I feel depressed because I have a human need that is not being attended to. It’s hard to argue with this conclusion. The only thing is, there is much more to the story than this statement alludes to, and we will miss the mark entirely if the prevailing approach we have around our personal troubles is one where we mistake conversations that connect us to our needs as being the most effective route for attending to what ails us. What we often overlook in needs-centred conversations is the degree to which the satisfaction and even the framing and understanding of our needs are heavily reliant on the health of both our humanly constructed and natural environments that are foundational to our lives.
Marshall Rosenberg wrote: Depression is the reward we get for being 'good'. I don’t believe he was making the case for behaving poorly but rather that he was pointing out that we can easily be led to believe that our ‘goodness’ is measured by our allegiance to the status quo. In that sense, we become immune to the ways in which we regularly violate our own deeply human needs for the sake of the rewards we get for being ‘good’ members of a regime that is itself removed from what serves life. It’s no wonder then that so many suffer from depression.
Each of us lives inside our own personal narrative which takes its cues from the larger cultural narrative of the society into which we are respectively born. We embrace some of the narrative and some of it we reject. Certainly our survival relies on our engagement with our culture to some degree or other (typically economical). Even if a person physically removes themselves from their culture, it is virtually impossible to make a clean break from its influence.
It is no guarantee that I am free or will ever be free from the impact my culture has on me anymore than I can be free from the impact that literacy has had on me in the event that I decide to divest myself of all my belongings and head for the heart of the Amazon rainforest to live out the rest of my days with an oral tribal culture. For better or worse, my ability to read and write has shaped my brain and shaped how I perceive the world. It’s useful to bear this in mind.
My depression might reach a point where I decide to pay a visit to a counsellor or mental health specialist. I might say to them: I feel depressed because I have a need for meaning and relevance in my work and in my life that I’m not able to find at this time in my life. This might in turn lead to an exploration of various kinds of work to which I might be suited. I may return to school and acquire new skills leading to employment that brings greater satisfaction into my life. And while my depression might simultaneously lift, the society around me remains unchanged. It chugs along.
For a good number, strategies such as medication and re-skilling will have little positive effect on their mental and emotional states. Perhaps a more comprehensive expression of a person’s depressed state might be articulated as follows: It’s true that I feel depressed because I have a need for meaning and relevance in my work and in my life overall. But there’s more .. I also have a need to see meaning and relevance reflected around me in how people live and work together as a society. I need to know that I belong to a culture that is ultimately sane and healthy .. a society that has a recognizable regard for life. Without that, all I see around me is dissonance. All I see is people coping, some better than others. All I see is a society that makes no sense and is rushing towards its own demise. Yes I have a need for meaning and relevance but at its best, healthy meaning and relevance is first culturally derived so that it can be individually adopted and lived. And just because some people appear to thrive in an insane consumer culture doesn’t mean the culture is healthy nor does it mean that my inability to thrive indicates a failure or imbalance on my part. From the crib to the daycare centre to the classroom to the boardroom to the bank to the retail outlet and back and forth between these various prisons and finally to the senior’s residence and to the palliative care unit, my life is one long tedious exercise of coping with incoherence and trying not to go crazy. This doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful or resentful or that I don’t experience moments of joy. I have enormous gratitude for life, but the things I’m grateful for have little to do with my institutionalized life. In fact my gratitude is fuelled by the aliveness that manages to break through the cracks of the prevailing societal machine that grinds on.
And so it’s not enough for me to name my needs and to then begin exploring strategies to satisfy them when the entire conversation and exercise takes place within the silo of a cultural narrative that pretends to serve life while marching to an agenda that is primarily concerned with its own malignant survival. It’s simply not enough. I am a canary in a coal mine and I’m telling you the answer has to be larger than my own individual symptoms and needs. It has to be larger than the myriad of strategies prescribed to treat my symptoms .. strategies which are born out of the same sickness that generated my affliction. I don’t want to learn to cope with the noxious gases that are slowly killing me .. I want to get out of this sick place and live in the way nature intended me to .. and the tragedy is that all I have known in my small lifetime is the coal mine. I was born inside it. I believe you were too. Now dear counsellor, what do you have to say to me?
Let’s not task NVC with the burden of trying to be the solution to the world’s problems .. but let’s not also, in our urgency to solve problems, move too swiftly through NVC’s first step so that we can to get to needs. I’m speaking about our capacity to OBSERVE. In photography the aperture or “f” stop refers to the depth of field of the lens. The greater the depth of field, the more rich and detailed the visual information that will be recorded when pressing the shutter. When someone is in pain, it’s useful to engage our depth of field vision so that we can appreciate the larger story. We can remember the words of the Sufi poet Rumi ..
My heart is so small it's almost invisible. How can You place such big sorrows in it?
"Look," He answered, "your eyes are even smaller, yet they behold the world.
If I were depressed, I would want the person I was speaking with to have significant depth of field vision, someone in no rush to get me out of my dark night .. but rather someone who knew something of its rough and challenging terrain and was not afraid to spend time there with me .. someone who was well acquainted with the particular flavour of madness that our culture traffics in .. someone who could open my eyes to that very madness if in fact I was not aware of its long shadow over our respective personal and collective human lives. Perhaps in that person’s presence, I could begin to re-member an ancestral song deep in my bones calling to a vibrant sunlit horizon where my yellow wings could fly beyond the coal mine. Yes, that’s what I would want, even if I didn’t know it.
Rachelle Lamb’s lifelong interest in human development, relationship dynamics and the roles that culture and ecology play in people's lives, along with her ability to skillfully pave the way for transformational dialogue between people consistently produces powerful learning experiences for individuals and audiences. Learn more about her at www.RachelleLamb.com.