Depression has many faces and over my 65 years I have worn them all.
From periods of sadness after the loss of loved ones and my marriage, to down periods felt in winter (known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)), to the hormonally triggered ‘baby blues’ after the birth of my children, and to a couple of episodes of more profound depression.
One of the faces of depression that I have worn from time to time is not widely recognised by the medical fraternity or addressed in society, but it can be explored by an understanding of the French word ‘ennui’.
Ennui has variously been translated into English as ‘boredom’ or ‘world weariness’. However, a quick look back at the origin of the term reveals some deeper connotations. The word has been linked to the years following the French Revolution when feelings of disappointment and emptiness filled the hearts of many who found the original promises of the revolution unfulfilled. By the late 19th Century, the word became associated with feelings of alienation caused by an increasingly industrialised and urbanised society.
So, can we translate this now into our experience of 21st Century life? Perhaps this quote from Jean Baudrillard can help:
“We live in a world where there is more and more information and less and less meaning.”
By the turn of the 21st Century we had eagerly embraced new technologies and lifestyles that not only have given us instant access to information and connection around the globe through the internet and mobile phones, but in the process also have come to dominate our lives so much that we have used them to replace the traditional access to information and connections through family, church, schools, clubs and associations in our local communities.
Could it be that by doing this that many of us have also come face to face with ennui? Has our ability to be anywhere around the globe at any time left us with feelings of rootlessness? Are we constantly searching for something to fill feelings of emptiness but don’t know what it is? Have we lost a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives?
Emily Esfahani Smith explores this in her recent book The Power of Meaning. Her book is a wide-angled view and discussion of the role and significance of meaning in a healthy and productive life. The author takes a bold walk through personal experience, conversations with and anecdotes of others and literature as well as psychological research to develop what she concludes as the four pillars of meaning – belonging (to give us grounding); purpose (to find aims and goals to achieve); storytelling (as a means to understand our personal journey) and transcendence (to take us beyond our self).
The experience of ennui, rather than being a sign of depression, could actually be seen as a trigger to reassess the things that make our life meaningful. During these episodes, rather than rush to the doctor I have asked myself some questions such as: Where do I belong? What is my purpose in life (at the moment)? What does my story tell me about who I am and where I am going? What is important to me beyond my little life? Asking myself these questions and formulating answers has helped to fill what seems like a void at the time.
So what is it about meaning? Meaning can actually help to fill an empty heart. Meaning can help you find your place in the world. Meaning can direct your life journey. Meaning can even heal. That’s what I have discovered is the power of meaning!