There's a myth, usually perpetrated by therapists, Freud enthusiasts, mental health professionals, talent show judges and the like. It's a myth I have run up against countless times and one I fell for in the past.
It's the idea that the issues in our lives - be that mental illness, addiction, an inability to hold down healthy relationships, etc- are the fault of one big THING, some trauma in our childhoods, some events that left us scarred, a single root cause.
The idea that our minds are subject to simple cause and effect, that we can follow a breadcrumb trail of symptoms and identify the thorn in our skin. Having identified it, we just need to talk about it and everything will be fine.
I've had a lot of therapists in my relatively short life (at least a dozen.) On a number of occasions, I have found myself raising an eyebrow as one declared that they had identified the cause of whatever issue I was seeing them for. "Aha!" they exclaimed, "You're depressed because your parents divorced when you were young!" Or "I see! You hate yourself because you were bullied at school!"
It's not that simple. It's never that simple. Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.
Root causes are all too often a dangerous myth. When a business succeeds or fails, we like to point to a personality trait of the CEO or the way they hold meetings. It's another false 'aha!' moment - Apple succeeded because Steve Jobs wore a turtleneck every day! Amazon succeeded because of Bezos' two pizza rule! Jerry Seinfeld succeeded because of his calendar hack! Time to publish a book called 'The Turtleneck Technique' or whatever!
It's a lot like those blog posts where the authors claim their blog got a million hits because they drink lemon water before writing, or their startup made a billion dollars last year because they perform 77 sun salutations in the morning. And those who evangelize about the One Thing are so very often selling us something. A book to teach us the one secret of success, their magic stock market beating software, a motivational seminar
It's the narrative fallacy again. In films and books, events follow cause and effect logic. In our brains, in real life, it never works that way. When we focus too hard on perceived root causes, we ignore the role of randomness. And luck. And emergence.
My depression has been playing up over the last two months or so. I'll be frank (because I always try to be honest here as it's important): it has been rough at times. I've ended up in the emergency room a few times. I've had days where I curled up in bed until 5 pm, unable to face life. I've ordered more pizzas than I care to count, spent evenings crying on the phone to my brother, telling him that the thought of another day is unbearable, that I cannot go to sleep because then I'll have to feel the crushing pain when I wake up and realise I have to get through another day.
When this started happening again, I was almost angry. For the thousandth time, I asked myself why on earth I was feeling like this. Shouldn't I be happy? I have my own place now, an adorable cat, work I often enjoy in a cool office with wonderful people. So where is this angst coming from? The answer is everywhere and nowhere.
Nowhere because it has no single cause. Everywhere because it's the little things that compound - genetics, upbringing, environment, biology, whatever. Depression, like so many other parts of life, has no why. It just is. It doesn't have a cure, it doesn't have a cause.
Like success, health, happiness, good relationships, and fulfillment, it is a complex bundle of randomness and emergence with a hefty dose of luck.
Life is pretty random. I love asking fellow creatives how they got into what they do now. The answer usually begins with "Well, it's kind of a funny story..." It was some unexpected connection, a surprising opportunity, pure luck conspiring to form the life they now lead.
The Stoics taught the principle of 'Amor Fati' - a love of fate. A love of whatever happens, because what other choice do we have? In Stoicism, fate is a guiding force which we can either embrace or be dragged by. Although I'm a lifelong agnostic, I appreciate the Stoic view of the divine logos. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius points out that everything is either random or it is predetermined. Either way, nothing beyond our reactions is within our control.
Less than a year ago, I expected to get my English degree, work towards becoming a teacher, marry my partner at the time, have kids, etc. Now things couldn't be more different, but it wasn't anything I planned- it was all randomness and luck.
It's not as simple as looking for root causes. Sometimes there aren't any. It's an idea I find liberating.