“Self-centered happiness at length wears itself out and ends in boredom and emptiness. The constant enjoyment of the merely subjectively satisfying finally throws us back upon our own limitedness, imprisoning us within ourselves.”
Dietrich von Hildebrand (source, 31)
Lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on the things I wrote about in my blog post at the beginning of the summer. I had found myself in a slump, and now that we are at summer’s midway point, it’s an important time for all of us to ask ourselves (for all those who resonated with the post in the first place): how am I doing on my resolutions to live life more fully?
This has caused me to think a lot more about those things in my life which lead to my “imprisonment” (as Hildebrand would phrase it) versus those things which lead to my full flourishing and freedom. I turned to his work Christian Ethics for further pondering.
I think that the first major step towards freeing ourselves from a depressing lifestyle of laziness is developing and fine-tuning the ability to recognize value where it may be found. For Hildebrand, this is one of the most elementary (yet profound) distinctions we must make. In fact, much of his philosophy rests upon this seemingly simple distinction.
When it comes to importance, there are three major categories that Hildebrand distinguishes: things which are subjectively satisfying, things which are objectively good for the person, and things which are good in and of themselves. For our purposes, we’re mostly going to focus on the distinction between the subjectively satisfying and the good-in-itself.
Those things which are merely subjectively satisfying are those things which (you guessed it!) personally give us some sort of pleasure, while at the same time not being objectively pleasurable for everyone. It derives its importance merely from the fact that I take pleasure in it. If I suddenly come to dislike a thing (which before held the importance of subjective satisfaction for me) then it loses its importance as a result. An example of this would be something as arbitrary as me liking pepperoni pizza rather than cheese pizza. While I may prefer pepperoni (thus deeming it more important than cheese pizza), Joe may in fact prefer cheese. These preferences are dependent upon our own experiences as personal subjects. Preferences, pleasures, and leisurely activities also fit into this category. All of these things strike me as important insofar as I fancy them.
Curiously enough, while the realm of the subjectively satisfying is the “least important” category of the three types of importance, it seems to be the most wildly popular. Sad? Eat some ice cream. Feeling bored and don’t know how to fill up all of the hours in a day? It’s okay. Just watch a season of a TV show on Netflix. Angry at your ex-boyfriend? Great! Just use somebody else to get back at him. After all, this is quickly becoming a culture flying under the banner emblazoned with the motto: “Treat yo’ self.” These are all marks of a culture that is permeated with the over-glorification of the subjectively satisfying.
But more often than not, this is what gets us into our predicament of boredom and frustration with life in the first place. While it may not be politically correct to say so, I’ve always wondered if perhaps many people who are diagnosed with depression actually have no biological predisposition towards depression at all. Of course, as someone who in fact does have diagnosed depression, I understand how frustrating it can be to hear from others that “being more positive” or “praying more” will be the solution. I do not claim any of those things here. Rather, I simply mean to share a reflection on what I have found on my own journey with depression, Hildebrand, and learning about “value response.” It has definitely helped me find ways to manage my depression.
Perhaps many of us who have been told that we have depression have simply been looking for happiness and fulfillment in the wrong places, and our hearts are trying to sound the alarm to wake us from these slumbers. The subjectively satisfying leaves us hungry, asking ourselves incredulously: there’s got to be something more, right?
I have often found that the trick to managing my depression lies in abandoning myself in the true sense of the word.
There is something so freeing about abandoning ourselves to value. In sharp contrast to the realm of the subjectively satisfying, the realm of the important-in-itself (which can be properly called the realm of value) includes those things which are good whether we prefer them to be or not. They are those things which stand autonomous in their importance, such as virtues, beauty, or other human persons. “Our engagement with a value elevates us, liberates us from self-centeredness, reposes us in a transcendent order which is independent of us, of our moods, of our dispositions” (Ibid).
What could possibly be more freeing than realizing that I can live a full, valuable life regardless of my mood? Whether I’m struggling with clinical depression or not, value gives me the guarantee that I can live a life full of wonder and beauty regardless. The quality of my life can transcend the moods which seek to dictate it. This is true freedom. Instead of finding that our depression is managing us, we find that it is simply a tool we can use to motivate ourselves to be ever-ready to respond to value.
What would our lives look like if we chose to abandon ourselves to the experiences that make us most free? I would like to challenge you to make this your reminder that life is beautiful and that nothing can steal your joy. Responding to value where it may be found, whether or not we are “in the mood,” guarantees that we are giving this life our best shot.
Let’s all strive to live well.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, please note that what I have written in this post is not meant to take the place of properly prescribed medication or counseling from mental health professionals. I hope and pray that this post was uplifting and helps to bring comfort and solace to all those to whom it applies.