On the importance of sadness

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A lecture for A Night of Philosophy and Ideas, Brooklyn, New York,
February 1 and 2, 2020
Translated by Mark Ordon

Today we will be looking into theorizing, therefore something which today’s world does not especially seem to hold in esteem. Speculation, excessive analysis and generally any other activity that philosophy has been undertaking with great pleasure for the past two and a half thousand years are currently looked upon as something useless at best or hazardous to your health at worst.

Now action is a completely different story. Practice. These categories, readily confronted with boring and stiff meditation, are presented as being the most valuable, or rather the only valuable ones. Don’t meditate – act! Be yourself. Do this or that. Connect with yourself. Follow your heart. You’ve heard these slogans many times, right? They all communicate one thing: deliberating and splitting hairs makes no sense; action is what counts.

That is the first myth which I would like to bid farewell to right from the start. Distinguishing between theory and practice, analysis and action, speculation and activity, is arbitrary and just wrong. In the world of human matters, theory and practice closely intermingle; they are two aspects of the same reality. They do not exist in isolation, they do not occur as separate phenomena.

Kurt Lewin, an outstanding 20th century psychologist and developer of the field theory would say that there is nothing more practical than a good theory. It’s a simple and insightful thought. It means roughly the same as the famous statement put forth by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his book, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” – the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

In other words, everything that I have available – in my senses, concepts and imagination – is available to the point that it falls into some model of understanding. I can do something consciously only if I know what I’m doing. My practice is therefore a derivative of the theory which I govern. The derivative of ideas which are present in my mind.

Let’s take the simplest of examples – eating. It’s really the idea of a meal that I possess along with my idea of taste that will shape this special experience. Of course, a hamburger eaten in haste is sometimes a sad necessity of life. The only available option. But it could also be the effect of a meager idea, according to which the sole purpose of eating a meal is to provide the body with the appropriate portion of calories.

If I were to expand this idea with a notion of community, an alchemical process of preparing food, the transformation of separate ingredients into an integral whole, my practice would be much different then. 
 The ever popular separation of theory and practice we are seeing nowadays combined with the unilateral emphasis on the latter therefore means the impoverishment of the experience above all. The immobilization of contemplation. Lack of alternatives. Entrapment in a monoperspective, a maniacal fixation on activity.


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Is that indeed why contemplation is not valued today?

Because it disrupts your maniacal mode of operation? Because it runs the risk of recognizing your own limitations? Because it negates the both widespread and false dogma of modern times: that anything is possible if we only want it; that there are no borders that can’t be crossed ahead; that if we only want it strongly enough, we will succeed at everything, and that we will always be healthy, young, capable and beautiful, or we should at any rate be that way, that’s how we should feel, that’s what we should strive for? And this: that we need to think positive, always move forward, never stop improving. While any discomfort, such as the fear of an unknown future, regret after the loss of loved ones, how terrified we are by the fact that we will have to die someday, melancholy which grips us for no reason or depression which suddenly emerges amidst our daily tasks; so we need to eliminate all this discomfort with the help of a wide array of therapeutic techniques available on the market. From yoga to coaching, mindfulness, various forms of therapy, to Prozac or other more modern drugs like SSRIs. They need to be eliminated, because they limit expansion, slow you down and stop you, thus they make it impossible to achieve your goals.

We hear about that all over. Countless numbers of coaches, motivational speakers, authors of handbooks, people leading seminars or sessions, those providing individual and collective advice; in a nutshell, all those “technicians of life”, to coin a term used by Michel Foucault, which late capitalism is seeing swarms of. All these people offer us full-proof methods to gain extra superpowers. Control over your emotional life, better performance in your sex life, love life or professional life. All this to become stronger and more effective. And finally – last but not least – to do better on the market.

Society in late capitalism, who are as studies show atomized, affected by epidemics of loneliness, depression and addiction, brings to mind a swarm of small, one-person enterprises which are constantly competing with each other. And which from the very beginning, from the earliest years, need to attain additional skills to ensure elementary survival. Define goals, build your brand, sell yourself in a most appealing way! These are the excerpts from the modern ten commandments.

Plugged into this ideological network – or an unconscious set of profound beliefs, values and concepts which we breathe with, and which we consider to be the natural framework of the world – we absorb the ideas it is created with. We internalize these ideas, start to see the world through their prism. Our life practice becomes their reflection, much like a meal reflects the idea of eating. And sooner or later we really begin to believe in something that is after all the cornerstone of late capitalist individualism, which allocates all responsibility in the individual: the fact that we all make our own fortunes. That it is only our internal resources, our willpower, ability to postpone gratification, intelligence, ability to control our emotions, positive attitude, innovativeness, originality, and many other things – we could go on and on adding to this list – therefore, it is only our private and personal dispositions that influence our mood as well as our place on the social ladder. Our success and our failure.

Have you noticed how all these handbook-coaching-spiritual-therapeutic narratives never actually mention concepts like financial crisis, unemployment, discrimination, lack of opportunity, social inequality, racism, voracious economic system, flawed social care system, the rat race or selfishness as a model attitude to life or the glorification of greed? And many other words indicating something which we could collectively refer to as “structural issues”. It’s not so much that this entire layer – social, political, community, national – is disappearing, it’s actually not even being considered. It’s treated like a natural background, inviolable, unchangeable. Much like a landscape preserved with oil paint on a painter’s canvas, or rather theatrical scenery, in which the dramas of the main characters take place. It’s as if social organization were completely meaningless, as if it were non-negotiable, as if issues of the economic system, public policies, institutions whether functional or not, values which organize communal life were completely beyond the scope of any type of decision-making. Because in this system, decision-making encompasses our individual life only, our personal choices – everything else depends on them. On our decisions – in a very literal sense. 



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So it’s no wonder that optimism and positive thinking have become the official ideology of this type of system. Convinced of personal responsibility for success and failure – which in fact, as numerous sociological studies have been showing for years, depend above all on a person’s place in social hierarchy – blind to structural inequality, cruelty and injustice – we are additionally obligated to constant affirmation. Positive thinking in the professional, relational and health sphere, meaning in precisely those areas of life that closely depend on our cultural and social environment, is supposed to be a guarantee of positive results. If the results are lacking, then most likely defeatism infected our thoughts, they probably were not sufficiently infused with confidence in a bright future. Yet this has nothing to do with the social and economic system.

A fear of reflection and a focus on action certainly help to strengthen this type of structure. This unwillingness to embrace not even pessimism, but quite simply realism, which ascertains a fact that can be empirically verified – that there are impossible situations in life – is due in part to the simple individualistic gesture of transferring all responsibility to the individual. But this also has a deeper meaning, something much more cunning.

Namely, a ban on questioning the current structure of the world. A ban on casting doubt on the social and economic organization, as its ideology of individualism and positive thinking is its principle nourishment and adhesive. Just like in Christianity, where acedia, or that special mix of discouragement, sloth, indifference and sadness which matches the criteria of today’s Major Depressive Disorder to a tee, was and still is viewed as the effect of demonic forces, which a monk living in the 5th century AD named Evagrius Ponticus described in detail.

Where did the analogy come from? From the fact that the experience of acedia shows something horrible, something that could in no way fit in the world view framework of Christianity – the negation of a world created by an infinitely good and all-wise deity. So whoever feels discouraged, whoever is immersed in melancholy, and rather than get up in the morning praising the lord, having shaken off the miasmas of those peculiar, unsettling and gloomy dreams, stands there motionless, thinking about the validity or non-validity of taking any kind of action, does in fact experience the world as an unfriendly and dangerous realm. While any actions seem devoid of purpose and to no avail.

How can that be? The universe which the all-mighty and infinitely good deity called to being out of pure love, and then gave it all as a gift to man, created in his own image, for man to have dominion over; and this very universe is to be seen and felt as an enemy realm, fallen and imperfect? That’s nothing less than a slap in the face for the deity. That’s gnostic heresy, an evil whisper of some demonic forces which try to instill an aversion to that which by definition is outstanding and worthy only of thankful praise.

That’s why from the perspective of Christian theology, acedia or quite simply depression is seen as a sinful and undesirable condition. Of course, in today’s Catholicism as well as many other Christian denominations, a distinction is made between the medical perspective and spiritual perspective, rendering to the doctor the things that are the doctor’s and to the priest the things that are the priest’s. This is by the way a kind of necessary compromise which religious institutions agreed to keep up with the times and survive. Nevertheless, through the theological lens, acedia is still viewed as the effect of diabolical actions. Therefore something which should not be there, something which does not fit in the model of the world. Something which should thus be subject to the healing powers of exorcism or prayer.


The analogy between Christianity and modern-day capitalism is really striking. In modern-day capitalism, the doctrine of optimism applies, which directly implies the ban on questioning the social and economic organization, while in Christianity, which still is the basic structure with which we see and experience the world, there is a ban on acedia, or at any rate, its condemnation as a state which negates the magnificence of the deity.

So sadness or radical indifference which takes on the form of depression, either needs to be treated, with the help of medication or a variety of spiritual and therapeutic techniques, or subject to detailed exorcisms. In every case, a departure from joyous affirmation turns out to be something undesirable or even terrifying.

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The process of eliminating sadness, and difficult experiences in general, from the public sphere as well as from the realm of the so-called individual standard, has been described by numerous sociological studies and analyses. This is illustrated not only by the increasingly restrictive criteria for the diagnosis of depressive disorders appearing the each new edition of DSM, including the elimination of the “normal grief” category in the current fifth edition. Non-natural criteria which extend the range of experiences currently deemed as pathological require treatment. This is also illustrated by the systematic transfer of problems which were once the responsibility of social care to the domain of psychiatry. Meaning a medical discipline which perceives internal conditions above all as a derivative of the level of neurotransmitters in the brain – thus remaining in compliance with the individualist model mentioned before. Yet also the relation between the life situation and the occurrence of so-called mood disorders, which have been identified on several occasions, studied and described in detail, also demonstrate this.

You can see it quite clearly: in people with a difficult financial situation, or one that is getting worse, the probability of depression and anxiety disorder is several times higher than in people who do not need to worry about meeting their elementary vital needs. This dependency has been studied in sufficient detail to be able to rule out the interpretation that was presented as an alternative explanation of these correlations. The latter theory claims that the direction would be the opposite all together – that people who are prone to anxiety or depression have a harder time coping on the market and that’s why their financial situation is worse than is mentally healthy people. We know today that it is indeed the other way around.


Yet what does that mean in fact? It means quite simply that difficult emotions, including despair, melancholy or depression, are being with all due conviction eliminated from the contemporary cultural landscape; they constitute a type of litmus paper, a radar that indicates an array of things essential to our situation in the world, to the organization of this world and the order that rules within. And perhaps also, though this is a strictly philosophical theory, something about the nature of existence itself, or in any case about the human condition. 



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So to summarize, we have two fundamental forces acting in today’s reality, forces fighting for our souls – religion and the market – which explicitly assess sadness as a negative phenomenon. To reiterate: in the religious perspective, it appears as an emotion which casts doubt on the magnificence of the divine creation, therefore indirectly on the Creator himself. In the market perspective on the other hand, sadness which is expressed in ever more extreme definitions contained in each new edition of the DSM classification and radically expanding diagnostic criteria of depressive disorders that eliminate the concept of normal grief, appears as an indisposition which paralyzes productivity and effectiveness. One which makes action, activity, achieving goals impossible. Leading to an incapacity to work. And of course we know that a person who doesn’t work, doesn’t generate GDP, for all intents and purposes does not exist in this world. Well, maybe with the exception of the narrow percentage of the wealthiest people in the world, who don’t need to work because others work for them.
Yet, as I mentioned, they constitute only a fraction. An average citizen has to go to work to make money, to in turn be able to fulfill their very elementary vital needs. Anybody who has ever experienced a disruption in financial continuity knows this. When your bank cards and subscriptions stop working, when there’s no money to pay the rent, when buying food seems to be a radical expense, that’s when this invisible bloodstream of the modern world reveals itself.

It’s not difficult to notice that melancholy, sadness or finally depression, or melancholy in its most acute form, play exactly the same role in a capitalist system as in the Christian vision. They take away the will to act, they question the perfection of the social organization. And finally, on a deeper level, the negate the sense of all those activities which are presented not only as the necessary means to obtain money, but also a field of self-realization, development and the accomplishment of values much more lofty than purely pragmatic.

From this perspective, we can clearly see the truth in the diagnosis repeated by sociologists, psychologists as well as cultural historians, such as the French thinkers Philippe Aries and Michele Vovelle. It reads as follows: sadness and grief are being pushed out of today’s culture. Quite simply – there’s no room for them here. The entire system of institutions and narratives which organizes their actions is managed by the basic dogma of effectiveness. Employees should get rid of difficult emotional states as quickly as possible, or in any case contain them to the point where they can return to work in the shortest time possible. That’s why ever more effective drugs are constantly being researched and ever shorter and more condensed therapeutic techniques are being developed; in a nutshell – measures which are quick and effective and which remedy our bad mood and allow us to return to being active. 



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Yet the statistics are overwhelming. Western societies are affected by an epidemic of depression, loneliness, addictions and suicides. In spite of the pervasive propaganda which praises effectiveness, we are becoming less and less effective. In spite of our desire for agency, the influence on our own lives is systematically shrinking. The Cartesian “self” as a rational, clear being subject to the orders of the will, which is still alive, though it seems it would have long been discarded by modern neuroscience, turns out to be false as well in our daily experience.

Perhaps – and this is a theory endorsed both by supporters of psychoanalysis as well as the contemporary representatives of psychological evolutionism – a certain special mechanism applies here. To be short and voracious about it – when in culture, therefore in the symbolic and conceptual network in which we function every day, there is no room to experience and express difficult, dark emotions or states, they come back to us in a drastic and radical form. And they completely paralyze us.

The terror of optimism, the order to act, the lack of space for a profound and honest experience of helplessness, be it our own or somebody else’s, sadness or grief, leads to an epidemic of depression, when our entire psyche goes on strike in a way, quite simply refuses to obey.

That’s when the loop closes. In response, ad-hoc remedies are applied with the purpose of dampening the effect. Increasingly more elaborate drugs and more intense therapeutic techniques. Systemic and social issues are diligently ignored. In discussions about emotions, melancholy, sadness, depression, concepts which would refer to the political or social sphere are never used. To address how our community which we are a part of is organized. Rather, we hear that everything is in our head, in our brain, or at the most in our private history, the relations with our parents. We and only we are responsible for ourselves, only we can apply the tools needed to make us feel better. We need to see a psychiatrist, therapist, coach, meditation instruction or a shaman who gives us ayahuasca.

Thanks to these means, the social system which is pushing us into despair can safely continue to exist. Not bothered by anything. Rather than change the system, we become engulfed in desperate efforts to change ourselves. This is no doubt convenient for the system.

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Is there a way out of this situation? Will the conclusion of this presentation now be some kind of specific and practical solution to help us inch our way out of the vicious circle we are stuck in and which we are often not aware of?

I have prepared nothing of the sort. Not only because there are no simple solutions to complicated issues. Above all, this is because reaching conclusions, providing practical tips, stating issues and then suggesting solutions, is an inseparable component of the mindset I am starkly criticizing here.


Quite simply – not every situation has a way out, not all problems can be solved, we can’t have any ready answer for everything right away. We are also not always able to act, sometimes the only thing we can do is think, theorize, voice our doubts out loud. Without any conclusions, without any clear advice on what to do. Yet another inherent approach of contemporary public debate is the apodictic requirement that any criticism must be accompanied by precisely defined alternative solution. If you’re against something – give something in return.

Well, sometimes we have nothing in return, sometimes our objection alone is enough, the feeling that something is wrong, that things are taking a wrong turn. Sometimes this is the first requirement of change, if change is still possible at all.


So once again: not every crisis has a way out, and there are problems which we cannot handle. There are life situations which irrevocably break us or the people close to us. Situations from which we are not able or will not be able to emerge from unscathed, and which will not have a happy end. We cannot avoid such situations, we cannot protect ourselves from them. No kind of therapy, no pill, no coach nor any shaman will protect us from inevitable losses, untapped possibilities, disappointment, aging, sickness and death.

This is the reality of our experience, that’s what life is like when we put down our smartphones or laptops and close yet another handbook which declares that strong will can move mountains. When we wake up in the middle of the night, restless, terrified and overwhelmed, and all of a sudden, fragility, helplessness, finiteness, temporality and transience irrevocably appear before our eyes.

Not allowing ourselves to be sad, to grieve what we are losing while we live, and what we will irrecoverably lose one day, means in a certain sense that we misappropriating ourselves, lying to ourselves, outmaneuvering ourselves. In a way, it also means becoming a totalitarian dictator to ourselves. But also becoming one to others. The lack of permission to show our weakness, the unilateral ideas of effectiveness, activity and optimism lead not only to the lack of tolerance for our own helplessness, but also close us off to the helplessness of others. They destroy empathy. They convert us into ever-smiling cyborgs, always productive, always ready for action. 


In the meantime, it is in fact in our helplessness, our sadness, grief, despair, longing for what has been lost – it is in that space that things like closeness, compassion, empathy and trust are possible to their fullest. 

Translated by Mark Ordon