Art Rosman re-reads Walker Percy’s mock-self-help book, Lost in the Cosmos, noting that Percy “does not think that depression is merely a problem to be medicated away, but rather a rational response to the state of our world”:
Let’s start with how Percy takes a quick stock of modern life by answering the question why so many people are depressed:
Because modern life is enough to depress anybody? Any person, man, woman, or child, who is not depressed by the nuclear arms race, by the modern city, by family life in the exurb, suburb, apartment, villa, and later in a retirement home, is himself deranged.
We could add any number of deranged situations to the list: the growing income inequality gap, any number of looming ecological disasters, terrorism, the disappearance of the extended family, Ebola, AIDS, the fertility crash, and so on.
Rosman goes on to cite a brilliant passage from Percy’s book that elaborates on this notion:
Now, call into question the unspoken assumption: something is wrong with you. Like Copernicus and Einstein, turn the universe upside down and begin with a new assumption. Assume that you are quite right.
You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth—and who are luckily exempt from depression—would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.
Begin with the reverse hypothesis, like Copernicus and Einstein. You are depressed because you should be. You are entitled to your depression. In fact, you’d be deranged if you were not depressed. Consider the only adults who are never depressed: chuckleheads, California surfers, and fundamentalist Christians who believe they have had a personal encounter with Jesus and are saved for once and all. Would you trade your depression to become any of these?