Depression and Justice

By Stu Whitley | Bio


I
had my own struggle with depression, brought about by a confluence of
events that seemed overwhelming. In spite of my rational training and
experience as a lawyer, I was completely disabled by my loss of
perspective. I could not see beyond the shadows of perceived (and real)
threats. A feeling of being trapped is the best way to describe the
sense of hopelessness and abandonment I was experiencing.

Fear
inspires the ‘fight or flight’ response, as we all know. But the very
preoccupation with survival paradoxically can immobilize us, in the way
that an eland, seized at the nose by a lioness, yields to a dominant
force. Depression is truly a form of pseudo-death—an ambulatory sort of
coma. In my experience, ameliorative drugs such as Paxil and Prozac
don’t do much more than maintain the most minimal of functioning, at a
cost of any exuberance, sexuality or joy.

During the course of
my depression, I was constantly being exhorted to “put on my lawyer’s
hat” by my wife, among others. More about the therapeutic effects of
human connection in a moment. I think we all look at the world through
a series of lenses—much like the optometrist’s device where he places
different combinations of prisms in front of our eyes, and we get
correspondingly greater or lesser degrees of focus. We can consider a
historical perspective, or the teachings of our parents, or medical
advice, cultural instruction, and the like.

It had not
occurred to me to utilize my craft as a lawyer in any other way other
than the resolution of legal problems. But as I thought about it, the
more it seemed that a fresh perspective helped me understand the root
of what ailed me.

Much of what happens to us that has negative
connotations I believe we construe as ‘unfair’. Fairness, in legal
parlance, connotes due process, and being rightly treated by authority,
or forces greater than us. As lawyers, if we can demonstrate our
clients have ‘clean hands’, any action by or against them is resolved
in their favour. Of the many years I have spent in the courts, it is
not the sentences that sting; it is the sense that one has been
unfairly treated. Judicial impatience, a scornful prosecutor, an
ill-prepared defence attorney, usurious bills—these are the sorts of
things that most upset citizens at court in my experience, because they
are unfair.

Unfortunately, the events that occur in one’s life
are not girded by notions of due process. A parent dies suddenly, an
accident debilitates, investments fail to flourish, friends abandon one
because of unspecified rumours or gossip. Accidents occur in spite of
our best efforts to prevent them. Unforeseen consequences flow from
otherwise trivial events, and in the main we accept them. Because we
stop to answer the telephone, we miss our bus. It’s an irritant, but
hardly engages our imagination for very long.

But we’re
talking here about more than the self-sufficient statement of
resignation to ill fortune (“shit happens” as the saying goes). It is
an infantile reaction that life is not only unfair: it is unfair to you
when an event or series of events seemingly conspire to affect you with
negative consequences—sometimes to the benefit of others. This is the
commencement of the descent into darkness. The hallmark of such a
decline is the feeling that “there is no justice”. Childish though it
may be, its unchecked dominance of our emotions leads to hell.

The
striving for justice is an essential component of the human condition.
It is more than an ordering of things: it is a belief that a life lived
reasonably and fairly will, in turn, be fair to the participant.

“A
human being will not accept chaos. Nor can he (sic) long tolerate
chaos. When he can no longer cope with it, he begins to get sick, both
physically and mentally.”
—P. Bertocci & R. Millard, Personality and the Good (1963)

The
loss of a child by accident or disease, to loving, attentive parents,
is ‘not fair’. Being put out of work through corporate downsizing after
many years of faithful service is ‘not fair’. Public criticism of
conduct misapprehended by those in authority or by the media, is ‘not
fair’. And so on.

Justice, broadly speaking, seeks to remedy
the ills of random, unexplained or malicious events. It asserts in our
imagination at a minimum that everyone is equal to the other, in moral
claims to opportunity, protection, and sanctity of the person. It
contemplates rendering to us what is our due.

The more I think
about it, the more I am convinced that the sense of powerlessness that
accompanies the perception that life has been unfair, that one’s life
has not turned out the way one expected, contributes to depression.
Timing has much to do with it, of course, and a traumatic event later
in life may not enable an effective response with the same resilience
one might expect early on. I can’t be sure of this, given that life
experience helps with perspective. I think though, that there can be no
greater contribution to a sense of despair that a conclusion that life
has not turned out as well as one would have liked. It’s probably true
that this sentiment is almost always wrong, but the perception that
life has been unfair colours responses to everything around us. A bleak
outlook sees only bleakness, in that self-reinforcing way that is so
much a part of the ‘blues’.

0 thoughts on “Depression and Justice”

  1. reading this post makes me aware it’s been too long since my last visit. why did i begin to smile as i read?

    because here was a lawyer (hear those stereotypes clicking away?) writing about depression in a way that appealed to this retired psychotherapist. the last paragraph hits the mark: sense of powerlessness. leads me to ponder how to separate that from the reality of loss in our everyday lives, in our impact on the culture.

    thanks, naomi

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