It’s like enjoying the string of beautiful days and then wondering about the drought ahead. It’s like enjoying the bumper crop of cherries and then wondering about the causes. That’s how I’d describe “living with depression”. Not “being depressed” but living with it. Which means those long periods when I’m fine but it is still there. I wrote somewhere else about DNA having a blue note. Noticing that the cheery pop song you were listening to has changed to a minor key, or that the bass line has switched away from the melody to sink, sulkily away. That’s living with depression.
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish from just being a somewhat grumpy atheist. I think the difference between the grumpy atheist saying “what’s the point we’re all going to die anyway” and the other self, the depressive one, saying the same thing, is that the former says it bluntly to be a bit tough and “win” an argument, while the later (a) probably doesn’t say it out loud, and (b) has a real stab of pain at the thought. Later, of course, if you become actually depressed, the stab of pain will disappear. Then you know it’s time to go and talk to someone.
What is most worrying though is how wide the feelings of unhappiness seem to run in society. When people look at inequality they watch the difference in pay between those at the top and those at the bottom. A steady widening is worrisome. It creates a society where people increasingly have no shared experiences of life, and can’t talk to each other, and are more likely antagonistic towards each other. I think there’s a similar divergence between consumption and personal happiness. The more time we are taken away from ourselves to consume – products, food, information, media – the more our happiness line sinks. Happiness is something to do with the necessities, and after that with connection to others, and to ourselves. Without the necessities, or connection to others or ourselves things are bad. For individuals and for society. Sometimes consuming something brings real, deep happiness. More often the deep, rich stuff of happiness comes from not much more than hanging out with the people that count and shooting the shit, sharing a meal, that kind of stuff.
For my sins I’ve been reading about neo-liberalism recently. Once, a while ago now, I read a famous book by Hayek. There is this idea that freedom is to do with each of us being able to make decisions about how to spend our own money, and the market responding to those decisions by creating services and products at good prices thanks to competition. The thing is I don’t believe in freedom. There’s always a point in philosophies that propose freedom as the end goal that I lose interest. Which is where I draw a strange link between Buddhism and neo-liberalism. Freedom from desire, which takes us to nirvana, means – ultimately – freedom from the desire from connection to others including your own family. At that point I lose interest in Buddhism. I don’t doubt the truth of the message, I can see that this would be a kind of liberation, but the outcome of a whole society doing that is the end of society. Thatcher, infamously, said that there was no such thing as society, and the ACT party name stands for the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers. Not an association I identify with as a human being.
The thing is, like I said, I don’t want total freedom. I don’t want you to be totally free either. I couldn’t live with myself. How can an individual be happy if they know that their sisters and brothers are suffering? How could a society be happy if its fabric of institutions and organisations was determined by economic demand only? Such a society would watch the distribution of services and goods and everything else cluster handily around the wealthier leaving a desert everywhere else.
What got us through the neo-liberal global financial crisis? It was public parks, pools and libraries. State schools and hospitals. Roads, buses and trains. The tap still turning on, the lights staying on, the toilets still flushing. Many of those things exist because we agreed, as people living together in a society, to give away some of our income as individuals so that we can have collective benefits even if the benefit doesn’t come to us. During the anti-democratic sell off of collective assets by Labour and National ideologues in the 80s and 90s you did not see people protesting on the street for more freedom of choice. You never will. Freedom’s just another word for fuck-the-poor.
And no, I don’t want to live in a totalitarian state. Let’s not play the binary game, the old bait and switch. Let’s just acknowledge that neo-liberal ideas about capitalism are economically logical but not sustainable for communities or the environment. Consumption is nice, but if it is the actual basis of life then all of life becomes stripped of meaning. And so we roll around to how I started. A life stripped of meaning leads to a collective unhappiness. When you are depressed you lose fellow feeling: for your fellows and yourself. Which is what happens in a society with a mental health problem. If we are merely a disassociation of consumers and taxpayers then who gives a shit about anyone else?
Now that we’re in this place in which I try to extrapolate personal unhappiness to a whole society let’s think about Mäori.
If we can accept the idea that a rising number of mental health issues in a society suggests that the society itself has gone down a path that leads away from happiness even as material benefits for many seem to improve, then can’t we understand those groups in society who have been unhappy for a very, very long time? There is not one way to run a society there is just the way society is run. What if you don’t agree, and never did agree, with how society is run, and had an alternative system wrenched off you? What would be the collective cost of that on a people? Over time it would be very high. Treaty settlements are one thing, but tino rangatiratanga would be quite another. A route back to happiness, perhaps. This makes a lot of people nervous. How would that work? Well, how does the EU work? Explain Gibraltar, and Luxembourg? What’s up in the Catalans?
There’s solidarity – people working together for a collective benefit – and there’s phony solidarity – “We’re all Kiwis”, which is just a warm fuzzy way of disguising assimilation. If you take what a group of people want off the table altogether – as tino rangatiratanga has been – then you are denying those people happiness. I would suggest that whatever help you offer afterwards, after what is really wanted is discounted, will always be insufficient. Often, in fact, the sources of “help” perpetuate the degradation of those people. Look to the state abuse case working its way to the tribunal now.
Ignore also the cycle of validation. Ignore the knighthoods, wealth and honorary degrees for the people who have delivered us the ideas of neo-liberalism over the last thirty years. That’s what systems do. They pat each other on the back. They insulate themselves from criticism with robes and medals. It means nothing.
Why are people unhappy? In the supermarkets bulging with products. In the malls on Black Friday. On their devices at 2am scrolling through their feeds. In the bus shelters in sleeping bags. In the homes in the suburbs you don’t visit where everyone knows someone in jail. By the rivers, the sea, in the gutters full of the plastic we wrap the shit we don’t need in. Because we are not consumers. We are people. And you are my sister. You are my brother.
How do we find happiness?