(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 1, 2014)
Consider these two questions: 1) Are you responsible for being depressed or anxious? And 2) Should you feel guilty or ashamed of being depressed or anxious? Let’s consider the first question.
Here are four possibilities:
1) You’re not free, and thus you are not responsible for being depressed;
2) You’re free, and thus you are responsible for being depressed;
3) You’re not free, but you are still responsible for being depressed;
4) You’re free, but you are not responsible for being depressed.
Consider the benefits and costs to each option:
- The benefit of adopting #1 is that you don’t feel responsible for your situation; the cost is that you don’t feel free to change your situation.
- The benefit of #2 is that you do feel free to change your situation; the cost is that you feel responsible for your situation.
- This view only has costs; you don’t feel free to change your situation, and you do hold yourself responsible for your situation.
- This view only has benefits; you feel free to change your situation, and you don’t feel responsible for your situation.
From a cost/benefit analysis you should choose #4. Why don’t people do this? Probably because they don’t think #4 makes sense. Most people think that either #1 or #2 is true. But #3 and #4 are possibilities too. We might live in a determined world where people should be held responsible (#3). Our mental states might be determined, but we are responsible for taking drugs or going to counseling to change those states. Or we might live in a free world where people shouldn’t be held responsible (#4). We might be free to choose our actions and mental states, but not be responsible for them because determinism is very strong.
I’m not saying which if any of these options best represents the state of the world, I’m just saying we don’t know which one is best. We can’t definitely answer the question, “Am I responsible for being depressed or anxious?” What we can say is that you might as well believe #4. To do this just accept that the past is determined, it is closed—you can’t affect it. But the future is not determined, it is open—you can affect it. (These claims could be wrong if backward causation is possible, or if fatalism is true. But almost no professional philosophers hold such views.) So it is easy to believe that we are free but not responsible.
Now consider the second question: Should you feel guilty for being depressed or anxious? Here an insight from Stoicism is invaluable—we can’t change the way some things are, but we can change our view of those things. Guilt and shame are attitudes toward reality that we can reject. So just say, “I will not feel guilt or shame.” Of course we can choose shame and guilt, and if we do we shouldn’t feel guilty about that either. But we can choose not to do this too. We can say, to hell with guilt! So go ahead and say it. To hell with guilt! Remember, guilt is something that other people or organizations use so that they can control you. Don’t let them manipulate you. Control your view of things.
Now suppose you try to change your attitude, but a week or a month or a year later you still feel guilty about being depressed. I say keep trying, but don’t feel guilty about feeling guilty. Remember, you’re only free, if at all, regarding your actions in the present! And the present recedes into the past instantaneously. So just keep telling yourself: “right now I’m free to try to reject guilt, and if I’m not successful I won’t feel guilty.”
But don’t try to hard either. Things take time, patience is a virtue. Relax, accept yourself, and let the guilt slowly recede. Remember that everything changes, and you will too. Go with the flow, change with the universe, and don’t fight too hard. Flow as peacefully as possible down the river of life.
In other words, don’t forget the Taoist concept of wu wei. Wu wei literally means “without action”, “without effort”, or “without control.” It also means “action without action” or “effortless doing” or “action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort.” This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act or that the will is bad, but that we should place our will and actions in harmony with nature. And sometimes nature will take time to cure our ailments. Sometimes we just have to wait for things to pass. And all things will pass.