Lately, I’ve been experiencing some depression. Usually, as I’m transitioning from my full teaching schedule to my more open summer schedule, I get some anxiety and depression. The irony of anxiety/depression is that, while you feel a tremendous desire to be alone, the only real way out is to be with other people. As an adult, I’m in a unique situation of being single and having few relational responsibilities. This means that if I want to isolate myself, I can do so quite successfully and for long stretches of time. When I’m doing okay emotionally, this allows me to be quite productive with creative projects. But when I’m struggling, as I have been lately, this isolation can be very bad indeed—I can sink into a kind of black hole of lethargy, laying in bed for long stretches of time, watching movies and shows on the internet, until I begin to feel an actual strain behind my eyes, and a sinking feeling like—this can’t be good for me.
I find myself wondering what people in my situation did in previous generations, before the advent of the internet. I suppose it depends on the time period and its technologies. Before the internet, people watched TV. Before that, radio. And before that, books and magazines. Before that, I’m not sure. Books have been around for quite a while. Each technology became more immersive and therefore intensified the detachment from one’s experiential reality. When you’re depressed, this detachment is something you seek out, but it’s a losing endeavor. Ultimately, we can’t escape the fact that we’re physical, emotional beings that have needs and exist in this real world. True escape is not possible, nor is it ultimately desirable if emotional well-being is what you’re after.
The hard truth is that, whether we like it or not, we need other people, and no amount of escapist entertainment can change this fact. I happen to live in a time and place in which personal home entertainment and interaction with digital screens (laptops, iPads, smart phones) threatens to replace, or seriously alter, basic human face-to-face communication. These days, much of our human interaction is mediated by computer screens. While there are undeniable benefits to these technologies, there are some serious drawbacks—isolation, alienation, loneliness, etc.
Add to this situation the omnipresence of advertisements and a culture of consumption which tells us that personal instant gratification is the most important thing, and you have a recipe for emotional disaster. As Americans, we are trained by advertising to seek pleasure through buying and consuming things, which we do almost instinctually. This applies not just to food, but to all aspects of life, including what we watch. The “instant watch” technologies of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon allow us to instantly gratify our desire/need/addiction to instant personal entertainment.
But this leads to a very infantile way of being in the world. Old-fashioned things like friendship, conversation, community, long-term relationships, even real love, can be overlooked. Why work hard at something when you can have instant gratification/pleasure/entertainment? The answer to this question turns out to be quite simple: Things that take work, effort, and sacrifice usually end up being healthier and more satisfying in the long run.
But how does one effect this inner change from infantile gratification to more adult wisdom? It is undeniably difficult, especially for people of my generation who were raised with this instant gratification/entertainment thing. I certainly haven’t mastered it. I guess, as with most important things, learning comes with experience. If you experience the more long-term benefit of something that takes work—like being a good friend or partner to someone, volunteering somewhere, even reading a difficult book—perhaps a new pathway is created in your brain—a slow re-wiring. But, of course, this is difficult and takes time. I’m still trying.