Here’s something I’ve been told about depression, both personally and generally: “It’s not your fault.” This sentiment is usually extended to any kind of mental illness. From one perspective, it’s true. We are all products — or rather victims — of brain chemistry and circumstance. No one gets to choose their genetics or how they’re treated by other people.
You gotta roll with the punches. Unfortunately, some of us are bad at rolling. Just because. We didn’t decide to default to stupid coping methods, and most of us can’t change our patterns without help. That’s normal and okay, positivity, blah blah blah, etc. The availability of help is crucial. Without health insurance, I would be sleeping on the streets, or dead, which is a cliche so I’m not sure how to state it with enough impact.
As a mentally ill person, I know the experience of suffering because your mind is beyond your control. (I’m tempted to say “formerly mentally ill”, because of ~stigma~, but it’s not something that goes away when the pills are working.) And yet… I have also human agency. To some degree my emotional experience is my fault, at least according to common ideas about how society works.
Author Alexandra Erin noted on Twitter, “So many systems that make up whatever you want to call ‘civilization’ depend on the participants abiding by certain minimal expectations.” It’s hard to blunder into abiding by such expectations, especially en masse — we do it on purpose, and we’re proud of that. Our species is smitten with the semblance of free will. I feel like I make choices.
Previously I wrote about the illusion of autonomy:
“You’re born with particular DNA programming, which determines how you perceive and process outside stimuli, thus shaping your progress as a person, as a human psycho-physiological entity. Nature is what determines your reaction to nurture, and you don’t have any control over either. They both affect you, certainly, but not in a way that you can manipulate independently of who you already are… it gets circular. [Bold added.]
And yet we think that we have the power to decide things without reference to our formative contexts. Regardless of my philosophical position, my brain is convinced that it is reasonable. Accordingly, society is built on the idea of responsibility for one’s actions. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be! As far as I can tell there’s no alternative. But how interesting, that the entire system of civilization is constructed around a logical fallacy.”
On the one hand, this is sort of freeing. “I’m not responsible for being useless and sad all the time!” On the other hand, if nothing is your fault, then you also don’t have any choices.
Battered spouses are often told that they didn’t choose to stay with their abusers after the first incidence of violence (whether emotional or physical). Victims are counselled not to blame themselves. Safety expert Gavin de Becker finds this rhetoric harmful, as he explains in The Gift of Fear. Most advocates contend that abusers forcibly shape reality for their targets, until escape options become invisible. In his book, de Becker argues that this attitude is problematic. If it’s not a choice to stay, then it can’t be a choice to leave. He suggests that empowering abuse survivors requires encouraging accountability for a person’s own abuse. That’s very tricky to do in a non-toxic way.
Are you responsible for your history? Which events and experiences can be traced to your decisions, and which can’t?
My reflections on all of this were prompted by Steven Johnson’s complaint about the board game Candy Land, in which outcomes are entirely due to chance:
“It says you are powerless, that your destiny is entirely determined by the luck of the draw, that the only chance you have of winning the game lies in following the rules, and accepting the cards as they come. Who wants to grow up in that kind of universe?”
Really, that’s the only universe we can grow up in. My friend Adam Brinklow commented on Facebook, “I assumed the real lesson [of Candy Land] was to cheat. Cheating being the only means of affecting the outcome.” I wish that cheating were more than a predictable reaction to stimuli… exactly like all other actions.