Recently, John Campbell, the author of my most favorite webcomic, pictures for sad children, wrote a series of articles (for lack of a better word) that have generated some interesting controversy that’s relevant to my previous post about trolls.  Although they’re an interesting read, the titles alone rather succinctly describe the content.  The only background you need here is that John Campbell’s comics and street art are nothing if not compulsively melancholic, but never, ever serious.

His entire confession and apology was fake.  A lot of his readers and fellow artists were pretty offended, and not unfairly – but one line in particular got me thinking.

I regret the borderline people, those who could identify the problems in their life, face them, and allow themselves to be changed, but instead found it necessary to conceive of themselves as “struggling with depression” rather than being genuinely held back emotionally by some nasty and real situation. Any work participating in the “culture of depression” has probably contributed to these sad and unnecessary cases.

It’s no secret that mental disorders frequently revolve around creative individuals.  It’s not just an assumption based on stories of overdosing rock stars and schizophrenic painters, but can even be seen based on the the interests people express early in their lives.  Prevailing types of illness in certain demographics is one thing, but a culture of depression is quite another.  Yet, my intuition says that there is something to this notion, though not in the context that Campbell has suggested.

Creativity inspires dissatisfaction.  In the visualization of alternative outcomes and realities, the imagination becomes fueled with notions of how the world could be different than it is.  To look at the world in all its misery and decay, and to vividly see that this result was neither inevitable or necessary – that’s a hard juxtaposition to swallow every day. Ignorance is bliss, etc.

Creativity alone does not empower.  A key component of depression is powerlessness, an inability to exert control over one’s life.  Seeing the problems of the world, and then witnessing tremendous apathy in the rest of mankind – or worse, passionate efforts to reverse progress – can make any person’s efforts feel insignificant and ineffective.  Being able to imagine a solution is little consolation without the tools to bring that solution into reality.

Creativity has no innate purpose.  Not a cosmic meta-purpose, but the practical purpose that comes with knowing that something worthwhile has been accomplished, that value has been added to the world.  Imagination is not itself a purpose or an end; satisfaction and meaning only come when something has actually been created.  Thus the base of the word.

Creativity is fickle.  Inspiration comes and goes with the wind.  Criticism can be brutal.  Most people don’t give a shit.  As a source of affirmation from others, creative expression is as unreliable as it gets.

Viewed like this, I think it’s not so ridiculous to suggest that a culture of depression would develop around creatives, whose identity and purpose rely on something that is as tempestuous as imagination. I find it unlikely that there are many people out there pretending to be depressed to fit in or to enhance their credibility, but I do see how the spread of depression would be enhanced by the way that creative skills has been positioned in society.  That being, at odds with practical skills – the sort of skills that might save people from jobs they loathe, that provide daily challenge and mental stimulation.  On top of this, most everyone wants to feel that they matter, that what they do is in some way meaningful to the rest of the world.  It seems to me that rather than arbitrarily reassuring people that they’re special and that they belong in the world simply by being a human being, useful skills will reliably garner those affirmations without solicitation.

To illustrate, let’s try a hypothetical example.  Take two guys in their mid-20’s, and maybe they’re both creative people.  One did an apprenticeship program after high school and is now a certified electrician.  The other spent four years at a liberal arts college and has acquired a bachelor’s in comparative literature.  Which one do you think feels more creatively fulfilled?

Talk to people in skilled trades and you’re going to hear a lot of positive things.  They enjoy their work – it’s interesting, dynamic, and challenging.  There’s no question about the meaning or importance of their work.  More importantly, however, the electrician is going to be financially stable with a lot of available opportunities due to his income.  He can travel, buy an instrument and take lessons, take night classes – the only limit is the energy he’s got left after a day of work.  Meanwhile, the path ahead for complit guy is fraught with uncertainty, and not in the happy-go-lucky, “let’s roll the dice” kind of way.  It’s not just about the money, though I’m sure complit guy isn’t feeling so hot about his student loan debt.  There’s no jobs in the field he studied for – for that, he’d have to do grad school and run the gauntlet of finding a spot somewhere in academia.  If he’s lucky, he can get an office job.  If he’s not so lucky, he’ll be in retail or customer service.  If he’s SOL, he’s unemployed and moves back in with his parents.

Young people are constantly urged to follow their dreams, and so they do – but the end result is frequently the opposite of the original intent.  Unable to find jobs relevant to what they spent years studying, these dream chasers end up in fields far away from their passions, performing tasks they were probably just as well qualified for at the end of high school.  Creative expression then becomes an outlet for misery in the midst of dead-end jobs, rather than a celebration of the human experience.  My argument here certainly isn’t that the arts or humanities are fruitless pursuits.  The problem is that areas attracting people with an interest in creative expression have been placed on a track that is exclusive from more practical skills.  Ultimately, I feel like “culture of depression” is a bit of an overstatement for what occurs, but I do think there’s certain false dichotomies that perpetuate unhappiness among creative individuals – this being one of them.

As I continue to track down the mythical beast of Balanced Emotions, I’ve found that I have a tendency to amplify my own miseries by setting up arbitrary barriers.  For a good while, I thought that I wasn’t meant to be programming because I’d discovered this creative side of myself, and that I needed to find Truly Creative ways to make my way in the world to be happy.

Yeah, I’m full of such horseshit sometimes.

4 thoughts on “control”

  1. Wow. Well put. This post helped me better understand myself and others that I care deeply about. Who’d a thunk it? Thank you.

  2. You just described a large portion of my life:
    Dream > Education > Reality > Office.

    One of the my biggest complaints about what many might call a trade-school education (music, at a conservatory) is that they trained me with theoretical knowledge for the academic world.

    While part of the blame lays on me for not broadening my own horizons while at school, the emphasis of the material taught was not practical for the kind of jobs I could acquire with the skill I was being trained in.

    In the end, I chose to value a relationship and stability (marriage, income) over the dream – I probably could have chased it further; I had grown bitter, and still am. Unexpectedly, I find that even in my current position (software testing), my creative desire refuses to lay dormant. I want to build things, so I find little niche areas of my job description where I can justify that kind of activity.

    Solid post.

  3. Lots of good material to chew on here… especially considering my own encounter with depression, which has occurred in the middle of a fulfilling but difficult degree program in a creative field. I’m not sure where the blame lies – if it is even worth pursuing that line of thought – but you’ve captured the experience of being “a creative.” My own blog was formed for the purpose of exploring and trying to articulate the value of music as a field of study – in other words, why bother? (within in a Christian life, to be sure, but with the aim of integrating everything into life as a whole – something I know you are also interested in).

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