Friday, February 14, 2020

Yuval Noah Harari

When depression sets in, a common response is to label it a problem - which it is, to be sure - and go in search of a solution. I’m talking about real depression, not simply being down, feeling blue, out of sorts, or in a funk - there are so many expressions for the phenomenon because it’s so very common. If it’s just a light case of ennui, which some mistake for depression, the solution is probably a change of scene. Take a hike, get the body in motion, treat yourself to something you save for these occasions - chocolate, some uplifting music, whatever works for you. No, I mean serious depression, the mental condition that there’s something terribly wrong that can’t be fixed. In that case you probably need outside help. 

I like the image that depression is something you “fall” into. Like falling into a hole you can’t find your way out of, or falling down and not knowing how to get up. It’s generally the false conviction that the place you’re in is the only place there is and the time you’re in the only time. I call that a false conviction because I am persuaded that the Buddhists have figured out correctly that the only certainty is change. The here and now is always temporary, and that’s something you lose sight of when you get depressed. The solution is to recognize you need external help. If you’re good with words, psychotherapy may work for you. And it may be that the problem is chemical, and the best way out is anti-depressant medication.

I’ve been dealing with depression recently and my first thought was to ask my pulmonologist whether depression was a side effect of the new medication I had just gone on. The old one gave me nausea and vomiting and diarrhea, so I switched to an alternate medication, which was fortunately available.

The doctor said the medication was still new and there was not enough research on it. He suggested I give it up for a while and see if I felt better. I said no. The depression was bad, but the medication was something that could potentially extend my life for years, so giving it up didn’t make sense. I would find my way through the downturn in mood. Tough it out and find another way to go. Which means, of course, that the depression was probably not that bad. Not the kind where you can’t get out of bed, can’t work or eat or sleep. Just the kind that makes you want to shut all your doors and windows and talk only with your dogs, and maybe your spouse, if he begins to feel neglected.

I’ve got a good friend who is inclined to blame depression on chemical imbalance. I decided I’d be contrary and insist that’s not what’s going on in my case. In my case, I said, I was depressed not because of something wrong with me, but because the world really is all fucked up at the moment. One of those times when you have to say to others, “If you are not depressed, it’s because you’re not aware of what’s going on!”

Here’s what’s going on in my life. My country is in the shitcan. The people running it at the moment run it for the superrich, the way we structure the mechanics of government has turned out to be dysfunctional and the Republicans, who benefit from the dysfunction, are spending a good part of their wealth on convincing the low information voters among us that God put the Leader in power and they need to get behind him. And getting the opposition organized is like herding cats and things are looking bleak for November. The ice is melting at the North and South Poles and a billion animals lost their lives in fires in Australia. We spend more money jailing people than educating our young, and a significant percentage of the American population can’t locate the Pacific Ocean on a map. The question isn’t why am I depressed. The question is why aren’t you?

I opened the February 17/24 edition of The New Yorker the other day and saw there was an article by Ian Parker on this Israeli guy Yuval Noah Harari. I had heard of him but had not read any of his three books: Sapiens: A brief history of humankind; Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow; and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The Parker article was long and my mind wandered mid-way for a while, but I soon realized I had come across a way out of my depression. Harari is a globalist. A historian and a philosopher. His concerns are the big picture, the mega questions. Pretty soon I had found my way to YouTube where I discovered about sixty videos of his speeches and interviews and before I knew it I had stopped fussing over who was going to win in November, or even whether American democracy was going to survive.

Don’t get me wrong. I still care. I just stopped fussing and switched focus. Harari is convinced there are three existential challenges the human race is facing: environmental destruction, possible annihilation through a nuclear holocaust, and the biggest one of all, what to do about the fact that after millions of years of human life on earth we are at the point where we could turn ourselves over to control by artificial intelligence.

For the next several days I was glued to YouTube videos of Harari beating his drum on these topics. He’s a brilliant man. I don’t know why it took me so long to discover him - obviously I don’t have all my priorities straight. I’ve reached the point where I think I’ve picked up his message and can move on now. The point is not that I’ve discovered a new guru; the point is that I’ve rediscovered the healing power of books and ideas. Harari got the wheels turning again. Instead of stressing so much over the American political nightmare I’m now back where I think I should be. Fussing over whether the coronavirus is going to invade Japan, fussing over whether Brexit is going to lead to the breakup of the UK, fussing over whether the AfD election in Saxony is giving the neo-Nazis real traction in Germany, whether Ukraine can get free of Russian hegemony, whether I’m going to live to see my 90th birthday.

And whether we can solve the climate crisis, cool down the nuclear threat, and come up with a way to keep the human race from handing over its collective brain to machines.

And whether we can keep that piece of shit Donald J. Trump from getting re-elected in November.

I haven’t stopped worrying about the old stuff; I’m just back in the world of ideas.

Which has always worked in the past to keep me going when things got rough. Ideas are my all-time favorite medicine. Works to counter aching joints, crotch itch, arthritic hands, hair loss, loss of balance, and runny nose.

And depression.

Too much to think about to be depressed.

Just needed a little boost, that’s all. Yuval, you’re my man!

1 comment:

Savitri said...

Nicely written Alan. Michael is also a Harari fan. Happy you found your way out ❤️🙏🏼❤️