The measure of our moods
Robin Williams’ death a few weeks ago was felt deeply world wide, but nowhere more acutely perhaps than here. He was a familiar person here, a neighbor and a friend. Many of us have had reason to enjoy his spontaneous generosity, as he so frequently contributed his indefatigable energy to the community’s needs. Only it turns out he was not as indefatigable as we had believed.
And he died of something we can all identify with – not just the accumulation of physical and emotional problems in reaction to his condition and his circumstance, but something even darker within the human condition itself: depression. We all know it’s there, and although it may be ignored – like death itself – it cannot be denied. We all real-ly do know better.
There have been many measures of the stance we take, as we find our place in life. Among them is something called the bipolar spectrum which, very generally speaking, ranges from excitement to depression. This measure is a complex one that I will not fully explain here. There is much more information about this mood disorder available elsewhere that I encourage you to read, if you are interested. Instead here’s some of my own more general thinking.
Another set of coordinates is suggested by the color spectrum, describing our moods in terms of the primary colors: blue, yellow and red. The color blue has long been associated with sadness, yellow with fear, and red with anger, so I consider these three basic feelings as indications of primary moods.
Sadness is always in reference to the past – something has happened to which we respond with sorrow. It’s not possible to fear something that lies in the past, what we fear lies only in the future and, likewise, we cannot be sad about something that has not yet happened. Anger, on the other hand, always rises in the present, in the here and now. We all, every one of us, move about within this range of moods, with a capacity for sadness, fear, and anger. When we become overwhelmed by them, we are possessed by them.
Within each of these moods there is another range, from quiescent to fully engaged. Fear, for instance can range from caring to panic. When my daughter goes out for a walk I remark, “Have a nice time,” because I care. If she does not return soon, I grow concerned. If she’s not back as it gets dark, I rise and look for her, because I am worried. I become responsible by responding, and become proactive to avoid becoming reactive, overwhelmed by anxiety and panic. Sadness and anger, too, have their ranges, from normal levels to overwhelming. Living life well suggests observing these mood changes, keeping an eye on our gauges, and proactively responding to them rather than reacting.
Between sadness and fear there is also a range, not just from past to future but also from introversion to extraversion – focusing upon the inner world and upon the outer world. The experience of panic and euphoria at the excited end of bipolar mood disorder is classically ignorant of the inner turmoil, projecting it upon a dizzying environment. The important difference between euphoria and panic lies in the illusion of control over external events, again a spectrum running from megalomania to abject victimhood. Anger exacerbates and vents this excitement in a behavior we call rage, unless it is mitigated by a sense of humor.
The sense of humor, incidentally, comes from a far older measure of the human condition and its moods. In earlier medicine, the four humors were known as sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Then, having a sense of humor meant knowing the measure of one’s moods. (When I once remarked to one of my children that the table of elements in chemistry seemed more populated than I recalled, the reply was “Sure, back then there were only four elements – fire, earth, air and water.”)
At the depressed end of the bipolar mood disorder, we are plunged into the turmoil of the most intensely dark experience of the self. If we become isolated here, where there is no safety in humor, anger can provoke the self-loathing of suicidal thoughts as we perseverate upon the things that trouble us. There is as much danger in this place as there is in euphoria, for we have lost our bearings either way, but it is more difficult here – in our isolation – to hear the friends that can remind us of what’s really true: that there may well be sorrow, but sorrow shared is all the more easily, and more safely, grieved. Grief shared with others is, to my mind, the best solace there is for depression.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.