body moving may be necessary before the soul can be roused. Judaism teaches that the "external awakens the internal"; experiences and actions of the body will stimulate experience of the soul. It may be necessary to begin with physical exercise or occupation for the hands so that the outer can begin to drive inward and affect the soul. But the idea remains: cure stagnation with movement, passive wallowing in misery with activity.
You cannot approach someone who is depressed and say, "Be happy." That will not work. Instead, take that person for a run, get them moving, doing. Best of all, get them busy doing something for someone else.
And the real cure will be felt when the soul gets moving, when the personality begins its unique journey toward its unique destination.
One who is laboring to achieve, to build, and is aware that the result is taking shape as it should cannot be depressed no matter how hard the work.
A major problem for many of today's youth (and adults) is low self-esteem. A healthy self-esteem requires knowing who you are, knowing what you must become, and knowing that you are getting there. If you know yourself, if you have a clear vision of your goal, and if you are feeling genuine movement toward that goal, your self-esteem will be intact. Not just intact; it will be throbbing and vital. When you know that you are fulfilling your potential and becoming the very best you can be, you will have such a rich sense of self-worth that you will glow with confidence and positivity.
(Of course, you need to know yourself and discover what your unique goal should be; we shall study this later in our discussion on "Who Are You? Defining Your Role in Life," the subject of chapter 5.)
But if you are not moving, if you are vague and unsure about where you should be going and you have no sense of your own development, you will certainly lack self-esteem. You cannot have esteem for yourself if you do not know who you are. If you are going around in circles in the confused search for yourself, your self-esteem will be spiraling down too. Self-esteem is the automatic result of a sharp, clear focus on your unique personality and the perception that your uniqueness is being fulfilled. If you are not working hard on these things, your deepest sense of self will stagnate and dissolve.
There is another way to avoid depression and the pain of nongrowth: the wrong way.
It is possible to satisfy the deep need to build and achieve by building and achieving trivial things, to channel the drive to build into superficial areas. This escape often provides a sense of achievement, a sense of work transformed into result, which is enough to keep a person from the real task of working on the self without the warning signs of a feeling of emptiness or depression.
People will build collections of objects or throw themselves into projects which are meaningless because this gives them a sense of purpose and movement; the fact that the purpose is irrelevant or foolish is ignored.
Some people build collections of beer cans; some build collections of valuable paintings. Some devote themselves to sporting achievement, some to business. Some people build muscle; some build empires. All of these have the potential to satisfy the need to produce, to move, to build, at least for a while.
But very often they are simply the superficial substitute for the really hard work of building the self.
There is nothing wrong with building things in this world; some of those things may be necessary and most worthy. But when the building here becomes a substitute for the real work of building the self, building that which will last for eternity, that is a tragedy. This world and its achievements must always be the vehicle for the real journey.
You cannot afford to forget that the road leads somewhere; you cannot afford to forget the destination. Consider this:
A man hired a truck driver to deliver a load of goods to a distant city. "Drive carefully," he instructed the driver. "Take good care of the truck, obey all the rules of the road, do not do anything dangerous. Do not speed, take no chances."
Two days later, the driver was back. "How did it go?" asked the man who had hired him.
"Fine," said the driver. "I did exactly as you instructed. I took care of the truck, I obeyed all the rules of the road, I drove safely all the way, and I took no chances."
"Did you deliver the goods as arranged?"
"Oh!" said the driver. "I forgot to deliver the goods!"
You cannot afford to forget to deliver the goods. Do not get so involved in the journey that you forget where you are going. Do not get so involved in the excitement of doing and moving and building that you forget to ask yourself where it all leads. You do not want to travel for years and then discover that it has been the wrong road, or that you were so preoccupied with the trivia of the journey that you hardly moved at all, or that you forgot that you had goods to deliver.
You have goods to deliver: yourself. You have the most important and precious goods to deliver, and only you can deliver them. You have yourself and the future of the Jewish people in your hands, and one day you will be asked that final and most profound question: "Did you deliver the goods?"