My husband and I try to avoid the strains of late winter's chill by attending cultural events when we can. Living in New York City, this is relatively easy to do. Last weekend, our cultural encounters seemed to revolve around ways in which humans succumb to or avoid depression. On Friday night, we saw a musical that profiled a man's fall from bliss to mental collapse. The next morning, I read an article about resilience. The fact that I read the article on the heels of seeing the musical led me to think of the two in relation to one another. One suggested the inevitable decline of the spirit; the other offered ways to resist and rebound. I'm left thinking about the proverbial glass and whether it's half empty or half full. Do we have choice in the path we take in life -- be it the resilient and optimistic or the depressive and pessimistic one?
On Friday night, we went with friends to see Passion, a revival of a musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine being performed at Classic Stage Company. We came out of the play discussing what I called the "Fosca effect" -- the power of depression to lure an otherwise happy person into another person's melancholic lair. How does mental anguish transfer from one person to another through empathy? I compared the "Fosca effect" to the way drowning people can pull those trying to help down under with them. Indeed, when people listen to stories of trauma (be they readers, psychologists, friends or family), they can experience a form of secondary trauma. Songs of sadness and mental instability not only lure in a well-meaning sailor but also sink the entire ship. Depression can be passed along not only from parents to children but also from repeated exposure to the sufferings of others.
In Passion, the character of Fosca, a virtually bedridden and unattractive woman, suffers from such severe depression that her doctor fears for her life. Fosca has lost all appetite and subsists on reading alone, living at the estate of her cousin, Major Rizzolli. But things take a radical turn for her when the beautiful and lovable Captain Giorgio joins other officers at Rizzolli's estate. Giorgio enters as a man with a happy heart; the sun perpetually shines upon him. Although Giorgio's military service demanded that he leave his beloved, the sexy Clara, behind in Milan, the heat and perfection of their mutual passion buoys his spirit and he remains connected to her through (scented) letters. Once Fosca sees Giorgio (even though he is unavailable), passion consumes her. Although he is first repulsed and enraged by Fosca's unrelenting desires, Giorgio eventually succumbs to her will, abandons Clara, and falls into his own mental illness. Darkness settles in Giorgio's heart while Fosca is relieved of her loneliness and pessimism. The play posits the possibility of transferring psychic unrest or pain through listening and love. Stay away from depressives or they will drag you down with them, it warns.
On the other hand, the next morning I read an article in The Atlantic about the power of optimism. The article examines recovery after trauma, hardship or loss. Why do some people lose hope after tragedy and others seem to grow from it? The article posits that the most important predictor of resilience is having a "positive outlook." It cites a study by Mt. Sinai Medical School's Dr. Dennis Charley that found that attributed resilience to PTSD in a group of Vietnam War veterans who had been long imprisoned to their optimism. (The second ranking factor for resilience was altruism.) When people channel their depression toward a positive goal, the study found, they attain greater mental health. Resilient people see hardship as a challenge rather than a threat. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Both the play and the article made me wonder about the role of choice when it comes to seeing the glass as half full or half empty. Can we simply decide to be positive and then we'll feel better? Why couldn't Giorgio resist the "Fosca effect" and blissfully remain in the embrace of happiness? I think of Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken. Could traveling along an optimistic or pessimistic road be a choice that one makes "in a yellow wood," with each traveler eventually facing some such divergence? If mental health depends on the ability to see the glass as half full, how do we manage that perception? Some roads present many more obstacles and storms than others. And some travelers, like the Vietnam veterans who survived years of torture and imprisonment, face so much trauma and loss that it's a wonder they can see any water in the glass at all. Yet some survivors of trauma are still able to find ways to smile at life and find passion.
The following night, we attended a marvelous performance of Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel at Lincoln Center. (It was an unusually busy weekend.) I grew up hearing my father sing songs from that classic, especially the lyrics to "If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." My father suffered his share of trauma. He grew up in poverty after the Great Depression and, at age 6, lost his father to cancer. It would be an understatement to say that my father grew up under difficult conditions. Nevertheless, he is an eternal optimist. I derive strength from his ability to cast painful situations in a better light. Last night, I was moved by those profound lyrics from Carousel that he often sang:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on walk on with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk alone.
Optimism may help us through the storm, as the Mt. Sinai study observes, but we also need to know that we are not alone. It's not enough to put on a happy face. Experiences of trauma can return belatedly to possess a survivor. Trauma may not be fully witnessed or experienced as an event occurs. Instead, it can return in nightmares or hallucinations to possess over and again. In such cases, one can't simply make a conscious choice to be optimistic. Scholars of trauma have underscored the necessity of being heard -- the need for an empathic listener. Sharing stories with others can help survivors to pass out of the isolation trauma can cause. In hearing the story of another, one can find a witness to one's own experience as well. It's not by avoiding the "Fosca effect" that we can find happiness. Rather, we can instill "hope in [the] heart" by listening to others, especially those whose pain needs to be heard.
On the Sunday of this culturally-busy weekend, the friends who saw Passion with us on Friday night spent the day cycling to help raise money for research for rare cancers -- which actually affect 50 percent of people with cancer. They have been involved with Cycle for Survival since their dear friend, Jen Goodman Linn, founded it in 2007 after her own diagnosis with sarcoma. Jen and her friends and family began cycling and raising money because they wanted to "give back." Jen made meaning from adversity. She couldn't stop the cancer -- tragically, she died in 2011 -- but she chose to do whatever she could in face of suffering to take action. The organization she founded has grown to have branches around the country and raises millions of dollars for research for rare cancers.
Returning home from Passion, my friend took a photo of the Empire State Building lit up in orange to acknowledge Cycle for Survival's fundraising events that would be occurring over that weekend. As the lights shone and as thousands of people both cycled and supported cyclists, the city seemed to be saying, "you'll never walk alone."
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