One of the unsolvable problems of depression is that it can shatter your personal myths. Now before I can get to the point here, I must do some explaining.
In the last ten years or so, the word “myth” has got a new and much broader meaning. People now often use it simply for “a popular misunderstanding”. So if this were a food blog, you might encounter posts like Five Myths About Fruit Juice, listing how most of us have wrong ideas about freshly pressed orange juice.
But this is not what “myth” originally meant. Its proper definition used to be something like this: “an accepted story that embellishes the past without considering the full truth”. Here I will be talking about myths in that original sense.
Such myths serve a purpose (more about that in a minute) and there are two kinds of them: community myths and personal myths.
A good fictional example of a community myth was given in my favorite The Simpsons TV cartoon, in a 1996 episode “Lisa the Iconoclast”. In it, Lisa Simpson has to write a school essay about the much admired Jebediah Springfield, who 200 years ago founded her hometown of Springfield (and is honored with a bronze statue in the town center). Researching, she finds proof that he was not the hero and patriot that everyone takes him for, but in fact a murderous pirate, thief, and enemy of George Washington. When she tries to tell people, she meets unbelief, resistance and indignation. Her paper is flatly rejected.
Finally Lisa manages to convince the town historian. So at the grand celebration with a festive parade to commemorate Springfield, Lisa bravely steps forward to publicly reveal the truth. But at the crucial moment, seeing the great unity and enthusiasm among the gathered townspeople, instead she blurts out: “Jebediah Springfield was a great man.” She gets an enthusiastic applause. Surprised, the historian asks her why she didn’t say what she intended to say. Lisa explains: “Sometimes, a myth is worth more than the truth.”
Nearly every community has its own functional myths, in many different variations. Russian communists had their Lenin myth, like Mormons have their Joseph Smith myth. Western Europeans have their “common resistance against the Nazi occupation” myth. Any little village can have its own “resilience after the flood disaster” myth, or its “how our forbears sacrificed everything to build the church” myth. Such myths help to maintain communal pride, unity, and above all: a shared identity.
Usually this is not the result of tinkering with the past, of intentionally adding nice touches while leaving out less pleasant elements. Rather, these myths just tend to grow by themselves over time. This happens because people need them.
In a similar way, we all have our personal myths. The older we get, the more of them we cherish. In many different variations, too. The myth of “with his beard and his attitude, my grandfather was an impressive man who deeply influenced me”. Or “at school, this totally weird prank suddenly made me popular”. Or “my first love affair was so very exciting because we had to keep it a secret, we had to meet in the shed”. Or “with that smart transaction I really amazed everyone in the office, it got me promoted”. Or “this simple Indian meditation course made me grasp overnight what life essentially is about”. Or…
Again, we’re not intentionally embellishing the past (although less consciously, we probably draw from it in a selective way). These myths grow upon us because we need them. We need them because we all need to be special. Such personal myths help us to establish, explain, maintain our own individual identity. They can support our personality, the feeling of being unique, the image we continually form of ourselves. They contribute some essential, colorful details to our self-image and in that way bolster our self-respect. I doubt if anyone of us can do without a few favorite personal myths.
Myths may be important, but there are some problems with them.
I will not go into the question if personal myths are a kind of self-deception. I think such a judgment is not relevant. Even if we would conclude that some of our myths are indeed a form of self-deception, of unconscious embellishment, we still might maintain that we all need this strategy in order to construct a satisfying self. Helped and inspired by a few myths, we can make our self-image into a reality.
The real problem with our myths is not to what extent they are true (this doesn’t matter) but that many myths are fragile.
A myth works fine as long as you’re not aware that it’s a myth. As soon as you start looking rationally at the whole picture, filling in the gaps, your myth can lose its magic power. It will become just a dry detached account, an objective factual history instead of a myth. This is what Lisa Simpson didn’t want to do to the people of Springfield: she was not afraid to tell a pirate’s complete story, but to destroy an inspiring myth.
A myth is like a crystal glass. It will break easily and once it’s shattered, this cannot be undone. Nor can we set out to purposefully construct a new alternative myth for ourselves: we’ll just have to wait for some new myth to surface. That can take years.
Long-term depression is just not kind to our fragile personal myths. It tends to break them in several ways. When depression is slowly disintegrating our self-image and our self-respect, on the emotional level it makes the myths that once inspired us seem ever more hollow, untrue, irrelevant and unfitting. On the rational level, the cynicism that often comes with depression can get us to look at our own myths with a critical eye: recalling the facts, questioning and doubting our memory, shaking out the actual story, and thus destroying the myth’s value and power. Depression can sometimes provoke a brutal, ruthless honesty (or at least some state of mind that feels like honesty) that in fact is very destructive to ourselves.
After the worst period of depression is over and we start feeling better again, we can find it impossible to restore those same myths that once helped support us: our depression melted them down, reduced them to shards. Forever. Even when you are able to restore your mood, it will be much more difficult to restore a damaged myth. This is a bit like when after you’ve forsaken your childhood faith, it will not be easy to ever become a believer again.
Depression can even replace our broken positive myths by slowly growing new negative myths that somehow seem better in tune with our depressed self-image. These negative personal myths are not supportive like our old ones used to be. Instead of embellishing, they uglify. Instead of inspiring, they paralyze. They are not constructive but destructive. A few examples again. Maybe you recognize something here:
The negative myth of “My parents never tried to understand me, as a child I was already alone and unhappy”. Or “it was those two boys’ bullying that did it, I was damaged so much that they had to find me another school”. Or “our first vacation together, right there on the beach, was when I realized I should never have married him”. Or “after moving I felt so homesick that for over a year I drank a bottle a day”. Or “then at his desk he very friendly told me he would give me a new assignment, but of course I instantly knew what he meant”. Or “after the accident I came to in a hospital bed and she didn’t even come over to see me”. Or…
Just like positive myths can help to shape our personality and identity in a positive way, negative myths can have the power to reshape ourselves in a negative way. To diminish.
Is there some obvious conclusion or evident advice here? Not really, I’m afraid. Because myths develop more or less spontaneously, because we cannot intentionally invent, change or construct them, there is little we can do actively.
Maybe the best we can do, is to keep in mind that depression can easily shatter the positive myths that we have and that we need. Perhaps we can somehow try to protect those precious personal myths. A positive myth can do its inspiring work as a myth only when we simply keep believing in it, without continuously questioning it. So perhaps we should try to take those colorful story elements of our personality for granted, and while depressed avoid any analytical brooding about them. Just leave them alone for a while.
On the other hand, when depression saddles us with some negative myths, maybe a more critical evaluation of what we think are personality-defining myths is exactly what we might need. The problem here is of course how to identify them in the first place. All this is not easy.
• tip: See my conclusion: I’m not sure enough to give you any specific tip here.
• note: This post was partially inspired by a (Flemish-language) essay about community myths in Flemish identity, by Belgian politician Bart de Wever at De Standaard newspaper site: Wat Lisa Simpson ons over onszelf leert (“What Lisa Simpson teaches us about ourselves”).