JOY AND DEPRESSION
I appreciated your last
article, Joy Amidst Turmoil, but I wonder
about your take that “every child ever born is always happy and joyful. Joy
is hardwired in our hardware and in our software. Sadness is a superimposed
state that we acquire once we begin to grow and experience disappointment
and duplicity. Children learn to be sad from their parents and the "mature"
world that they become exposed to.”
My experience is that
there are children who seem to have sadness, fear and sensitivity hardwired
into their systems, more than others. Some of my own kids seemed to be that
way from a very young age, at age three or even younger, and they even remembered
having such feelings.
As someone who has had
many very difficult challenges, and also having struggled at times with depression,
I feel that despite the passing years, decades of learning Chassidus and working
on trying to be in a space of menuchas hanefesh (inner peace) and joy, at times it really is not
my choice. It’s like being pinned under a 10,000-pound boulder, which I cannot
move even if I tried really, really hard?
Don't you think it’s possible
that some people have despondence hardwired into their moods and feelings
more than others? And notwithstanding our ability to control it at times to
a degree, we really don’t have much choice?
Your question is excellent
and reflects some other comments we received to last week’s article. Being
that we are in the month of joy (Adar), and preparing for the most joyous
day in the year (Purim), it is very appropriate to address your words. Especially
considering that many others struggle with the issue of joy in their lives,
and how they can celebrate when they simply feel depression running through
The real question is this:
Simcha (joy) is a mitzvah
in the Torah at all times, especially on holidays in general and Purim in
particular, as well as Sukkot and Simchat Torah. If some people are hardwired
with sadness, how can the Torah command and expect joy from all people across
A fundamental axiom in
Torah thought is that every Torah obligation is something that can be expected
of humans. G-d told Moses “I do not ask according to My abilities; only according
to their abilities.” Torah
cannot and does not demand that we do something that we are unable to accomplish.
This is based on the principle that the Torah is a blueprint of life given
to us by the cosmic architect of life. How can the Creator of life ask us
to do something that we do not have the power and are not hardwired to do?
The Torah’s universal
injunction of joy is a clear statement that every one of us has the power
to be joyous. This is the basis of my article last week that joy is embedded
in our souls and in our genes, even if may be deeply concealed, and we have
the power to access this reservoir.
How do we reconcile this
with your observation and those of many others that depression seems to be
the destiny of some people?
So let’s take a closer
look at the question: Are there depressed genes? Is sadness a product of nature
Just as some children
are tragically born with various diseases, there are children who seem to
be born with a pre-disposition to melancholy, if not outright chronic depression.
But it’s not that simple.
Current medical research is sparse and inconclusive on the subject. Some researchers
suspect that depression in preschoolers is likely biological and environmental.
Some kids, they speculate, may be born with a genetic predisposition to depression,
just as some children are born with autism, or Asperger's syndrome or attention
deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But they really don't know. Nor do they know
what triggers the depression.
Dr. Charles Zeanah, director of the Institute for Infant and Early Childhood
Mental Health at Tulane University in New Orleans, says that though some depressed
kids clearly come from parents who are depressed or have other psychiatric
disorders, other depressed children have been abused or neglected, sometimes
from infancy. But not all abused kids end up with
depression. Nor do all the children of parents suffering depression end up
depressed. Some preschoolers, Dr. Zeanah says, seem to be depressed for no
apparent genetic or environmental reason.
Dr. Jess P. Shatkin, director
of education and training at the NYU Child Study Center and assistant professor
of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, states the following: “The epidemiological
studies that have been done on childhood depression have generally been small
and too few in number to be definitive about the precise prevalence of childhood
depression. Furthermore, it is often not easy to diagnose depression in a
child, and as a field we are relatively new at making this diagnosis ourselves.
Having said that, those studies that have been done are fairly consistent
and suggest that about 1% of preschool, 2% of school age, and 4-8% of adolescents
will at some point be depressed.
“We believe the causes
to be multifaceted, but we don't really have a good answer to the question
of etiology. We accept that depression, like many mental illnesses, tends
to travel in families and therefore has some genetic basis. However, it does
not run exclusively in families, and we expect that neurodevelopment, neurochemistry,
and environment all play significant roles in the final common pathway of
what appears to be depression.”
In other words, we really
have no clue whether children are born with a “depressed” gene. We also know
that often a very early-childhood experience, a trauma at birth or even in
the womb, can impact the child as if it was an innate trait. Certain experiences
in life, especially in the earliest formative years, etch a permanent scar
in the psyche, to the point that it can even rewire our systems, so that we
cannot even distinguish whether our behavior is a result of nature or nurture.
Recently I counseled a
special soul who always, from her earliest memories, was repelled by her mother.
And indeed, her mother confirmed the fact that almost from birth her daughter
refused to be held by her and would pull away every time her mother would
reach for her. The mother was convinced, as was the daughter, that the girl
was pre-wired to hate her mother.
Upon further observation
and analysis it turned out that from the moment of conception and throughout
pregnancy the mother never wanted this child. And she made it abundantly clear
in her words, feelings and actions. So: What impact did her negative feelings
have on her child? If a developing fetus senses for nine months on end and
incessant rejection, and then again, when the child emerged from the womb,
how does that affect the child’s wiring? Is this nature or nurture, and can
we even differentiate between the two?
One of the things that
I incidentally emphasized to the daughter, who is now a thirty-year-old adult,
is that she must be an unconventionally sensitive soul to have picked up on
her mother’s rejection, causing her to recoil every time her mother would
reach for her even at birth! This ultra-sensitivity, when channeled properly,
can be a tremendous asset in life.
With all this being said,
whether sadness, anger, depression and the range of negative feelings we carry,
are inborn or acquired, natural or man-made, the fact is that the soul also
contains tremendous wellsprings of joy. So even we were to say that some more
than others have sadness hardwired into our systems, we at worst have a battle
on our hands: Which voice will prevail – our sad one or our happy one?
And who amongst us does
not have this battle? Even if you were born with the happiest genes, into
the happiest family, life itself can be quite cruel and our presenting challenges
can often bring even the mightiest spirits down.
The Torah’s mitzvah of
joy is a combination of a challenge, a commandment, an expectation, a gift
and an empowering statement to each one of us, telling us what we are truly
capable of, making us aware of our soul’s enormous potential: We have the
power and ability to bring true and lasting joy into our lives, despite all
In Tanya (chapter 17)
Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains, that the mitzvah of loving G-d is not an easy
one. Living in this material world, he says, most people immersed in their
material desires, cannot be expected to burst with conscious love for the
Divine. However, we can expect from everyone actions that are commensurate
with love. Through meditating on our gifts and blessings and acting accordingly,
we in effect are accessing the inherent, subconscious love in the soul that
may be concealed. The same can be said of joy. Through cognitive exercises
and respective positive actions, the inherent joy of the soul can be realized.
Obviously, each of us
has our unique challenges in this regard, and we won’t always rise to the
occasion. That too should not be cause to further sadden us. Life is a battle
fraught with sudden twists and turns, and sometimes we prevail and sometimes
it’s more difficult. It’s vital to learn how to navigate and pace ourselves.
Not every battle has to be waged head on. At times, like a good swimmer in
a stormy sea, we need to lay back and let the choppy waves carry us instead
of fighting them to exhaustion.
Those born into sad homes,
or even with sad genes (should that be the case), or genes that were deeply
impacted by a dysfunctional environment, clearly have very particular obstacles
to overcome. But they too have souls and as such, have much joy, which is
inherent to every soul.
Even those souls that
have severe challenges from birth (not due to anything man-made) also have
other tremendous resources – if only we were able to see beneath the surface.
So even if one were to argue that certain children are hardwired with sadness
that they cannot control, they have other areas which they can control, and
they have joy in their souls that can always be accessed.
And those of us that grew
up in happy homes and have happy genes, or genes that were nourished and stimulated
in a nurturing environment, have our share of challenges.
The fact is – something
I have witnessed time and again – there are people who were handed the harshest
“set of cards” and they have learned to become, with strenuous work, highly
evolved, refined and yes, joyful human beings, who shine and illuminate everyone
they meet. And there are, sad to say (and I would have preferred not to articulate
it), those who grew up in very privileged homes and environments, dealt the
best possible “set of cards,” and have become spoiled brats, indulgent and
arrogant human beings, bitter, angry and yes, very sad, who bring gloom wherever
But the latter too have
the ability to turn things around. Because the soul and its innate joy never
dies. “I may be asleep, but my heart is awake.” And with the proper effort
– and prerequisite honesty and humility – every one can access the deeper
That is what Purim is
about. Discovering the profound joy in our hearts and souls, that often emerges,
as it did in the Purim story, from the brink of the abyss. And this type of
joy is the greatest and most permanent: A joy born out of pain cannot be destroyed