bhapter8 88-149 January 20, 1990
Everyone knows the old saw about seeing the glass half empty or half full. Even truer is that you often can choose which glass to look at, a glass which is full or one which is empty. Sadness and depression usually are optional. That is, in most situations you can choose to be happy or you can choose to be miserable.
An enormous variety of stimuli bombard us. We pick-and- choose which of these stimuli to focus on. Some of the stimuli are more insistent than others -- a stomach ache, for example, or a last-second defeat of our favorite basketball team. But we are free to choose among the majority of stimuli around us.
The healthy-minded person picks out characteristics -- let's call them "dimensions" -- on which she rates well, and then argues to herself and to others that those are the most important dimensions on which to judge a person. A slightly exaggerated example: University faculty members who teach well but do no research argue that teaching should be weighted most heavily in salary and promotion evaluations; those who do much research and teach poorly argue instead that research should be most influential in evaluations; people who are rather good but not outstanding on both dimensions argue the virtues of well- roundedness. (Those who are very good on both dimensions don't waste their time on arguments like this one.)
As Collingwood put it, "The tailless fox preached taillessness."1 If a person cannot find some external objective dimension of performance by which she rates well, one can always fall back on piety and prayer-saying, in which any person can excel without talent or training.
All this sounds amoral or even immoral, and sometimes it is. Morality and intellectual honesty must constrain a decent person in valuing various dimensions. And I certainly do not advise ignoring all higher standards and proceeding solely on the basis of what is good for you alone, which would be most cynical. But let us put aside that thorny issue aside for now.
This, then, is how most people fight sadness and depression- -by skillfully choosing the dimensions by which they judge themselves, together with wisely selecting the standards on particular dimensions against which they measure themselves.
William James put the matter beautifully:
[W]e have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has 'pitted' himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn't do that nothing else counts. He is to his own regard as if he were not, indeed he is not. Yonder puny fellow, however, whom every one can beat, suffers no chagrin about it, for he has long ago abandoned the attempt to 'carry that line,' as the merchants say, of self at all. With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure, no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do.... To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified; and where disappointment is incessant sand the struggle unending, this is what men will always do. The history of evangelical theology, with its conviction of sin, its self-despair, and its abandonment of salvation by works, is the deepest of possible examples, but we meet others in every walk of life. There is the strangest lightness about the heart when one's nothingness in a particular line is once accepted in good faith. All is not bitter- ness in the lot of the lover sent away by the final inexorable 'No.'...How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young,--or slender! Thank God! we say, those illusions are gone. Everything added to the Self is a burden as well as a pride. A certain man who lost every penny during our civil war went and actually rolled in the dust, saying he had not felt so free and happy since he was born.2
The Grant Study followed the adaptation of men to the vicissitudes of life for several decades after they began college, the first group starting in the 1930s. Those who seemed to have adapted well to their life circumstances frequently used a device the investigators called "suppression --a mature mechanism that includes looking for silver linings, minimizing acknowledged discomfort, keeping a stiff upper lip, and deliberately postponing, but not avoiding, conscious impulse or conflict" 3. This is from the same cut of cloth as the count- your-blessings device.
Some people, however, are less flexible in their choice of dimensions on which to compare themselves; they cannot choose at will the best "line" for them to carry. For some people this is a matter of basic values; they will not praise taillessness simply because it is psychologically convenient to do so. Some people get stuck with dimensions that cause them sadness because of destructive values implanted during childhood, for example, the value that one should get maximum formal education, or that one should not think bad thoughts. Other people purposely focus only on dimensions which make them look bad in their self- comparisons; all of us have met people who live exemplary lives in all apparent respects but flay themselves with whips day and night because they think they don't do enough for the community or for their aged parents or relatives.
Sometimes I find myself thinking that tonight's dinner engagement, which I can find a way to break, probably will be a big drag at which I'll undoubtedly make a fool of myself, instead of focusing on next week's dinner engagement which will be lots of fun and where I will sound funny and wise. Or, I will focus on next week's lunch that will undoubtedly be a bore instead of today's lunch which will surely be delightful. With a little effort, however, I can switch my mind to the better event of each pair. And if you do that often enough, you build a habit of focusing on the full glass instead of the empty one.
If you can pry yourself loose from dimensions that draw you to negative self-comparisons, and shift to other dimensions of evaluation, you can thereby shake loose from your depression. Chapter 14, and also Chapter 18 on Values Treatment, show how this may be done.
The healthy-minded person picks out characteristics on which she rates well, and then argues to herself and to others that those are the most important dimensions on which to judge a person. This is how most people fight sadness and depression--by skillfully choosing the dimensions by which they judge themselves, together with wisely selecting the standards on particular dimensions against which they measure themselves.
Some people, however, are less flexible in their choice of dimensions on which to compare themselves; they cannot choose at will the best "line" for them to carry. For some people this is a matter of basic values. Some people get stuck with dimensions that cause them sadness because of destructive values implanted during childhood. Other people purposely focus only on dimensions which make them look bad in their self-comparisons.
An important tactic in battling depression is to choose dimensions that allow you to make positive self- comparisons and are consistent with your basic system of values.