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Rethinking Depression: A Vegan Perspective

August 20, 2011

Could there possibly be an evolutionary advantage to depression? Could being depressed actually help one to succeed in life? I sometimes ask myself whether or not our modern day obsession with positive reinforcement, optimism and pursuit for eternal happiness has somehow missed the proverbial boat. I also wonder if there are studies on animal rights activists (or any activists struggling for a just cause in a “see-no-hear-no-speak-no-evil” world) and propensity for depression. And then, I wonder if these studies have taken it farther to see if there is a significant correlation between depression and successful activism. This isn’t an idea out of the blue. A recent article in the Toronto Star ponders whether or not mental illness makes one a more successful leader, an example being Bob Rae’s publicly-admitted struggle with depression [1]. An article in the New York Times Magazine suggests that Charles Darwin was depressed and this helped him get ahead in his scientific research and work [2]. I’m quite titillated by the idea that maybe my successes in school and work (and that of my dark and illustrious friends) could have been directly incubated and fostered by a somewhat pessimistic and depressive nature. Of course, this can’t possibly be true for everyone. Many people, much more depressed than I ever was, have lost relationships, jobs, and friends due to their low mood, as well as failed classes and dropped out of school. Many lose their lives. But what if for a select few, this dark energy force is strong enough–but not over-powering–that it can be channelled towards achieving something great? We’re constantly told that feeling sad is something that needs to be fixed, but sadness may also be an effective tool to stay grounded, realistic, and pragmatic.

Any metaphysical, existential, solipsistic, or atheistic pursuit is a gateway for depression, but I can’t help but yearn towards the very questions that are asked by these theories. Quoting Aristotle, “all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.” The prerequisite for wisdom may be pain. This ties into my previous blog post about “taking the red pill”. It seems like the cliché “ignorance is bliss” never felt more right than it does now. When you finally acknowledge all of the horrendous atrocities that goes on to animals in factory farms and realises that your supermarket selections directly impact the lives and welfare of these poor creatures, the prime ribs or sirloin steak may not taste as delicious as it used to. And if it still does, well, that’s one serious case of denial. But denial and shame are much more prevalent in society than righteousness and sincerity. It’s easier for people to choose to live an ignorant existence, because it is comfortable, acceptable, and self-indulgent. It’s also hopelessly unrealistic and flawed, and yet, it’s satisfying. That is human nature, so it would be inappropriate to blame them. On the other hand, when you face the truth, you run the risk of turning away from that naïve source of happiness or contentment and playing with the fires of sadness or depression. How could you not become depressed when you are aware of what is involved in industry farming and its consequences to the environment, world hunger, animal welfare, emotional psychology of the workers, and health of the consumers? But now, the question is not how do we combat this depression, but rather how can we utilize it to inspire others to taste reality, fight for justice, be the voice for those who haven’t one, and make the ethical choice that I know, deep down (perhaps unconsciously), everyone wants to make? We all aspire to be more virtuous, more health-conscious people; however a lot of us assume that giving up animal product consumerism is too much of a sacrifice to potentially risk losing their happiness, their emotional state of being comfortably numb, and their easy lives. It’s the same reason why everyone wants to be fit, but still people avoid exercise as if it were bad for them.

I wish not to glamourize depression or make light of it. I don’t think I would ever want to wish depression on someone else so that they may become more successful or stop eating meat! That’s downright ridiculous. I absolutely do not consider that being sad or depressed is a requirement for animal empathy or activist achievement. Vegans and animal rights/welfare advocates can and do live happy fulfilled lives and indeed, they can be unrealistically optimistic and even fail exams in school! It would be utterly futile to take what I write and try to find a cause-and-effect-type relationship. Admittedly, I am far cry from an expert on depression and readily assume responsibility for quite erroneously using the terms “depression” and “sadness” interchangeably. What I am trying to accomplish by this piece, however, is the “thinking outside of the box” that is sometimes so hard to do. To view sadness (or even depression) in a different light from what we are raised to believe. (Is it always a painful and vain waste of emotional energy?) The same way that vegans view using animals for mostly selfish and unnecessary human purposes without regard for the well-being of the animals is something that should and must be questioned. (Is it right?)

As a side note, I just finished reading Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) and The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd). Both books contained main characters struggling with depression. In the latter, the character May not only gets depressed about sad events and happenings to herself, but she feels so profoundly the pain of others as if it were her own. It is the most extreme form of empathy. I sometimes wonder if my anxiety is caused by similar extreme comprehension of other creatures’ pain and suffering.

“See, Lily, when you and I hear about some misery out there, it might make us feel bad for a while, but it doesn’t wreck our whole world. It’s like we have a built-in protection around our hearts that keeps the pain from overwhelming us. But May–she doesn’t have that. Everything just comes into her–all the suffering out there–and she feels as if it’s happening to her. She can’t tell the difference.” (The Secret Life of Bees, p. 95)

Referenced articles:
[1]: Is depression Bob Rae’s secret weapon?
[2]: Depression’s Upside

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kelly permalink
    August 20, 2011 7:23 pm

    So weird…as I was reading this I started thinking what if empathy leads to sadness/depression and the thought that maybe vegans are more empathetic and therefore choose to not take part in the suffering because of that very empathy. I struggle sometimes with anxiety/panic and have had a harder time since I became vegan. I have often wondered that since I have opened my eyes to the realities I once ignored and feel the pain of others and more intensely see the dangers of our food choices if this has impacted my anxious mind. I have also wondered if this is a prevalent issue within the vegan community. Interesting thoughts you share….thanks!

  2. August 20, 2011 7:26 pm

    Wow… very well written and alternatively inspiring… I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

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