Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
The still surface of the well of grief
Turning downward through its black water
To the place we cannot breathe

Will never know the source from which we drink,
The secret water, cold and clear,

Nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.

David Whyte
The House of Belonging
Many Rivers Press, 1997.

This poem of David Whyte's speaks eloquently of a kind of depression known to many of us. I have called my own such downward turnings "working depressions." Marie-Louise Von Frantz calls them "creative depressions." I think hers is the better naming. Another name is reactive depression—the tumble one takes in reaction to a stunning loss or shock. These journeys down are full of feelings of emptiness, loss, meaninglessness, sadness, and grief. What monsters would we be if we could not react so? This is ordinary human suffering. Can we allow ourselves these dark passages? Can we allow our clients and friends these dark passages? 

I asked a class of 4th year Helix students to listen to a story of deep suffering from another student. I asked them to listen with compassion but without intervening, without trying to help the other person feel better. Most were shocked to find that they lasted less than 10 minutes. This is natural for us as human beings—we want ourselves and others to suffer less. But that arrest impedes what Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, calls flow: "… you can see that a life in which high self esteem, confidence, ebullience, getting rid of challenge, frustration occurs, one is deprived of flow. These negative emotions are necessary for flow."

But the creative/reactive depression is not the same as the full-blown clinical depression that sucks the life and drive out of one. Seligman blames the epidemic of depression—the average age of onset of depression has moved from age 34-35 to age 14 for the first onset of depression—on our over-inflated ideas of self-esteem and happiness which set us up for depression. Alexander Lowen, MD, called this "the politics of fun" in his book Pleasure. The blame also goes to the mental health professions that have continued to pursue the medical/disease model. We have turned ourselves into "victomologists" and "pathologizers". "Why not, [Seligman asks], start studying things like courage? Joy? Maybe even hope?"

Seligman posits three kinds of happiness. At the most basic level is "the pleasant life" in which people strive to live as pleasantly as they can, to have as many positive emotions and as few negative emotions as possible. The second is "the good life" or "the engaged life", which consists of using your greatest character strengths as frequently as possible in the three great arenas of life—work, love, and parenting—to obtain abundant gratification. The third happiness he calls "eudaemonia" the meaningful life, which consists of using your greatest character strengths as frequently as possible in service of some cause larger than yourself. "The good life consists of the roots that lead to flow. It consists of first knowing what your  signature strengths are and then recrafting your life to use them more— recrafting your work, your romance, your friendships, your leisure, and your parenting to deploy the things you're best  at. What you get out of that is not the propensity to giggle a lot; what you get is flow, and the  more you deploy your highest strengths the more flow you get in life."

And perhaps the most delightful news of all comes from Seligman's Lifeskills Training Center website:

One of the central projects positive psychologists are undertaking is the creation of a classification of human strengths, intended to function as a counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Called the Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths Manual (Peterson and Seligman 2003), the goal of this "manual of the sanities" is to identify the core virtues that are consistently valued across cultures and across time. The main virtues identified are wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

Will Positive Psychology now become the new fascism? The new politic of virtue? The new demand which will drive the culture into deeper depression? Instead of chasing happiness, will we be setting higher and higher standards of virtue for ourselves? In view of the tenets of Positive Psychology I think a more optimistic tone is in order—a hopefulness that we will instead strive for a balance between our manic defenses against unhappiness and our demand for perfection.

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy