Published: The Morning Call (September 10, 2014)
The New York Times, which is capable of producing great insights, puzzlingly expressed surprise at Robin Williams’ legendary work ethic in its obituary. “Given his well-publicized troubles with depression, addiction, alcoholism and a significant heart surgery in 2009,” it commented, “Mr. Williams should have had a résumé filled with mysterious gaps. Instead, he worked nonstop.”
While I can’t speak to the effect that Parkinson’s disease, substance addictions and heart surgery could have had on Williams’ career, I’m not the least bit surprised that a severe depressive would also have an indefatigable work ethic.
Our prevailing cultural image of the depressive is that of the perpetually listless sad sack (emphasis on “perpetually”), haunted by inner demons and barely capable of crawling out of bed to trudge through the daily grind. That trope certainly applies to a great number of depressives, but it fails to capture the complete experience for many others, including myself.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, the same mental illness that can rob its victims of hope, energy and any genuine enjoyment of life can also be the fuel that propels them through seemingly successful careers and/or personal lives.
To understand why, it is necessary to turn to a much older passage from The New York Times — a profile of Mark Twain published in 1905 (appropriately titled “A Humorist’s Confession”) in which the septuagenarian explained that he had never worked a day in his life: “What I have done I have done, because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn’t have done it. … The work that is really a man’s own work is play and not work at all.”
Even those unfamiliar with Twain’s biography have probably guessed by now that he, like Williams, grappled with lifelong depression.
While the sources of depression are myriad and mysterious, the relief that can be offered by playing at one’s true work is undeniable. That is because a depressive who has found his or her own work is engaging in an activity wholly distinct from making a living or escapist play.
It defines their very reason for existing. It inspires their passion, absorbs and replenishes their energy, and brings to fruition the very best of their minds, bodies and souls. This can take the form of a career, a recreational activity, an unpaid job, or services only done for a few other people in a household; its only absolute and universal quality is the fact that, when a person has been matched with his or her true work, it just feels right.
Depression, by contrast, makes everything feel wrong. The problem is deeper than the simple state of being unhappy; it is a toxic philosophy of self-abnegation that embeds itself into your DNA.
Pleasures large and small “taste like ashes,” to crib a line from Lars von Triers’ “Melancholia”; you can only perceive your own qualities as deserving of pity or contempt. The future — not only your own, but that of other individuals you care about and/or of larger causes — seems bleak, and life itself almost farcically cruel. Other people appear ineffably alien, to the point that criticism and hostility inspire the anguish of a worst nightmare that has been validated, while respect and love are doubted as the misunderstandings of those who don’t truly know the real you.
Personally, I am extremely fortunate to have several developing career tracks that feel like play to me — as a Ph.D. student in American history and a political columnist.
I know many other depressives who have had similar experiences. None of them has entirely shaken off the depression that mars their psyches, but all of them understand what it means to have a strong play ethic. Through their depression, they have become what Twain called “the great players of the world.”
Although there are plenty of nondepressives who play at their true work with as much diligence and enthusiastic abandon as their depressive counterparts, a nondepressive who plays does so as one dimension of his or her life — perhaps the most existentially rewarding one, to be sure, but still a single dimension. A depressive who has found his or her true work, on the other hand, develops a great play ethic because the alternative is not feeling alive at all.