Saturday, May 5, 2018


Mt. Etna; Nunzio Santisi


gently weeping, in my dream it was
a young woman sweeping
the gray cement floor in a restroom
at a highway stop. Looking down,
sweeping and weeping because no one

comes to America to be poor.
I thought, “I’ve already had
my life” — and walked
up to her and gently took
the handle of the locomotive-wide

broom-mop from her, and began
to sweep. She slightly
shook. Walked out into the infinite
blinding sunlight of a country
that will never be her own —

but she too will help build this
Promised Land, this skyscraper-
mirrored City on the Hill.
And I stood in the dim
restroom with its slits of windows

like eyes narrow with mockery,
holding with both hands
that immigrant scepter,
the broom — but the weeping,
the weeping had stopped.

~ Oriana


 Odilon Redon, Ophelia among the Flowers, 1905


~ “On this day several decades ago, at the conclusion of our high-school contingent's nation-wide celebratory four-hour May 1st walk across Leningrad — from our micro-district on city's south-western edge to the Palace Square — I inconspicuously tossed, or let slide as though by accident into the Neva the large plywood stick-mounted portrait of abstemious-visaged, constipated-looking, Savonarola-esque Arvid Yanovich Pelshe, the oldest Politburo member, with which decidedly uncool and ridicule-inviting load I'd been stuck for most of the distance, since our first brief pitstop for some camouflaged booze and pirozhki, in the immediate vicinity of our local Park of Victory metro station, through my own lack of due vigilance and courtesy of our semi-deranged, war-damaged school director (nickname: tank-driver), who had snuck up on me from behind on cat's feet with said atrocity in his paws.

"Oops, fuck, how very unfortunate," I said under my breath, sort of accidentally like letting go of goddamned Pelshe over the roiling silvery water, and I quickly and surreptitiously looked about me, to make sure no one had seen me committing, ever so unaccountably and unexpectedly to myself, this serious and likely felonious and future-obliterating act of adolescent anti-Soviet vandalism. Luckily, no one had, it seemed, even though the area, obviously, was teeming with KGB plainclothesmen and their countless voluntary assistants — enthusiasts of ratting random people out and ruining the lives of total strangers.

That's all I have to say at the moment about this day worlds away and a lifetime ago.” ~ M. Iossel


This reminded me of my May First “defection”:

I remember her habit of twisting
my coat button as we talked –
twice she twisted it off –
the time we defected from the May-Day

parade, the royal gardens
purple with torches of lilacs

My friend and I didn’t get away with it — we both got a “B” in Conduct. Anything less than an A in Conduct was serious stuff, but my closet-dissident parents were completely unconcerned.

Those parades were an exhausting bore. I think that was the second and last time when I was required to participate.

So, no fond memories of that — except for those illicit lilacs. We sat on a bench and soaked up the still-feeble sunlight.

But as for the labor movement within a democratic context, I am all for workers’ rights. To think it was all such terrific and sometimes bloody struggle . . . May First was originally to commemorate the workers killed during a strike in Chicago (1886). They were fighting for the 8-hour work day.


Anyway, in a fabulous act of defiance, Mikhail managed to toss the Politburo member’s portrait into the Neva. This is a happy ending, given to us early. I'd love to say that the message is that good triumphs over evil, but considering Putin . . . Reality just doesn't want to deliver unambiguous messages. (sigh)


Thinking of the early communists like Pelshe (a Latvian, born in 1899) — at least some of them were absolutely exceptional individuals, incredibly brave men and women who consecrated their lives to a cause for which they were willing to die. What a shame that it turned out to be the wrong cause. But another way to think about them is to see their similarity to religious fanatics. Communism (like Nazism) was in many ways a secular religion, with many of the same trappings. The parades were like church processions except that portraits of Poliburo members (and of course those of Marx, Engels, and Lenin) were carried rather than religious icons.


Having witnessed both the parades and church processions, I can say that the church was ahead in splendor, especially in rural areas, where little girls tossed flower petals in front of the statue of Mary being carried behind them, by four burly men using a special scaffolding often wreathed with flowers as well. Being carried behind Mary was usually an image of Jesus and various saints. Why Mary first? Because she was loved as the protector of the people and the Queen of Poland (I'm not making up any of this). Sorry to have gotten off the track, but the parallels between the party and the church were very striking.

But May Day also a “pagan” spring holiday, and I know no one will mind another image of lilacs instead of parades. I chose the 1889 painting of a lilac bush by Van Gogh.



~ “If ever there were a convincing case to be made for the dangers of philosophy, then surely it’s Marx’s discovery of Hegel, whose “grotesque craggy melody” repelled him at first but which soon had him dancing deliriously through the streets of Berlin. As Marx confessed to his father in an equally delirious letter in November 1837, “I wanted to embrace every person standing on the street-corner.”

In 2002, the French philosopher Alain Badiou declared at a conference I attended in London that Marx had become the philosopher of the middle class. What did he mean? I believe he meant that educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis — that capitalism is driven by a deeply divisive class struggle in which the ruling-class minority appropriates the surplus labor of the working-class majority as profit — is correct. Even liberal economists such as Nouriel Roubini agree that Marx’s conviction that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to destroy itself remains as prescient as ever.

First, let’s be clear: Marx arrives at no magic formula for exiting the enormous social and economic contradictions that global capitalism entails (according to Oxfam, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent). What Marx did achieve, however, through his self-styled materialist thought, were the critical weapons for undermining capitalism’s ideological claim to be the only game in town.

In the “Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels wrote: “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.”

Marx was convinced that capitalism would soon make relics of them. The inroads that artificial intelligence is currently making into medical diagnosis and surgery, for instance, bears out the argument in the “Manifesto” that technology would greatly accelerate the “division of labor,” or the deskilling of such professions.

Marx found that the late-18th-century idealisms of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte that so dominated philosophical thinking in the early 19th century prioritized thinking itself — so much so that reality could be inferred through intellectual reasoning. But Marx refused to endorse their reality. In an ironic Hegelian twist, it was the complete opposite: It was the material world that determined all thinking. As Marx puts it in his letter, “If previously the gods had dwelt above the earth, now they became its center.”

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Marx traffic light in Trier, Marx's home town
Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

To cite Marx, “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

The transition to a new society where relations among people, rather than capital relations, finally determine an individual’s worth is arguably proving to be quite a task. Marx, as I have said, does not offer a one-size-fits-all formula for enacting social change. But he does offer a powerful intellectual acid test for that change.” ~


Marx was born on May 5, 1818. A distant relative of the poet Heine, he was a descendant of eminent rabbis on both sides of the family, as even short biographical notes tend to point out with a concealed chuckle. 

Another chuckle follows as the biographies point out that the older Marx, with his patriarchal beard, looked the way we imagine ancient Hebrew prophets, or even Yahweh himself.
Arguably, Marx’s worst mistake was his opposition to the laws, hard-won by the trade unions, designed to improve the well-being of the workers. Regulated capitalism proved much better for the many than laissez-faire capitalism. But Marx saw this only as an obstruction to the revolution. In fact he wanted the misery of the workers to deepen in order to hasten their revolt.
from another source:

~ “It was because of his historical method that Louis Althusser once wrote of Marx’s similarity to Thales and Galileo. Like them, he had “discovered” a new continent for intellectual exploration. Just as Thales unearthed mathematics and Galileo astronomy, he viewed Marx as responsible for revealing history not as the result of fortune, providence or the deeds of great individuals, but the unfolding of a material process that shapes our actions and is, in turn, shaped by human agency. Much modern historical analysis rests on such conclusions, from the “archeology” of Foucault to the world-systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. It is the work of Silvia Federici, particularly her Caliban and the Witch, that is perhaps most rewarding. Examining the witch trials prevalent across much of early modern Europe, her Marxist-feminist approach allows us to better understand the intimate relationship between modern patriarchy, the rise of the nation state and the transition from feudalism to capitalism.” ~

~ “A Harvard study found that a majority of millennials reject capitalism and a third are in favor of socialism. This is what might be called the revenge of Marx; the rehabilitation of one of the world’s historical philosophers. Marx inverted Hegelian doctrine into dialectical materialism, affirming that it was material relations that were responsible for consciousness and social relations  —  not the other way round.” ~

~ “To understand Marx, you need to know something about Hegel’s view of history. Hegel saw history as the story of the progress of mind towards freedom. Today, that sounds odd, but it becomes less mysterious once we realize that by mind, Hegel meant not just the separate minds of individuals, but the sum total of that consciousness.

Marx took over Hegel’s view of history, but transformed it into the story of our material development, taking place in the world of material beings who must eat before they can philosophize. Only if we understand this can we understand how Marx could be so confident that capitalism had inherent contradictions that would lead to its collapse, and that it would be replaced by communism, which saw as a condition in which the constraints of material want are overcome and all humans can live freely as they choose.

Marx saw that industrialized capitalism is an economic system that is our creation, although we did not chose to create it, and it dominates us. It puts a price on everything, it reduces skilled workers to appendages to machines, and it destroys communities.

Marx’s materialist conception of history also contains important valid insights: he recognized that the way we produce what we need, and organize our economy, affects many aspects of our lives, including our religion, our politics, and our morality. But he took this idea too far, and that led to his most serious mistake.

He denied that there is such a thing as human nature, independently of the economic mode of production. So he thought that if we abolish private ownership of the means of production, and everything is owned in common, the workers who run these commonly owned industries will act in the interests of all.

The Soviet Union proved how tragically mistaken that assumption was.” ~

The monument to Karl Marx in Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt


As a liberal and rebellious student in the early 70’s I of course considered myself a Marxist, ready to do my part for the Revolution we all felt was imminent. It seemed ludicrous to deny the importance, even the existence, of class in the US — everyone knew who would end up soldiers in Vietnam and who would buy their way out — who could buy their way out.

Of course it was the material world that shaped our thoughts and ideas, of course change would come through struggle, of course it was necessary to criticize the structures and habits of the power establishment, of course we could and would bring a better world into being. Marx was right about so much. It felt less like a discovery and more like an affirmation of my lived reality— always those deep and yet curiously unacknowledged divisions between the haves and have nots, the power brokers and the powerless, the rich and all the rest of us.

But then, just as on the larger world stage, where the revolution was not followed by a brave new world, but by Stalin and his murderous purges, and again, elsewhere, Mao and the terrible destruction and suffering of the Cultural revolution, our movement succumbed to division, in-fighting, challenges to those not willing or able to toe the “party” line, and eventually simple loss of faith, or interest, in what had become a hugely disappointing enterprise.

I can’t help but see that a major part of these failures were that racism and sexual inequality and oppression were not addressed in any real way. These are not issues that “came later” and could be taken care of by minor repairs to theory and action. Racism and sexism are older than capitalism, were always there even if ignored, unacknowledged, or so much part of the way things always were that they were invisible. Not addressing these issues is enough in itself to collapse this particular house of cards, and make it useless.

And I wonder now what is coming, with this recent huge and rapid growth of the division of wealth between the one percent and all the rest of us. That one percent is getting richer and richer, farther and farther removed from the rest of humanity, which is becoming poorer and poorer. What happens as this divide grows and grows and becomes more and more obvious, more and more inexcusable? Will desperation and rage explode in some new and unimaginable forms? Will a hugely repressive state become the norm? Will the majority force change into some better and more humane shape? There are signs of danger and signs of hope both in the mix right now—I want to hope for the best sort of change, but know the worst is always possible.

These are both interesting and exciting times, both curse and opportunity.


One interesting thing is that I wasn’t really aware of Marx’s insights when I lived in Poland, even though we were taught some supposed rudiments of “dialectical materialism” during our last year of high school, when philosophy was added to the subjects. 

Well, we learned about thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — but that’s really Hegel, not Marx. We learned the term “means of production,” though again that remained vague and remote, and our instructor was certainly not going to delve as to who owned the means of production in Poland (actually agriculture was in private hands; land reform was perhaps the one of the not so many good things the government did when it expropriated the parasitic landowners and distributed the land to the landless farm hands). And we were vaguely taught that capitalism would self-destruct — but my emphasis is on “vaguely.” It was in the US, as part of my self-education, that I discovered Marx’s analysis of the boom-bust cycle of production, the prediction of greater and greater concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and even the idea that automation (“machines” in Marx’s lingo) would make labor more and more dispensable.

And I discovered that there was the “young Marx” and the Marx of Das Kapital. The emphasis of young Marx was more on the psychological well-being of the workers, and the harm that factory work (or any overly specialized work) was causing.

As is true of many geniuses, when he was right (as a diagnostician), he was brilliant; when he was wrong (as a “physician” prescribing a “cure”), he was quite wrong. Even so, he would have rejected Lenin and Stalin and Mao. Those were not real Marxists, even if they believed (I think Lenin did; not quite sure about the other two) that capitalism was eventually bound to self-destruct. Based on what I’ve read, I think that Lenin did idealize the industrial proletariat (hardly the dominant social class in Russia), but Stalin and Mao didn’t idealize anyone or anything, and were basically brutal dictators and nationalists, the country being an extension of their ego.

And he went too far in his economic determinism — though his exaggeration at least made educated people more aware that economic conditions do determine a lot more than we tend to be willing to concede. But everything is too complicated to be summarized with a single answer, be it economics or technology or collective psychology (though I know I explain a lot in terms of child abuse versus a more nurturing child-rearing style).

I’ve read a biography of Marx which also spent a lot of time on Jenny Marx, and their three surviving daughters — and revealed to me the existence of his illegitimate son by his devoted housekeeper, Lenchen. Marx was certainly no saint. Yet Jenny loved him dearly, as did his daughters. Why? Again, like so many brilliant men, he could be very funny — a sense of humor is a good indicator of intelligence. Jenny adored him because every day he made her laugh. I realize that this is a strange detail on which to end the discussion of Marx, but those gales of laughter in the Marx household made quite an impression on me. 


“The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell the truth.” ~ H.L. Mencken

We're a paradoxically retro-progressive nation, on the pragmatic cutting edge but founded by uptight reactionary Puritans, nostalgic for less pragmatic religious dogmas (a recipe for lie buying). It's like if Silicon Valley had been founded by Druids. ~ Jeremy Sherman


I'm not a Mencken fan, but now and then he hits on something true or close to it. Well, lying and politics — this is universal, not specifically American. However, Americans may be somewhat more likely to admire “daring liars” because the country has the dimension of myth so strongly embedded in it. To Jewish immigrants America (and not Palestine) was the “Goldene medine” — the “golden country.”

But I agree with Jeremy: the number one factor in the propensity to buy lies is probably religiosity, and especially the religious extremists’ (the Puritans were an example; now it's the Evangelicals) yearning for a religious utopia that would of course be a nightmare for the rest of us.

New York, Mulberry Street, 1900

~ “To find out what made mentally healthy people distinct, Schaefer turned to the Dunedin cohort, a group of 1,037 people all born in the same town in New Zealand between April 1972 and March 1973. Every few years since their birth, the members of the cohort have returned to Dunedin to undergo batteries of medical tests and interviews. Assessors evaluate, among other things, their reproductive health, their social aptitude and their current mental state. To date, the study has retained about 95 per cent of its original subjects and, if all goes as planned, they will submit to periodic testing for the rest of their lives.

As Schaefer dug deep into the Dunedin files, one thing that jumped out at him was that the vast majority of cohort members had met criteria for a mental illness at some point in their lives. In the turbulent years leading up to middle age, 83 per cent had suffered from either short-lived or longer-lasting mental disorders. ‘Experiencing these conditions is actually the norm,’ Schaefer says. ‘It’s kind of weird not to.’

Unsurprisingly, the temperamentally blessed in Schaefer’s study tended to be people whose first-degree relatives were never diagnosed with mental illness, suggesting that their ongoing buoyancy was, at least in part, genetic. But people who enjoyed enduring mental health weren’t unusually rich, physically healthy or intelligent.

Pavel Filonov: Shostakovich's First Symphony, 1935

Enduring mental health, it appears, isn’t as much about surface advantage as how you play the hand you’ve got. In Moffitt’s view, the temperamentally blessed members of the Dunedin cohort ‘embrace life, get active, and get involved, but when bad things happen they don’t over-react. They really just remain calm and get on with it,’ she says. They manage stress, it appears, by not focusing intently on their problems, and also by surrounding themselves with supportive others. ‘They like being with people, and they reach out to build a social network. As loved ones, they are steady and dependable, not touchy or thin-skinned. They don’t often quarrel. They are pretty tolerant of other people in their lives.’

Because the Dunedin study has tracked subjects from birth onwards, we know that these distinctive personality traits often show up by the elementary-school years, Schaefer says. Children who have more friends at an early age are less likely to experience an episode of mental illness as adults. ‘This is a process, a way of being, that emerges pretty early on.’

If genetics play a key role in temperament, and if many of the traits that reinforce temperament are baked in early on, does it still make sense to try to foster an environment that promotes temperamental stability? Moffitt says yes – and that one possible approach would be to recreate the social and emotional milieu that the temperamentally blessed seem to inhabit. ‘I think we could copy the lifestyles of people with enduring mental health to see how to live well.’

Almost invariably, such people boast a dense web of communal ties, underscoring the role of supportive networks in mitigating stressful life events such as a job loss or a divorce. (To be sure, these networks might help some more than others; though my husband and I share most of the same social contacts, our responses to stress remain distinct.) Likewise, a live-and-let-live attitude is probably teachable, at least to some degree. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – designed to teach emotional regulation – is geared toward boosting clients’ tolerance and acceptance of others. Studies show that this therapy improves their functioning in the real world, inching them closer to the temperamentally blessed category even if they don’t always reach it.

But is complete freedom from mental disorder the unalloyed triumph it first seems? To be sure, severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis have very little adaptive value at all. But certain, more common conditions, especially depression and anxiety, sometimes make a bleak kind of evolutionary sense: they’re screaming neon warnings that there are urgent problems in your life that you need to address.

And depressive or anxious thoughts do drive effective problem-solving in a variety of situations, according to the psychologist Paul Andrews, now at McMaster University in Ontario. Because depressed people’s thinking style is highly analytical (in other words, obsessive), they incisively evaluate the pros and cons of potential solutions. ‘Depression seems less like a disorder where the brain is operating in a haphazard way, or malfunctioning,’ write Andrews and his colleague, J Anderson Thomson Jr, in a 2009 article for Scientific American. ‘Instead, depression seems more like the vertebrate eye – an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function.’

From that standpoint, the 50something divorcee who weathers financial ruin with a smile seems like the oddball, not her despairing counterpart. While people’s genetic vulnerability to mental disorder differs, most of us are at higher risk when life heads south in one way or another. The temperamentally blessed seem unusually immune to circumstance; either they do not feel the sting of defeat as acutely, or they have found reliable ways to blunt it. They look strong to others because they do not react intensely to calamity. But it’s worth asking whether that very lack of intense reaction might betray a covert psychological weakness – a tendency to stand still when dramatic movement is called for.

In fact, the burgeoning field of post-traumatic growth research suggests that people reap profound benefits when they risk dramatic movement in the face of mental anguish. ‘I think you do see that,’ Schaefer says. ‘Tackling a particular problem, and then having navigated that successfully – that can be a big thing.’ In a study at the University of L’Aquila in Italy, earthquake survivors who suffered moderate depression in the disaster’s wake reported significant post-traumatic flowering. They forged stronger relationships with others, professed more faith in their personal strength, and attained a clearer sense of their life’s mission.

What does seem clear, though, is that being temperamentally blessed is not the same as being happy in a deeper sense. However even-keeled they might be, the temperamentally blessed don’t score much higher on life-satisfaction scales than those who are not as blessed. ‘There’s more to life than not experiencing mental disorder,’ Schaefer says. ‘There are some people in the enduring mental-health group who rate their life satisfaction as pretty low.’

We also know that you don’t have to clear the bar of being temperamentally blessed in order to reach fulfillment. Flourishing — experiencing positive emotions, general enthusiasm about life and a sense of purpose (the state that Aristotle called eudaimonia) — ‘is completely separate’, Schaefer says, and ‘not terribly highly correlated with symptoms of a mental disorder’. In other words, you can suffer mental illness, even repeatedly, and still retain a sense that life is meaningful; as Walt Whitman put it: ‘the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse’.

Still, there’s no denying the toll that full-blown mental illness takes on one’s body, mind and ability to work toward goals that promote flourishing. I know firsthand that not all pathology is productive. And while I’m grateful to have broadened my capacity for intimacy and empathy, I don’t want to keep flagellating myself with lessons I’ve already learned.

I yearn, now, to enter a state of relative emotional maintenance, and that’s where the example that the temperamentally blessed set can be a force for good. They seem to have a knack for anticipating and avoiding the most immobilizing inner tempests – an approach worth road-testing.


Seems that an outward orientation rather than introspection is the key (no, the answer is not within) — along with having a supportive social network, being tolerant of people in your life (“grow a little deaf”), thick-skinned rather than sensitive and not getting involved in arguments.

Deaf and thick-skinned — it may sound like a deficiency, but it’s not such a great price for tranquillity. In any case, it’s a matter of degree; we do not speak of absolutes. I think both Buddhism and Stoicism would endorse not reacting so emotionally to everything. What's understandable in a toddler is far from adaptive in adulthood.

(Please note: while aging tends to make people more “mellow,” sometimes there comes a point, usually at a later stage of aging, when the person becomes overly emotional. Call it the “second toddlerhood” if you like. It’s a symptom of insufficient inhibition, and the cause may be as simple as the decline in the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.)

But let us note that this lack of intensity and introspection, while it helps a person sail more easily through the life’s inevitable storms, does not equal happiness. Being genetically and behaviorally resistant to depression does not guarantee high satisfaction with one’s life. Still, speaking from personal experience, I'm glad to be done with depression. It did not teach me any wisdom. Automatic negative thinking quickly spirals into automatic negative drivel. Mild depression may have facilitated poetic creativity (a lot of poets feel that happiness kills inspiration), but being productive in non-fiction prose seems to go hand in hand with contentment.

Being tolerant of people in your life struck me a particularly relevant lesson at this stage of my life. I’ve already mastered turning to work rather than brooding, but not being upset by others has always been a challenge. In my youth, I tended to either like or dislike people intensely. There was hardly any middle ground. Now I'm more likely to shrug and say, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Likewise, rather than get involved in an argument, I prefer to pretend that I simply did not hear a certain remark. “Grow a little deaf” is the best relationship advice I know. Ignore the remarks you don’t like, and the person on the other end may just stop making them — after all, they are going nowhere, producing no response.

To “random acts of kindness” I’d like to add the motto of “promiscuous affection.” I don’t mean the kind with erotic overtones — but now that I'm older, I don’t have to worry so much about an affectionate remark being misunderstood as flirtation. If we were as affectionate toward others as we tend to be toward pets — even other people’s pets — I think it would be a much more pleasant world. 

Photo: Mim Eisenberg


~ “Depression runs in families, we know. But it is only very recently, and after considerable controversy and frustration, that we are beginning to know how and why. The major scientific discoveries reported last week by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium in Nature Genetics are a hard-won breakthrough in our understanding of this very common and potentially disabling disorder.

However, controversy has long swirled around the question of nature or nurture. Is the depressed son of a depressed mother the victim of her inadequate parenting and the emotionally chilly, unloving environment she provided during the early years of his life? Or is he depressed because he inherited her depressive genes that biologically determined his emotional fate, regardless of her parenting skills? Is it nature or nurture, genetics or environment, which explain why depression runs in families?

That is why the study published last week is such a significant milestone. For the first time, scientists around the world have been able to combine DNA data on a large enough sample to pinpoint which locations on the genome are associated with an increased risk of depression. So we now know, with a high degree of confidence, something important about depression that we didn’t know this time last year. We know that there are at least 44 genes, out of the 20,000 genes comprising the human genome, which contribute to the transmission of risk for depression from one generation to the next. As research continues and even larger samples of DNA become available for analysis, it is likely that the number of genes associated with depression will increase further still.

More surprisingly, many of the risk genes for depression also play a part in the workings of the immune system. There is growing evidence that inflammation, the defensive response of the immune system to threats such as infection, can cause depression. We are also becoming more aware that social stress can cause increased inflammation of the body. For decades we’ve known that social stress is a major risk factor for depression. Now it seems that inflammation could be one of the missing links: stress provokes an inflammatory response by the body, which causes changes in how the brain works, which in turn cause the mental symptoms of depression.

There have been no major advances in treatment for depression since about 1990, despite it being the major single cause of medical disability in the world. It is easy to imagine how new antidepressant drugs could in future be designed to target inflammatory proteins coded by depression risk genes.

Finally, although I think these genetic discoveries are fundamental, I don’t see them as ideologically divisive. They don’t prove that depression is “all in the brain” or that psychological treatment is pointless. The genetics will be biologically pre-eminent but, as we understand more about what all these “genes for depression” do, we may discover that many of them control the response of the brain or the body to environmental stress. In which case, the treatment that works best for an individual patient could be a drug targeting a gene or intervention targeting an environmental factor such as stress.

In short, I believe that a deeper understanding of the genetics of depression will lead us beyond the question we started from: is it nature or nurture, genes or environment? The answer will turn out to be both.” ~

from another source:

~ “Previous studies have linked depression with higher level of inflammatory markers compared to people who are not depressed. When people are given proinflammatory cytokines, people experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety. (link is external) Chronically higher levels of inflammation due to medical illnesses are also associated with higher rates of depression. Even brain imaging of people with depression show that their brain scans have increased neuroinflammation. When your body is in an inflammatory state fighting off the common cold or flu, you can experience symptoms overlapping with depression— disrupted sleep, depressed mood, fatigue, foggy-headedness, and impaired concentration.

A new study (link is external) published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry supports the premise that increased inflammation may play a role in depression. The large study examined data from 14,275 people who were interviewed between 2007 and 2012 using the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) to screen for depression and had blood samples drawn. They found that people who had depression had 46% higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammatory disease, in their blood samples.” ~


By the way, the link between inflammation and degenerative brain diseases has been well-established. This is another way of saying that these are basically auto-immune diseases. Past a certain age, our own immune system turns against us. "Inflammo-aging" is one of the terms floating out there, but perhaps the term should be "immuno-aging." The main killer is our own immune system destroying the body from within.

Depression too is associated with brain diseases, and the mechanism may well be inflammation. Much as I agree with these articles, having actually experienced a mood lift from anti-inflammatories, what truly worked for me is the cessation of brooding and replacing brooding with an intense external-focus activity. Anhedonia took several weeks to resolve. At first remembering a single positive experience felt like a major victory. After a few months, I was normalized. Nor did I have to work so hard — brooding just wasn’t happening.

I think the beauty of California had a lot to do with healing my anhedonia. Even now, the first thing I do in the morning is look out the window and linger there for a while. I'm taking in beauty.

And I'm sure beauty is anti-inflammatory.  


I have had terrible struggles with depression from early times, perhaps the worst during my 40’s including several bouts in the hospital and several rounds of ECT — which I did not find helpful. It always seemed to me a very physical thing, nothing looked, felt, tasted the same, this sense of “deadness” in myself and the world.

Anyway, that decade was followed, in my 50’s, with a whole series of physical problems, including cancers, surgeries, infection, chronic pain — and the psychological issues, primarily the depression, just receded, shrank way down. It seemed to me like there was just so much psychic and physical energy, not enough to be both crazy and physically sick — managing physical pain reduced attention available for the psychological pain, so it retreated into the background. I don’t know if this was peculiar to my own experience or not, but certainly interesting.


This makes perfect sense: physical suffering becomes a major focus, e.g. dealing with post-op recovery. If the recovery is going badly and it’s beginning to look as if we might never recover completely, then there is a chance of depression — the so-called post-op blues. No surgeon ever mentions it.

But generally, physical problems like a horrible rash pre-empt all energy. Even if we were in serious depression while the rash happened, we drop depression instantly when we see the rash — omg, is my face swollen! The brain instantly switches tracks to dealing with the new, immediate problem, depression being a luxury.

I’ve had a few of these experiences and they contributed to my understanding that depression is indeed a luxury, perhaps one that you can’t afford anymore. You need to drop it. I was lucky in that my problem wasn’t cyclical, seasonal, or whatever. I could brood over my misfortunes and descend deeper and deeper into a depression (the more practiced I became, the faster the descent) — or, I realized, I could stop brooding because it was too late in life for that.

But everyone’s depression is different. Still, different neural pathways can gain dominance and create an intense new focus. Later it may feel downright silly to go back to brooding.

(By the way, the most extreme example of how quickly even psychotic symptoms can be dropped was a psychiatrist’s account of a fire alarm going off on the ward, and how the patients stopped arguing with their voices or standing frozen in peculiar poses etc, and quickly lined up and evacuated in a very competent fashion. I'm not saying that schizophrenia isn’t real — it’s just that even a deranged brain can respond correctly when survival is at stake.)

 Monet: Weeping Willow, 1919


~ “The Sermon on the Mount, is, according to New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson "the essence of Christianity.” Although Jesus is said to have delivered the Sermon 2,000 years ago, millions of people still aspire to follow its exhortations.

Because this is Psychology Today, I focus not on the sermon’s religious, deistic aspects but only on its advice for living.

Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Sermonette on the Mound:  Aim for ethical assertiveness.

Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Sermonette on the Mound: Greater good accrues from decisions made not on mercy but on merit.

Sermon on the Mount: Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

Sermonette on the Mound: Anger can be wise if used like a spice — only when likely to lead to a better result.

Sermon on the Mount: Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. 

Sermonette on the Mound: It is unrealistic, unduly harsh, and denying of an innocent pleasure to deem fantasizing verboten. Even adultery doesn’t justify “tearing your eye out” even metaphorically. Let your guiding principle be: Do what you believe will yield the most good.

Sermon on the Mount: If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Sermonette on the Mound: That exhortation extends “the meek shall inherit the earth” to “let others trample on you.” It's wiser to decide in each situation whether greater good will accrue from forgiveness, ignoring, responding with proportionate force, or with greater force so as to preclude subsequent attack.

Sermon on the Mount: When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.

Sermonette on the Mound:  It is fine to let others know of your good deeds. That small recompense makes you more likely to do future good and may inspire others to. Note, by the way, Jesus’ anti-Semitism: “hypocrites in the synagogues,” as though Jews are more likely than others to be hypocrites.

Sermon on the Mount: If you forgive others’ trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive.

Sermonette on the Mound: Again, forgive only when that will accrue greater good than ignoring or exerting retribution.

Sermon on the Mount: You cannot serve God and money.

Sermonette on the Mount: That implies that earning money is ungodly, unethical. Of course, a person could pursue money unethically by stealing or deception. But far more often, earning money means that someone finds you benefiting them or customers and so it's worth paying you some of their money.

Sermon on the Mount: O ye of little faith. Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Sermonette on the Mound: Others cannot often enough be counted on. Also, relying on others  not only imposes on them but, in you, creates a growing lack of self-efficacy and self-confidence. Rely first and foremost on yourself. 

Sermon on the Mount: Judge not, that you be not judged.

Sermonette on the Mound: Judgment, discernment, in people and things is key to your professional and personal success and satisfaction. And being judged is key to your growth. The word “judgmental” has come to be a pejorative. As long as the judgment is competent and well-intentioned, it should be an honorific.” ~ (Marty Nemko)

Giotto: St. Francis receiving the stigmata. This is an unusual representation of Jesus as a seraph. 


“Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.” ~ Oscar Wilde

“People have a hard time seeing or wanting to see that morality is about paradoxes and dilemmas not principles and absolutes. ‘Be intolerant of intolerance’ is a hard paradox to face.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


ending on beauty:
Job 30:29*

No angel-wings for me.
Instead, a barred owl’s.
I long to be able to move
through day and night
in silence.

~ Laura Kaminsky

*“I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.”

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