The paradox of depression is knowing that, objectively speaking, you have no reasons to complain. If you’re reading this, you’re probably among the richest people that ever lived on this planet, and have all your basic needs met like no-one before. When you’re depressed, knowing this doesn’t make you feel any better. It makes you feel even more ashamed of yourself.
Just a few generations ago most children wouldn’t make it until adulthood. Almost everyone either died as a child, or saw their own children pass away too early. If there wasn’t a war in some particular place, they might had been killed by one of the epidemics that haunted humanity for centuries, or by a deadly famine caused by an unusually cold summer.
Yet here I am, living in the most comfortable conditions humanity has ever known and still feeling miserable. Am I too spoiled and weak to survive in this world?
Do I need a kick in the butt to put things in perspective?
I spoke about this with my friend Mayryanna during the Apotheosis retreat, trying to make sense of why there was so much sorrow in me. She said something along the lines, maybe the role of our generation is to do the emotional work that our ancestors didn’t have a chance to do. It’s hard to compare who had it better or worse, it’s just a different kind of work.
I thought a lot about these words, but wasn’t quite sure what exactly she meant. Surely life in the age of wars, famines, and epidemics triggered much more difficult emotions than anything I could have possibly been exposed to?
But last week I came across this quote while reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. This is cutting-edge parenting advice from a book that’s less than a hundred years old:
Never hug and kiss [your children], never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.John Watson, as quoted in Homo Deus
Seriously, what kind of monster could have come up with this idea?
Being touched in a loving way is so important that baby monkeys separated from their mothers preferred hugging a furry doll to being fed–and human babies are no different. For all mammals, close, physical connection between mother and child is crucial to the kids’ development. In hunter-gatherer tribes, babies are held constantly during the day and embraced at night, spending more than 90% of their time in close physical contact with their caregivers.
Knowing all of this, how could we have gone so wrong?
Eckhart Tolle said in one of his interviews, “As long as survival occupies your mind then there’s very little room for anything else and even for unhappiness”. For most of recorded history, our ancestors were focused on survival and survival only. They didn’t have time or energy to explore their emotional states, or the emotional states of other people around them. All they did was in service of the single goal that they had. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.
Not worrying constantly about dying from hunger, disease or war is a relatively new achievement. Only since we’ve accomplished that, we have the spare resources to think about how our actions affect other people and the entire planet that we share. If someone is starving to death, they’re not going to worry whether there will be enough resources for their grandchildren to feed on, whether their kids receive proper education, or if the tone of their voice might have been perceived as threatening by someone. The single thing in their life is to find some food, now, whatever it takes. You can’t expect much from a drowning man.
Only since we’re no longer in a constant state of emergency, there’s some breathing room to explore the emotional qualities of ours and other people’s lives. And the results aren’t pretty. Our great-grandparents’ lives were on average so traumatic that they couldn’t even dare to hug their own kids, lest the voice of a very hurt child inside would come into their awareness.
And even though every generation did whatever they could to give their own children the best life possible, and a whole lot of progress has been made, some part of that trauma still stuck–until the point where we’re sitting healthy and well-fed, in our beautiful, warm, and cozy homes, playing with devices that would have been considered magic by our great-grandparents, and getting angry with ourselves that despite all these luxuries we’re still miserable. Are we too spoiled to notice how many things we should be grateful for?
It’s important to keep things in perspective and remind ourselves how much worse it could have been. But this won’t make the deep-seated emotions go away at the touch of a magic wand.
Unless we open ourselves to whatever pain that is in there, and transform it, as Mayryanna has it, through spiritual alchemy, we’re going to pass the same shit over to our children and more generations to come. And given how fast the world is changing, we might not have that much time.