Why Do Anything At All?


Nihilism comic from xkcd.com

ithout Heaven to reward us, or Hell to punish us, or a divinely dispensed purpose, why do anything at all?

Why not just kill yourself? Or lie in bed all day? Or sit in a corner and stare at a wall?

I’ll address suicide in a moment. As for lying in bed all day or staring at a wall, there are times when you may wish to reduce your activity to a bare minimum, which in common parlance we call doing nothing (though the phrase is not strictly accurate). Whether you decide to do much, do little, or do nothing, is up to you. You are not “meant” to do much any more than you’re “meant” to do nothing.

However, depression is a complicating factor.

Fear of failure is a de-motivator. If you’re depressed, you’re not just afraid you’ll fail but 100% convinced that failure is inevitable. It’s therefore natural to resign yourself to inactivity. It may feel as if you lack the desire to do anything interesting, but you probably actually have plenty of desire, you just lack hope that any of your desires are realistic for you (because when you’re depressed you believe you are completely defective). So you abandon your dreams.

Ask yourself, “What activities would I try if I knew success were guaranteed?” Then ask yourself, “What reasons am I giving myself for why I won’t succeed at these activities, and are any of my reasons distorted or irrational?”

In his book Feeling Good, the psychologist David Burns describes a symptom of depression that he calls the lethargy cycle. If you are feeling inadequate or utterly defeated, you may be tempted to simply give up. To hide from life and avoid your responsibilities. To do nothing. Then you think that your inactivity confirms that you are worthless, which increases the negative feelings that caused your lethargy in the first place. It’s a cycle that can continue for days, week, months, or even years.

When you are depressed it is not the time for philosophizing. It is definitely not the time to contemplate existential purposelessness. If a grand piano tipped over on top of you, would you spend a few hours tinkering with chords? When you are trapped under a piano it is not the time to attempt Chopin or Rachmaninoff. First you must free yourself from the trap.

If you find yourself asking questions like “Why do anything at all?” while in the midst of depression, I suggest you respond to yourself gently with something like this: “That’s a very interesting philosophical question and I’d love to know the answer, but I’m feeling really blue right now, so this is not the moment to tackle it. I would probably come up with some horribly dark answer that would depress me further but be totally wrong. I’ll give myself a break for now and wait until I’m feeling better to philosophize.”

When you’re sick with a bad flu it isn’t the moment to engage in extreme endurance sports. Similarly, when you’re depressed it isn’t the moment to tackle the ultimate questions of purpose.

David Burns believes that depression is not necessarily the result of a brain disorder. It is something that happens to normal brains. Anybody can get depressed.

Depression arises from distorted thinking. Even if you are a genius and your IQ is off the charts, when you are depressed you are unable to think rationally about certain things. You have a heavy negative bias in evaluating your self, your life, other people, and the world. This is why you cannot philosophize your way out of depression.

And this is why suicide is not an option. Suicide is a decision that arises from a distorted thinking process. It may seem like a sensible choice, but it is not. When you are depressed you are unable to accurately evaluate your value to other people, and most importantly you are unable to perceive the value of your life to yourself. You are acutely aware of all of your failures and blind to your successes. You are unable to see beauty in a world abounding with beauty. You are unable to see hope even in the midst of great hope.

There is no shame in suffering from depression! It’s a part of the human condition. According to the CDC, almost one in ten people you pass on the street suffer from depression at least occasionally. And according to the NIMH, as many as one in four people you pass on the street are currently suffering from a diagnosable mental illness! Isn’t that astounding? From this we can extrapolate that virtually everybody suffers from one form of mental illness or another from time to time in life, just like everybody suffers from the cold or the flu from time to time. Getting the flu doesn’t make you weird or defective, it’s just part of being a human being. Similarly, anxiety and depression don’t make you weird or defective. They too are just part of being a human being. Go find a good therapist, preferably one schooled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Or if that is too big a step for you, try bibliotherapy. Two books by David Burns, Feeling Good and When Panic Attacks (which is not just about panic but all forms of anxiety), are an excellent place to start.

In conclusion, you may do nothing if you so choose, but be cognizant of the lethargy cycle, and if your do nothingism stems from depression then it does not have a rational basis, and it is in your best interests to correct your depression.

If you are unaffected by depression and are in a position to think rationally, it is doubtful that you will choose to do nothing. We live in an amazing world, and we maximize our pleasure when we’re out enjoying our improbable lives on this improbable planet. Purposelessness is not bleak. It is reason for excitement and joy, and when understood correctly drives us into action, not away from it.

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 Posted by on February 19, 2012
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