I have a confession to make: I suffer from depression.
Whether it is due to chemical imbalances, hormones, life events, or what have you — it is a shadow that has chased me for over a decade.
But that is not why I am here before you today.
Today, I wish to share with you one of the greatest antidepressants I have ever come across.
No, it’s not pharmaceuticals. No, it’s not the latest hit on Netflix. (What’s a Netflix, anyways?) And no, I haven’t taken up ultra (or even full) marathons. At least, not yet.
Activities and pastimes only distract from deeper issues. What I needed was a complete realignment. A reboot. Something that would change how I think about anything and everything.
And I found it.
Lately, I’ve had my nose buried in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: A Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. This recent winning from my local library was at first a consolation prize; they did not have my long-sought-after Pinker installment of How the Mind Works.
No matter. This ended up being exactly what I needed.
Pinker published this work in tandem (not in reaction) to the rise of Trump’s America and the rearing of populism and nationalism across the Western world. There has been a longer trend, Pinker argues, of shaming of the sciences, progressivism, and reason itself. We seem to be trapped in a world in which arguments and hatred spring from deep, irreconcilable roots of racism, tribalism, and backward thinking. We are often told that man is, at heart, irredeemable and evil, only out for himself and his own kin. Faced with the onslaught of man’s failure, we cling to the hope that a savior will come and deliver us from the madness of the world around us. At the same time, the newsstands and town criers bemoan that the world is on fire; the end is nigh.
Crime is up! War is everywhere! Terrorists are upon your doorstep!
Education has failed us and democracy is dying! We are worse off than ever!
This is due sadly in part because of news outlets’ need to stay in business. Writers and editors alike spring to headlines and stories that bring the most clicks, the most purchases: they are looking for that reptilian jolt fed by inflammatory and emotional messaging.
The same goes for scientists, policymakers, and many otherwise responsible citizens, stirring populaces to action with tales of dire conflict.
Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect. Nihilism and fatalism grips the target audience, while anyone with an opposing point of view jeers and secludes back into their favored news outlets. In such a war of words, the population whips into a rabid frenzy of political posturing, polarization, and identity politics.
As much as I love words, Pinker shines upon the way out:
Look for the numbers. Along with its corollary: Anecdotes, trends do not make.
The ideals of the enlightenment hold us all to ever seek a worldview that best reflects reality — not just what we think is there. And data — robust, nonpartisan, long-spanning troves of data — gives us a picture of the world that steps outside of the cynical drain of logical fallacies.
Pinker, with an endless trove of graphs, data, facts, and references (75 pages of them) dispels all of our doubts as to whether or not humanity is on track to a brighter future. People, he shows, are living longer. Around the world, people are healthier, wealthier, more equal, more peaceful, safer, more democratic, and have an overall better quality of life than we ever have in the past 100, 200, or even 500 years.
That does not mean that the battle is not yet over — there is always more work to be done. We must ever be vigilant of our own cognitive biases and refrain from stoking arguments that distract from our common cause. And our world is not without its problems, seemingly smaller though they may be; our sensitivity to today’s racism, sexual harassment, and war is because in the short span of 50 years they has become utterly unacceptable. The older generations may cry “Snowflake!” — at the same moment they are being voted from their seats of political and social power. The game is changing.
And what is the end game? Humanism provides an answer, bereft of spiritual or political tinge: every human’s goal is to flourish. To always improve. To always come ever closer to achieving one’s true potential.
And, strangely enough, helping your fellow citizen to live a better, fuller, and healthier life helps everyone else to flourish as well — exponentially so.
How does this all help one suffering from depression? Well, for one thing, it helps one to take the headlines with a grain of salt.
For the other, I now have a weapon:
Including the darkness. ESPECIALLY the darkness.
Even when it crushes you with your failures, your insignificance. Even when it taunts that you can never be happy, never be fulfilled, never belong anywhere.
Because I am not my darkness; I make my own light.