As the public conversation has turned to depression and suicide, and the lesser plagues of unhappiness and discontent, I have been troubled by the misunderstanding caused by the real overlap in the conditions, and that has clouded how we should deal with them.
Severe depression cannot be overcome by snapping out of it, or realizing that your life is better than someone else’s. That in fact makes it worse because you understand you have little justification in how you feel, and yet you cannot get rid of that little black rain cloud (here is another excellent description of how it feels, and this too). It doesn’t work that way. I was burdened with this line of thinking for years before I acquiesced to medication. So much time I wasted in that state trying my hardest to be less lazy and less of a sad sack. There is a lot of self-blame when you are in this mindset. I say “acquiesced” because it really was like I was giving up by trying the medication. I wish I’d given up so much sooner.
With severe depression there is a chemical deficiency in the brain that causes the dark mood. It is a legitimate medical illness that needs medication for improvement. It is science. I was fortunate in that the medication prescribed to me worked without modification or adverse side effects. This is not the case for everyone. Many people need to try various medications and dosages before they find something that works. It takes at least 4-6 weeks before they can even make a judgment on whether it is working, and then if modifications need to be made, more weeks of experimentation. Many of the medications also produce undesirable side effects. Some side effects interfere with bodily functions. Some people feel like they lose other parts of their emotional selves, and feel flat.
Severe depression may or may not be accompanied by terrible things happening in your life. And this is where the overlap gets complicated. Of course you will be upset at a death in the family or the loss of a job, or any other adverse thing that may happen. That is normal. That sadness may resolve itself over time, or medication may also be used to alleviate the burden. This is temporary. It is when this bleak outlook persists for too long that it will be called a severe depression.
Then, we also have varying states of discontent. This is what many people mistakenly call depression, but it is more of a mindset problem. Stress is a big contributor here, which is why we have such enormous industries built around relieving stress and promoting wellness. These products and services are perfectly good treatments for this type of unhappiness. And it is this type of unhappiness that I wish to address here.
I think our culture promoting the idea that we should do whatever makes us happy has been a significant impediment to understanding happiness and being happy. I don’t think life is about being happy all the time, and I don’t think seeking pleasure is the number one way to be happy. In fact, I think the word happiness has become some kind of a mystical idea – a state to be sought out at all costs, and if we are not immediately happy in any given situation we are told we must change because we are doing something wrong. Happiness is fleeting, and to think it should be a permanent state of existence is unrealistic.
I experienced my depression in my twenties, but by my middle thirties I was still trying to figure out how to be happy. I was no longer weighted down by the absolute exhaustion of a severe depression, but I certainly felt at odds with my circumstances. I think finding a purpose for your life plays into things here, but today I’m writing more about approaching that objective – not actually figuring it out. I realized that in order to be happy I did have to change how I was thinking. The first thing I did was change my goal from happiness to contentedness.
To me, being content means that you can pick any moment in your life and feel ok about where you are. Even if you are experiencing a difficult task or environment, you still feel at ease with the situation. Even if challenged, we can find peace in our mind if we have the right mindset. In yoga this idea is called equanimity. Keeping your mind calm in a difficult pose illustrates this idea. This is certainly different from being happy.
In order to gain contentedness, we need acceptance. This does not mean giving up. There is still room for ambition, but it is knowing that while we seek out our goals and dreams we are appreciating the journey. Failing to appreciate each moment, and what good we can draw out of it, leads to discontent. Each moment will never be perfectly happy, but it doesn’t need to be. Drop that requirement from your mindset to allow contentedness to flow in.
Contentedness is a state of mind that is forgiving and supportive. It allows you freedom to make mistakes because you learn from them, you are not stymied by them. You do not base your happiness on what is at the end, because living well right now is the most important. We are not guaranteed the future, so do not put off your happiness until then either.
One way I test myself on whether I am content is by asking, “If I died tomorrow, would I feel like there was something I still needed to do? Would I have regrets?” If the answer is yes, then I search for how to do that thing right now. I put plans in place to address that something I do not want to leave unfinished or untouched. In most cases, I am making progress on whatever these ideas are, and while I may not have completed the goal, I realize that moving towards the goal is enough to feel less anxious about falling short. So wherever I am on the path is ok because I am learning from my mistakes, which may have caused a holdup, but I still gained something out of it. I learned about the world, or I learned about myself. Learning is my contented state. Others may have different states that they would call content, but being ok with wherever they are on that path is key to being happy.
Whenever I think about the concept of contentedness I think about a student I had several years ago. He was as ambitious a person as you’d ever want to meet, and he was absolutely content with his current place on his path. He found appreciation, and even joy, in each day, even if he was just doing his routine. He amazed and inspired me with his attitude. And then he was killed by a drunk driver.
His name was Alex. I still have all of his emails as I’ve never been able to bring myself to delete them. They are about class assignments, meetings, and all other sort of mundane communications. He was my legal writing student, my military law student, and my extern student. I knew him for a year and a half. He asked me to write him a recommendation for Army JAG. He was absolutely the kind of person we need that kind of a leadership position and I was happy to do it.
When Alex was killed, he was going to dinner with his girlfriend. She was also killed. He was home with his family for Christmas break. They had just gotten engaged. It was a great loss to their families, and to our law school community. There is a scholarship in his name now, and at the time of the accident, we held a memorial at school for him. I was one of many who wanted to say something about him. My words about Alex are below.
I am still saddened by his death, but he had a light like few others and for being able to see it, I will always be thankful. He was the embodiment of contentedness, and I think of his peace when I battle against my own discontent.
I started off my talk about Alex with the letter of recommendation I wrote for him:
It is my pleasure to write this letter of recommendation for my former Legal Writing and Military Law student, Alex . Alex was a hard working, conscientious student in my classes and I am delighted to recommend him for a position as a U.S. Army Judge Advocate.
As a former Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, I believe Alex would make an exemplary military lawyer. He displays enthusiasm in his law classes and was particularly interested in the Military Law class this past summer. Through his performance in both of my classes, Alex has shown that he has the character and leadership abilities sought after by the armed services.
Alex’s intelligence and maturity made him a model student in my class. He was consistently the first student to open conversations in class, and he provided reasoned and insightful comments during discussions. He was always well prepared and it was clear from his comprehension of the materials, that he had spent a significant amount of time with them.
For these reasons, I confidently recommend Alex for a position as a U.S. Army Judge Advocate.
I didn’t know it at the time, but writing this letter for Alex was my last communication with him. In describing Alex to a future employer, I had hoped, through my words, to do justice to Alex’s character and exuberance for life.
But it is Alex’s own words that allowed me to come to know him best. Before I wrote that letter I learned about Alex through his journal entries that he did for his externship with the judge at the Probate Court. I want to share with you some of these entries since it is Alex’s own words that best show his character and excitement with which he met every new day.
From June 5, 2010, his first week on the job, Alex writes:
This week was an interesting one!
And there’s something you should know about these journal entries. Alex likes exclamation points! So throwing all my lessons from legal writing out the window, he had no hesitation in adding his own emphasis to make sure his reader knows when he really means it. His other favorite means of emphasis is the ALL CAPS. So, back to Alex’s first journal entry:
This week was an interesting one!
I was placed with a woman named Telisa, and she was FANTASTIC. (in all caps) My initial perception of her was that she was incredibly kind and legitimately had an interest in teaching me all she knew. Which was great!
He went on to describe many things that he’d learned on the first day. Of all things, one thing that was memorable to Alex was processing mail. Apparently all incoming documents have to be time stamped and Alex said:
The machine used for time stamps was quite entertaining to use!
Exclamation point. He didn’t go on to describe any mishaps, so I can only imagine what compelled him to mention the time stamp machine.
He finished his first week’s entry with:
In the end I had a great first week. Everyone has been extremely kind to me, and I have learned a lot already! I plan on acing Wills Trusts & Estates after this experience! On to next week!
There were no less than three exclamation points in that passage.
He started his entries with enthusiasm and ended them the same way. His second entry started with:
Well this week was anything but dull!
Ultimately I had a great week!
His June 26 entry started with:
But he wasn’t counting down as a means to manage his distaste for his job, because he ended that entry with not one but two exclamation points. He wrote:
Yet another fun week at the Probate Court!! Onward, ho!
In between his lively starts and endings, he described everything he had done and learned with statements like:
The court is a pretty interesting environment.
These were quite interesting.
When speaking about the drug hearing and involuntary commitment hearings, and when he talked about an assignment on common law marriage:
This externship is proving to be an excellent way to spend my summer.
He wrote about the judge sending all the externs to a seminar that brought local attorneys together to share what they thought was important about being successful. Alex was enthralled with the speakers. Alex writes:
This seminar was FANTASTIC!
There we have an exclamation point and an ALL CAPS.
He gave special notice to one speaker who seemed to have touched him the most – Alex said:
One attorney even spent time telling us how to be better people, and how being a better person will positively impact our careers.
I’m quite certain that attorney didn’t tell Alex anything he didn’t already know.
The most entertaining of all his entries was his last. It begins with:
Aaaaanndddddd . . . . .SAFE! That’s it, the externship is over. This has been a fun last week!
Much of this entry wasn’t about his externship but of his delays in getting to a meeting with the judge. He had gone home that week and on his way back to work he tells the story of what happened and how he was an everyday hero. He writes:
As I was passing the Lake Avenue exit, a woman, as I later discovered, had a seizure while merging onto the interstate, causing her to cross all four lanes of oncoming traffic (amazing) and ultimately slam into the concrete barrier in the middle of the highway. She had two small children in the back. To make a long story short, myself and another guy pulled over, got the kids out of the car and shut the engine down . . . . and I was late to my meeting. Oh well!!
Even though he added two exclamation points at the end, it wasn’t that he didn’t care about being late, because of the judge he wrote:
He is definitely a wonderful person to be working for.
This was one of several entries where Alex chose to recognize the good qualities in other people.
Before all those journal entries, Alex was a student in my first class where I didn’t teach legal writing. He was actually the first student to sign up for Military Law – which calmed my nerves – at least I’d have one student in the class! Thankful as I was for his enrollment, it was his participation in that class where I realized he was the kind of student every teacher hopes to have.
About halfway through our Maymester, I checked in with my students to see how the class was going – was it everything they expected? Alex’s response without hesitation was
If that had been a written response, I know it would have had at least two exclamation points! Teachers often don’t feel appreciated, but it’s only because they didn’t have Alex as a student.
Alex’s last journal entry sums up my feelings about having the privilege of knowing him. He wrote:
All in all this week has been reflective of what the externship has been as a whole, a WONDERFUL experience. I am so thankful for the people who pointed me in this direction for the summer and for the people who served as sounding boards for my learning along the way. Catch ya on the flip side. . . .over and out.
I’m grateful for the time I had knowing Alex. He was ambitious, yet content with where he was each day. There’s some quality of peacefulness that he had, that is just beyond my reach, but I am not discouraged. Although he was my student, I will take some lessons from him on how to live my life.
Very simply, that lesson is