But Doctor, I am Pagliacci
Following Robin Williams’ death and my brief comments about depression in my entry about it, I’ve had some people ask me for some more detailed thoughts on the subject, and whether I myself have ever experienced depression. I wrote about the subject in 2010, as part of a Reader Request Week, so if you’re interested, here’s the link to that. The short version is that while I have had events in my life where I was almost certainly depressed (as most of us have, I suspect), I’m not someone who suffers from depression as a disease.
But again, I know a lot of people who do. I suspect that some of this is because I know a lot of creative people and the correlation between depression and creativity is well known and well documented. But I also suspect this is also because I know people, and I suspect that depression, as a chronic and persistent ailment, happens to a lot of people regardless of their creativity. One of the silver lining positive things about knowing many people with depression is that it’s gone a very long way to hammer against that bias against mental illnesses that I have as part of the background radiation of life — the bias that tells you that someone with a mental illness isn’t merely sick but is wrong in some ineffable way. I know that’s incorrect and actively unhelpful now; I hope it makes me a better human and a better friend for my friends who have depression.
On the tangentially-related topic of humor and depression, the world seems to be largely divided into two camps — the camp who is apparently oblivious to the idea that funny people, especially professionally funny people, might have a darker side to their life (“He was funny and seemed so happy! Who knew that other side was there?”) and the ones who are all too familiar with that aspect of the life of a “funny” person — they’re the ones who, after hearing of Williams’ passing, tweeted something along the lines of the quote I’m using as the headline (context, for those of you who don’t know).
With the former camp, it’s easy to be exasperated, especially if you write humor yourself. Where do these folks think the capacity for humor comes out of? If you don’t have an understanding of the whole wide range of the human condition, your attempts at humor are going to come across as insipid at best and cruel at worst; there’s a reason I note that the failure state of “clever” is “asshole.” People who are really funny — the sort of funny more complex than a banana peel on a slippery floor — are funny because they know people. They’re smart. They’re observant. And, very often, their own life experience, with all its ups and downs, is the reason why know which keys turn the lock on the funny.
It’s easy to become exasperated with people who don’t seem to know this, but it’s also at least slightly unfair, because it’s process — it’s backstage matter. Most people don’t live with a professional comedian or humorist, they’re merely entertained by them, and they’re entertained by the output, not by the process. We laugh at the joke, not that the work that goes into it. Likewise, humor feels easy and light; we laugh at it, and laughing seems like the simplest thing in the world to do. If people don’t know about the darker parts of the minds that create humor, it’s at least in part because it often ruins the humor to dwell on it.
On the flip side of this I personally get exasperated by the “but doctor, I am Pagliacci” response as well, because I think in many ways it trivializes depression. Humor needs knowledge of humans and empathy; it doesn’t need depression. From everything that I know about it from friends who have it, depression doesn’t heighten your access to the human condition, it deadens it — takes you out of the place where you can create and where you can say anything about life, funny or otherwise.
I get that tossing about the Pagliacci quote can be an attempt to be understanding — or at least be an attempt to explain — but I think it just ends up being the equivalent of a mental shrug. Of course that funny person was doomed. That’s just what happens to funny people. That’s no more correct or helpful than being surprised a funny person wasn’t happy all the time.
I’m not saying a comedian or humorist can’t take their depression and make it funny. Of course they can — it’s in the heart of humor to make you understand something by making you laugh about it. But the depression isn’t why they’re funny. Depression isn’t helping them be funny. Depression is a thing they have to route around. Sometimes they can’t. That fact deserves an acknowledgment more than a shrug and a quote about a sad clown.
I don’t have any answers about depression, in no small part because my own direct experience of it in my own head is (thankfully) limited. What I do know is that for my own part I want to be done with people being hesitant or ashamed about a disease that happens to them, despite the fact it takes place in the part of the body where who they are lives. Treating it differently than other ailments of the body doesn’t do anyone any good and does active harm if it keeps people from getting help.
I also want to be done with thinking that depression is anyone’s fault. This piece in Slate, addressing the people who wondered why Robin Williams didn’t know that people loved him, speaks to that. This piece, by Erica Moen, speaks to that. Countless pieces out there by people who deal with depression speak to it. They know what they’re talking about, because they live it.
For my part, I’m listening. I think we should all be doing that.