Author and teacher Marianne Williamson tells the story (most likely apocryphal) concerning a particular study of a group of chimpanzees. Supposedly, researchers observed primate behavior which correlates to human depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which happens to be near to the percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression. The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%. You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. But that’s not what actually happened. Instead, when scientists returned six months later, all of the non-depressed chimps were dead.
The interpretation and conclusion of the study is that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.
Whether the study can be substantiated, or is a fabrication, for those who attend to the inner person and know that there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply. Rather than being only a problem to be fixed, depression can serve as a valuable asset to society, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger. The reality is that there is an upside to depressed persons – they serve an important role when in such a state.
When the biblical character Elijah became depressed, it served as a sign and warning that there was something horribly awry in ancient Israel. Jezebel was the wicked queen, pulling the strings in a nation connected in a web of evil which permeated the land. When Moses became despondent time and again, it pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people. And when we, as contemporary persons, become depressed it can and should serve as a billboard to others that something is terribly wrong among us, and not just within the individual.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I am not proclaiming that depression ought not to be addressed and alleviated so that the depressed person can come around again to a sense of happiness and hopefulness. What I am saying is that there are emotionally “healthy” people who try to push pills, hurry along therapy, and pronounce exhortations to the emotionally ill people around them. It’s almost as if depressed people make others uncomfortable and uneasy. If depression points to societal ills, not just personal sickness, then it makes sense that non-depressed people want depressed people to get healthy now, because then they don’t have to take a good hard look at the systemic problems of our society and culture. When we rush to make someone feel better, typically the person we really want to help is ourselves.
Depression and emotional struggles must be deeply felt, examined, and carefully dealt with. Dealing with it is a process just as much as it takes time and therapy, perseverance and patience, to heal from a brain surgery. Learning new ways to accept, cope, and transcend doesn’t happen overnight.
Meanwhile, while the depressed among us learn to heal and hope again, the majority of us who are not depressed ought not to ignore our role. We need to also examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our churches to determine what is askew and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth. After all, we wouldn’t want to make monkeys of ourselves.