Dark and light days

Jul 11th, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

A tragedy at the local railway line, a man stepping out in front of an express train, elicited a comment from a local priest.  In the local newspaper he asserted that no situation was so bad that suicide was the way out.  He went on to point to the services and agencies that might be contacted.  The newspaper then gave details of various addresses and telephone numbers.

It was hard to imagine that he had experienced depression himself.  Were a person amenable to his reasonable approach, they would not need advice, they would be able to find their own way through the crisis.  Tragedies happen because people believe there is no other way.

The priest meant well; he was attempting to be understanding, attempting to be supportive. He was rather different from the wife of a colleague who would have thought it was all a lot of fuss.

A woman of our mutual acquaintance was going through a particularly hard time.

“I think she is suffering badly from depression”, I told her when she asked after the woman.

“Oh, that’s old hat”, the colleague’s wife responded, “They can stop that now with medication and diet.”

She was a woman whose opinions were always definitive and there seemed little point in trying to argue with her. When she herself went through a bad patch some years later, it was hard to feel sorry for her; perhaps she would have later been more sympathetic in her attitude.

It’s not like a sudden acute moment that can be isolated and identified, allowing one to pick up the list of telephone numbers in the local newspaper and contact the necessary service, it’s more like clouds across the sun: light and shadow. There are moments of brilliant light that are suddenly obscured and dark times that are suddenly illuminated by a piercing light. What the medical world seems to offer is a uniform greyness; no dark moments, but no light moments either.

In the dark moments, I have to persuade myself that this is not the world as it is. But, if the dark moments are unreal, is there also an air of unreality about the light? Is the cost of dismissing sorrow the loss of the counterbalance of joy? Is the price for saying that the pain does not exist, the dismissal of delight as no more than imaginary?

If there were plain answers, there would be no sad stories in the local newspaper and no need for the agencies and maybe, also,  the loss of something indefinable.  Would it be possible to have a world without tragic moments and a world with a place  for people like Vincent van Gogh?

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  1. What an interesting post, and what a lot of questions the topic raises. One is to do with moral agency: when moral choices (such as the decision to commit suicide) are made under the influence of depression, to what extent are they really free choices? If you’ve visited our blog recently you’ll know I’ve been thinking about shame, and that one book I’ve read on the topic was Stephen Pattison’s “Shame: Theory, Therapy, THeology”. He talks about how the chronically shamed retreat from full moral agency, because their fear of shame paralyses them: they hold back from action, fearful of shaming consquences and despairing of their ability to be effective; they are absorbed in themselves and their inadequacies rather than focused on actions and on other people. My position on this sort of thing has long been that one should believe in moral choice for oneself, but try to understand what constrains others. It’s a formula and obviously doesn’t capture the full complexity of the issue.

  2. Dot,

    Does that not rather suggest that there is an attitude or perception of the world that is somehow normative? What of people who are permanently exuberant and, in my perception, excessively optimistic, would they also be constrained from exercising a full ‘moral choice’?

  3. Ah Ian, ying and yang, darkness and light, good and evil. There is some of each in all of us, but it doesn’t take much to tip the balance either way. What a grey and awful life it would be without one or the other, not being able to appreciate the good having never experienced the bad? I don’t think it’s possible to have such a world, nor would I wish to live in one like it.

  4. The good times are real and the bad times are real. Some people seem to never be entirely free of those feeling dragging them towards depression and even suicide. However, what can seem like trite advice can help. Think of it another way – the last ditch attempt to phone someone that failed, that led to irreversible action. An intervening call to the Samaritans could have been enough to tide the person over temporarily.
    The face-to-face talking cure that cures nothing, removes none of the underlying causes, yet manages to keep someone going a little longer.
    The physical exercise that should have no effect on such a dark view of the world, but somehow does.
    That may sound as if I’m suggesting that if you behave as if things are better, they may become so. That if you pretend hard enough, it may become real. And I suppose I am a bit.
    I have found that for someone who is very confused, it is hard to connect with them in a helpful way – though maybe the effort counts for something – and some sort of restriction is the only thing to keep them in this world.
    For others in the depths of despair, it’s not the words nor the advice, but the sitting together over cold tea smoking fag after fag that can shepherd them through till they bring themselves up again.

  5. BW,

    I would concur wholeheartedly. The grace of the Samaritans is that they do not attempt to ‘manage’ people.

    I had a friend, now sadly dead some thirteen years, who, when I told him to call me, replied that if he was able to call he would not need to call.

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