The Enemy of the Good (eideteker) wrote,
The Enemy of the Good

The Total Perspective Vortex

"In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion." - Douglas Adams

I spend a lot of time thinking about other people. Successful people, happy people, ordinary people who seem to have a much easier time getting through their days than I do. How do they do it? How do they do all the things that they need to do to succeed, or to just plain not be in constant crippling fear of horrible, irreversible failure. (When I say crippling, I don't mean "really bad." I'm specifically talking about "can't leave the house" levels of depression.)

These are the sorts of thoughts that depression engenders. Depression requires a lot of introspection, or perhaps it's the other way around. Because the only answer I've been able to come up with is that they don't care, or can't care. Self-delusion is a vital coping mechanism.

Depression has a reputation for stalking the intelligent, for feeding off of smarties. I'm not saying I'm brilliant, but I was a traditional "good student" and "smart guy" growing up. Believe me, I'm not here to praise myself. It's just that I've heard countless stories of "bright students, just like you" who get crippled by doubt, paralyzed by impossibly high standards, constantly unable to finish anything. So, what's up with that?

It's always seemed to me, in a revelation starting with celebrities and their scandals, that people can be shockingly unaware of their own flaws and limitations. People blunder all the time. Unathletic guys who spend their lives saying what professional athletes should do and should have done. People who spend themselves into oblivion. Almost any celebrity with an opinion on public policy. How do people get away with being so willfully ignorant?

Well, that's kind of the secret. It seems like a horrible way to live because to us depressives, it's completely unnatural. But here's the thing: we're the freaks.

Most of the depressives I know are deeply introspective people. In my case, you take a kid who is already introspective and instill in him the concept of talent—that you're either good at something or not—and add a large dose of perfectionism. It's easy to spend a lot of time thinking about your failures and missteps, or even what you could have done better with what most people would call successes. You spend a lot of time in the mental mirror, picking at flaws. The result is not unlike folks who do the same in a literal mirror; by picking at it, you make it worse, and can leave scars. But you don't realize that, because you're focused on the flaws. You might realize something's wrong, though, so to get a better picture of the whole problem, you put up a second mirror so you can see things from behind as well as from the front. Too late, you realize you've trapped yourself in a hall of mirrors, and you're lost in infinite reflections as you contemplate the flaws in the flaws in your contemplation of the flaws in your thinking (and so on).

Congratulations, you've trapped yourself in a kind of Total Perspective Vortex.

Douglas Adams (who I believe himself suffered from at least occasional depression; what the occasion was, I have no idea) invented the Total Perspective Vortex in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series of books. The idea is that the worst torture device in the universe is one that shows you your place in the universe, your size relative to everything else and just how insignificant you are. It shows you that you're really a tiny, petty, small person in the face of everything else (though it's only an instant glimpse; I imagine a time lapse of how brief your existence is as well might be worse). And that's the secret. "Other" folks get through just as fine because they suffer from a (in some cases, Total) Lack of Perspective Vortex. Suckers! Joke's on them! I have a much better image of who I am and where I am and why nothing I ever do will matter.

Except, well, no. It doesn't really work that way either. The problem with depression is that it's an unreliable narrator. It tells you you're worthless, it spends chapters and chapters on your failings while skimming over your victories or even the common, everyday stuff you simply didn't fuck up. And in the scale of human existence, the effects cancel like terms in a fraction. You're exactly as important as you make yourself. But is the secret to not care? To care less? (Even in just typing that, it was way too close to getting "careless" for my taste.) Is it to simple celebrate your successes with equal vigor as you criticize your mistakes? To celebrate the mistakes and failures, too? Sometimes it seems like you need to smash at least one of the mirrors, but really, you could accomplish the same thing with less chance of injury if you would just turn away from either mirror.

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