Remember Plato’s Cave allegory? In his Republic he describes a scenario in which some people have spent their lives chained in a cave so they can only see the wall in front of them. There is a fire behind them that casts shadows on the wall that they have no way of knowing are only shadows. For these people, the shadows are their reality. There seem to be many versions of what happens next, but the variation I prefer is that one of the people escapes from the cave and discovers the sun outside for the first time; he realizes that what he had assumed was real -the shadows- were just that: merely the shadows cast by the actual objects themselves.

Sometimes we become so accustomed to seeing things a certain way, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe there could be an alternative view. Or assume that, even if there were another version, it must be wrong. But can we be sure that we are evaluating the alternative fairly and without prejudice? Can we assess it with sufficient objectivity to allow a critical analysis? Or are we unavoidably trapped in the prevailing contemporary Weltanschauung? It’s an interesting question to be sure, and one that begs for examination, if only to explore the world behind the mirror.

I stumbled upon an essay by Julie Reshe, a psychoanalyst and philosopher, who, after recovering from a bout of depression, began to wonder whether depression itself was actually the baseline state, and one that allowed a more accurate view of how things actually are:

I have to admit that I had to temporarily divorce myself from my usually optimistic worldview to be able to fathom her argument, and I found it rather uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s instructive -even valuable- to look under a rock.

As a philosopher, Reshe felt the need to examine both sides of an argument critically, putting aside preconceptions and biases. ‘Depressogenic thoughts are unpleasant and even unbearable,’ she writes, ‘but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are distorted representations of reality. What if reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the very illusions that help us to not realise this? What if, to the contrary, positive thinking represents a biased grasp of reality? … What if it was a collapse of illusions – the collapse of unrealistic thinking – and the glimpse of a reality that actually caused my anxiety? What if, when depressed, we actually perceive reality more accurately? What if both my need to be happy and the demand of psychotherapy to heal depression are based on the same illusion?’ In other words, what if I am actually not a nice person? What if there’s a reason people don’t like me?

Whoa! Suppose this is not a counterfactual? After all, other philosophers have wondered about this. For example, Arthur Schopenhauer whose deeply pessimistic writings about the lack of meaning and purpose of existence I have never understood, or the equally famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger who felt that anxiety was the basic mode of human existence. ‘We mostly live inauthentically in our everyday lives, where we are immersed in everyday tasks, troubles and worries, so that our awareness of the futility and meaninglessness of our existence is silenced by everyday noise… But the authentic life is disclosed only in anxiety.’ My god, where’s my knife?

And even Freud wasn’t optimistic about the outcome of psychotherapeutic treatment, and was ‘reluctant to promise happiness as a result.’ He felt that ‘psychoanalysis could transform hysterical misery into ‘common unhappiness’. Great…

And then, of course, there’s the philosophical tradition called ‘depressive realism’ which holds that ‘reality is always more transparent through a depressed person’s lens.’ And just to add more poison to the cake, ‘the Australian social psychologist Joseph Forgas and colleagues showed that sadness reinforces critical thinking: it helps people reduce judgmental bias, improve attention, increase perseverance, and generally promotes a more skeptical, detailed and attentive thinking style.’

All of which is to say, I suppose, ‘The evolutionary function of depression is to develop analytical thinking mechanisms and to assist in solving complex mental problems. Depressive rumination helps us to concentrate and solve the problems we are ruminating about… depressive rumination is a problemsolving mechanism that draws attention to and promotes analysis of certain problems.’

I have presented these deeply troubling ideas merely as an exercise in perspective, I hasten to add. Sometimes it is valuable to try to grasp the Umwelt of the stranger on the other side of the door before we open it. We can only help if we are willing to understand why they are there.

Part of the solution may lie in puzzling out Reshe’s counterfactuals. She seems to want to assign meaning to her former depression, as have many of the other people she mentions, to buttress her point. She also seems to feel that there was a time when that point of view might have seemed more mainstream. That nowadays there is just too much expectation of happiness -unrealistic expectations by and large, which presents a problem in and of itself. If we constantly expect to achieve a goal, but, like a prairie horizon, it remains temptingly close and yet just out of reach, we are doomed to frustration -a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, it seems to me that resigning oneself to unhappiness, or its cousin depression, doesn’t represent a paradigm shift, but rather a rationalization that it must be the default position -and therefore must serve some useful evolutionary purpose; a position benighted and stigmatized because it advertises the owner’s failure to achieve the goal that others seem to have realized.

I’m certainly not disparaging depression, but neither am I willing to accept that it serves any evolutionary strategy except that of a temporary, albeit necessary harbour until the storm passes. And to suggest that positive emotions -happiness, contentment, joy, or pleasure, to name just a few- however short-lived, are illusory, and unrealistic expectations, is merely to excuse and perhaps justify an approach to depression that isn’t working. A trail that only wanders further into the woods.

I’m certainly cognizant of the fact that there is a spectrum of depressions, from ennui to psychotic and that some are more refractory to resolution than others, but that very fact argues against leaving them to strengthen, lest they progress to an even more untenable and dangerous state.

Perhaps we need to comfort ourselves with the ever-changing, ever-contrasting nature of emotions, and not expect of them a permanence they were likely never evolved to achieve.

Goldilocks, it seems to me, realized something rather profound when she chose the baby bear’s porridge after finding papa bear’s porridge too hot, and mamma bear’s too cold: it was just right…

Does the love of heaven make one heavenly?

Why do find myself so attracted to articles about religion? I am not an adherent -religion does not stick to me- nor am I tempted to take the famous wager of the 17th century philosopher, Pascal: dare to live life as if God exists, because you’ve got nothing to lose if He doesn’t, and everything to gain if He does.

Perhaps I’m intrigued by the etymological roots that underpin the word: Religare (Latin, meaning ‘to bind’) is likely the original tuber of the word. But is that it -does it bind me? Constrain me? I’d like to think not, and yet… and yet…

Even many diehard atheists concede that religion has a use, if only for social cohesion -Voltaire was probably thinking along those lines when he wrote: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’. Or Karl Marx: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’.

And then, of course, there’s Sigmund Freud, an avowed Jewish atheist, who for most of his life, thought that God was a collective neurosis. But, in his later years when he was dying of cancer of the jaw, he suggested (amongst other, much more controversial things) in his last completed book, Moses and Monotheism that monotheistic religions (like Judaism) think of God as invisible. This necessitates incorporating Him into the mind to be able to process the concept, and hence likely improves our ability for abstract thinking. It’s a bit of a stretch perhaps, but an intriguing idea nonetheless.

But, no matter what its adherents may think about the value of the timeless truths revealed in their particular version, or its longevity as proof of concept, religions change over time. They evolve -or failing that, just disappear, dissolve like salt in a glass of water. Consider how many varieties and sects have arisen just from Christianity alone. Division is rife; nothing is eternal; Weltanschauungen are as complicated as the spelling.

So then, why do religions keep reappearing in different clothes, different colours? Alain de Botton, a contemporary British philosopher, argues in his book Religion for Atheists, that religions recognize that their members are children in need of guidance and solace. Although certainly an uncomfortable opinion, there is a ring of truth to his contention. Parents, as much as their children, enjoy ceremonies, games, and rituals and tend to imbue them with special significance that is missing in the secular world. And draping otherwise pragmatic needs in holy cloth, renders the impression that they were divinely inspired; ethics and morality thus clothed, rather than being perceived as arbitrary, wear a spiritual imprimatur. A disguise: the Emperor’s Clothes.

Perhaps, then, there’s more to religion than a set of Holy caveats whose source is impossible to verify. But is it really just something in loco parentis? A stand-in? I found an interesting treatment of this in a BBC Future article written by Sumit Paul-Choudhury, a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist. He was addressing the possible future of religion.

‘We take it for granted that religions are born, grow and die – but we are also oddly blind to that reality. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult. When we recognise a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires… Even today’s dominant religions have continually evolved throughout history.’

And yet, what is it that allows some to continue, and others to disappear despite the Universal Truth that each is sure it possesses? ‘“Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is political support,”’ writes Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster in the UK ‘“and all religions are transient unless they get imperial support.”’ Even the much vaunted staying power of Christianity required the Roman emperor Constantine, and his Edict of Milan in 313 CE to grant it legal status, and again the emperor Theodosius and his Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The first university I attended was originally founded by the Baptists and, at least for my freshman year, there was a mandatory religious studies course. Thankfully, I was able to take a comparative religion course, but in retrospect, I would have liked an even broader treatment of world religions. I realize now that I was quite naïve in those times; immigration had not yet exposed many of us to the foreign customs and ideas with which we are now, by and large, quite familiar. So the very notion of polytheism, for example, where there could be a god dedicated to health, say, and maybe another that spent its time dealing with the weather, was not only fascinating, but also compelling. I mean, why not? The Catholics have their saints picked out that intervene for certain causes, so apart from the intervener numbers, what makes Hinduism with its touted 33 million gods, such an outlier in the West (wherever that is)?

It seems to me that most of us have wondered about the meaning of Life at one time or other, and most of us have reflected on what happens after death. The answers we come up with are fairly well correlated with those of our parents, and the predominant Zeitgeist in which we swim. But as the current changes, each of us is swept up in one eddy or another, yet we usually manage to convince ourselves it’s all for the best. And perhaps it is.

Who’s to say that there needs to be a winner? Religions fragment over time and so do societies; their beliefs, however sacrosanct in the moment, evolve and are in turn sacralized. And yet our wonder of it all remains. Who are we really, and why are we here? What happens when we die? These questions never go away, and likely never will. So maybe, just maybe, we will always need a guide. Maybe we will always need a Charon to row us across the River Styx…

Let shame say what it will

Call me overly sensitive, but I don’t like to be shamed. There, I’ve said it. I suspect it is because shaming causes me to think less of myself: to feel humiliated, demeaned. And yet, there is another side to humiliation that seems to hide in the shadows: the feeling of humility – ‘This amounts not to thinking less of yourself but to thinking of yourself less. The person so ‘humiliated’ becomes less self-centred: her ethical concerns bear witness to a kind of revolution through which her own private and peculiar desires lose credence and authority, a diminution that finally allows her to take notice of what is positively owed to others.’- so writes Louise Chapman, a PhD candidate at the time in Philosophy at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge in an essay on shaming in Aeon.

‘Has the behaviour of another person ever made you feel ashamed? Not because they set out to shame you but because they acted so virtuously that it made you feel inadequate by comparison.  If so, then it is likely that, at least for a brief moment in time, you felt motivated to improve as a person.’

Perhaps, in the embarrassing circumstances of the moment of humiliation, I never stopped to think about it very deeply, but operating behind the scenes was a type of hydraulic system whereby ‘the elevation of one desire in a closed system causes a proportional diminution in another… the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant presents it as a useful metaphor for capturing the seesawing nature of real psychological forces. In his view, the subordination of self-interest removes, or at least diminishes, hindrances to willing the good. For Kant, the denigration of one’s pathological interests is thus tantamount to removing barriers to acting well. This pivotal mechanism of moral education could be classed as a form of sublimation or diversion, whereby inappropriate desires are channelled into higher pursuits.’

In more recent times, it was Sigmund Freud ‘who claimed that psychic energy can be redirected from lower aims to higher ones, at least when the patient herself recognises that the desiderative drive imperils her.’

This is where exemplary individuals come into the picture. ‘These are people who have the ability to cause profound shifts in the motivational landscapes of their spectators.’ But the exemplars should not serve as a model but only as proof that it really is possible to act in a better way.

Social Media nowadays provides an instructive example. It is tempting to rid ourselves –unfollow– those who continually post their successes, and yet ‘while they can stir up the pains of comparative humiliation, in so doing they strike down our tendency towards intellectual and physical torpor, thereby inspiring us to action.’ This could be termed a form of ‘appraisal respect’. We don’t have to engage with them, only to bear witness -and appreciate that we are not being manipulated if we see some merit in their success as an example for ourselves. In theory, at least, ‘Once the spectator has been shamed by the exemplar’s behaviour, external examples of morality are no longer necessary for continuing moral progress.’ Moral hydraulics.

Comparisons with others merely remind us of what we ourselves are capable of, and with continuing practice, can find ourselves achieving. But we do need reminders from time to time.

Take the old man I saw leaning against a lamppost on a main street in downtown Vancouver. It was a typically cool, wet, and windy day in autumn and I was snuggling into my umbrella trying to make the best of it. I almost bumped into him, but when a gust of rain suddenly tore at the umbrella, I jumped to the side in time. Dressed in a dirty brown baseball cap, a torn cloth jacket, and -judging by the cuffs that were rolled up many times- jeans that were obviously too large for him, he still managed a smile at the near collision.

It’s sometimes hard to judge the age of people who frequent the streets, but he looked old, and frail -someone who would have been sitting in a warm room somewhere, had Life not been so harsh on him. He did not have the look of a dissipated life -just an unfortunate one that had dealt him all the wrong cards.

“Spare some change…?” he rasped with an old man’s voice, then coughed as if the effort involved in speaking was too much for him. He sent his eyes to inspect my face, and they hovered over my cheeks like hopeful sparrows looking for a roost, then flittered away when they saw my expression.

I suppose his words caught me off-guard -embarrassed me, perhaps- and I merely pretended to listen, shook my head, and fought another gust of wind as I walked away. My first impression was distrust of the neighbourhood, and yet when I turned, warily -and, in truth, with guilt- to check behind me a few moments later, he was still there, the smile clinging to his face: a default expression – hoping, like its owner, for a reason to survive.

He looked so delicate, and elderly that I stopped, uncertain what to do. I was ashamed I had brushed him off so quickly, to tell the truth. His smile, I think, was what had disarmed me -that and the fleeting hope I’d seen written on his face at our chance encounter: an unexpected gift on a cold and blustery day on the street.

Something -perhaps his eyes, still heavy on my shoulders- made me turn to face him. His smile grew and his face crinkled happily at my change of heart. And when I reached him, his hand did not extend as if he expected a reward- just his eyes: two souls searching for my own to touch; two minds joining, if only for a moment in greeting.

I struggled for words, and all I could manage was an apology for being so insensitive. “I’m so ashamed,” I mumbled, reaching into my pocket. “It can’t be easy on the street…” I felt myself blushing as I pulled out the only bill I had -a crumpled ten- and handing it to him. I didn’t want him to think I was just expiating my guilt.

“Don’t be ashamed,” he said, evidently also embarrassed. “You came back… Most people don’t.” And he reached out and shook my hand like a long lost friend.

Looking back, I think he was what we all fear we might become some day. He was my face, in another’s mirror.