Today’s post on Letters of Note is a letter from essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth who was suffering from a bout of depression. The reason it caught my eye was just yesterday I tripped over one of those posts about what not to say to someone who is depressed. You know the sort of thing – “it’s not that bad” “you just need to exercise more” or “stop feeling sorry for yourself.” I can’t remember right now where I saw it, but there are dozens (or hundreds) of them out there. Apparently enough people have heard the unhelpful things that lists of what not to say abound.
I thought the Sydney Smith letter had some worthwhile thoughts. Some things I know from experience are very hard for a person who is depressed but others rang very true.
1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith
They listed a couple other letters of note including one by Stephen Fry which I had previously posted a portion. He compares depression to the weather, as you may recall, saying that “You can’t change it by wishing it away. If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.”
In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes. “Today’s a crap day,” is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. “Hey-ho, it’s raining inside: it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.”
Also included was a letter by Henry James to fellow writer Grace Norton. It is an incredibly caring and thoughtful letter.
My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain.
I don’t know why there seems to be a splash of writing on depression. Perhaps because holidays are often hard and more people may feel particularly alone and despondent at times of celebration. I’ve been struggling with the darkness the past few days but I’ve been blaming it on a seriously messed up sleep pattern.
As far as Smith’s list goes – two things in particular strike me. Not looking too far ahead: depression by it’s nature makes the future look very bleak. Also, setting small goals and living the best you can. Today, I made brioche (and I plan to post that recipe since it’s become my favorite new bread recipe), hamburger buns for tomorrow, and chocolate cake to take to Dad tomorrow. I hope the fudge frosting turns out well later. I need to finish cleaning the kitchen and do a couple of other small things but I am running out of steam and probably won’t get to the other things, like vacuuming, which I planned to do today. That’s okay. Remember my mantra from April, I love you anyway.