This week, while writing a recommendation for a student, it occurred to me that, although I have been writing them for years, I never researched the best practices. Curiosity encouraged me to pull a guide off the internet and when I surprised by the following statement saying:
☐ - I do not believe the Student suffers from any character flaws (such as depression, ADHD, etc.)
Notice they didn’t say:
☐ - I do not believe the student suffers from the character flaws of complacency, arrogance, laziness or lack of imagination
This type of thinking inspired the misguided effort at MIT to create an algorithm to diagnose depression by using a person’s preference for tonal rather than color palette in photography on Instagram. An article I read stated: “That raises the fascinating possibility that it might be possible to diagnose depression en masse by analyzing the photos people post to social-media sites ... in hopes that mental illness can be accurately detected earlier, allowing for more effective intervention.”
I would argue the writer paints with too broad a brush, what he describes as flaws may be necessary traits for personal growth. When we eradicate the tonal palette, when we remove the base-note and sobriety, we also remove depth. Every personality trait has a positive and negative face, like flip sides of a coin, such as impulsivity which, may contain both a fun-loving sense of adventure and an inability to plan for the future. Before we remove depression and ADD altogether we may want to examine what is on the flip side.
I read an article on the healthy personality created by a constellation of positive psychologists. I expected in the article to celebrate the sanguine personality so celebrated by our culture. However, Erich Fromm argued that the central challenge of being human was overcoming the human inevitabilities of loneliness and insignificance, not ignoring them. Some other important psychologists such as Gordon Allport wrote that happiness is not a goal in itself; it may be a by-product of pursuing aspirations and goals. In fact, he believed the healthy person’s life could be grim with pain and sorrow. And that the goals most worthy of our efforts may be always just out of arms reach.
David Whyte wrote, ‘looking over the centuries of human struggle commemorated in poetry, a man or woman often seems to begin the journey to soul recovery in this very lonely place of self-assessment. The uninitiated might call it depression.’ He thinks many of us don’t begin the soul’s journey at all because it begins in a place in which we have been taught to have very little faith- ‘the black, contemplative splendors of self-doubt.’ He knows that depression can be a refining fire that causes us to look closely at life, to take risk and see things as they are. Wisdom and insight are the reward of reflection and contemplation.
Depression and ADD are artist’s afflictions and energizers for achievement as artists seek to reconcile themselves to their environment. They are outsiders with the ability to see deficits in their environment. Marshall McLuhan explains it this way: “Environments are invisible, their ground rules pervasive, their structure and overall patterns elude easy perception. The poet, the artist- whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely ‘well-adjusted,’ he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are.”
God bless you Artist: With your depression, your hyper-focus, your scattered forgetfulness, your dark view of the world and your senseless pursuit of beauty. Your restlessness and anxious striving brings necessary and life-giving change. We need more of you in the world, just as you are, and I am happy to write you a recommendation.
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see….