How to Save a Life: William James’ Tips for Surviving Depression

The Will to Believe in the Vibrancy of Life

CJ Green / 6.17.20

A young Gertrude Stein once took a class with the philosopher William James, who, even at the time, was something of a celebrity. One day, faced with an exam, Stein refused, writing at the top of it, “Dear Professor James, I am so sorry, but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.”

“Dear Miss Stein,” James wrote back, “I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself.” She left the class with high marks.

I love that story, recounted in John Kaag’s slim book, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life. According to Kaag, James’ response, though unexpected, was not out of character. He respected Stein’s willingness to own her emotions and act accordingly: “For James, moral rectitude is not keyed to our ability to follow the rules. Instead, being responsible is an issue of coming to terms with one’s actions and, even when they are unflattering, owning up to them.”

Owning one’s actions: this is the axis around which the book revolves. Are we, in fact, actors, or are we only acted upon?

The deterministic latter, James couldn’t abide, though it had become preeminent in his time. He was seventeen when Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Much of the territory staked out by religion was forcibly surrendered, or at least called into question—the genesis of humankind, the authority of Scripture, and, most importantly, that doctrine which had for so long distinguished humans from the animals: the will. Human life and action became products of the invisible hand of biology.

Maybe then, as described in the show Devs, the world is “godless, and neutral, and defined only by physical laws. The marble rolls because it was pushed.” In the causal universe, there is no greater purpose, no sense of future possibility beyond what has been fixed by the past. In Kaag’s telling, such a view had a crippling effect on James. It left him despairing and suicidal. He suffered a general uncertainty about life, the point of it. One could speculate that, given James Sr.’s manic emotional states, William was a victim of (causal) genetic circumstance. In any case, it was no comfort to think that “maybe [humans were] nothing but cogs in an unfortunately constructed machine.”

Amidst the malaise, it was the assertion of the will—as Stein, for example, would eventually demonstrate—that most invigorated James. Defiantly, he declared, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

It’s a clever, almost humorous means of disentangling oneself from the deterministic web; also it smacks of unprofessionalism. “Philosophy was never a detached intellectual exercise,” Kaag writes of James, “or a matter of wordplay. It wasn’t a game, or, if it was, it was the world’s most serious … I would like to offer the reader James’ existential life preserver.” This accounts for Kaag’s down-to-earth language, atypical for so many writers in his discipline. He is not writing philosophy so much as flinging a flotation device. You shouldn’t have to have a PhD to survive.

Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, Kaag spies a sign that reads: “LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.” But, he wonders, “If life’s worth is so obvious, why was the sign put up in the first place?” Since 1883, he reports, roughly 1,500 people have died jumping into the East River. Both Kaag and James admit that they don’t know whether life is worth living; but they don’t know that it’s not, either. At one point, Kaag writes, “I think one surefire way to send jumpers off the edge is to pretend that you know something they don’t: that life has unconditional value and that they are missing something that is so patently obvious.”

The literary critic A. Alvarez once wrote that “to be an adult [is] to be a survivor.” As Helen Epstein pointed out recently, “The United States is in the throes of a colossal health crisis … suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses—claim roughly 190,000 lives each year.” Researchers have taken to labeling these “deaths of despair.” Economic insecurity is an obvious contributing element here, not to mention a culture riddled with accusation, guilt, and shame. But there is another, more translucent culprit, which William James understood; that is, a lack of belief. Not necessarily in God, or in the soul, but simply in the possibility that life could be worth it; that, contrary to the evidence gathered so far, there may in fact be reason to continue.

Shadowing all of this is the longstanding backstop of the Christian ban on suicide. After the centuries-long period during which early martyrs drew near to death with seeming verve, Augustine drew a line in the sand. He argued that to take one’s life was to slay the very image of God—a damnable sin. That doctrine persisted, in various degrees, right up through the 19th century. But in the godless, deterministic universe, who could say anything about sanctity? Citing Camus, Alvarez continues, “[A]s the power of religion weakened, the power of suicide grew. It was no longer merely accepted and unshocking, it was also a logical necessity.”

Belief is the foundation for words like “soul,” even “mind.” These inherited hypotheses remain everyday shorthand for things most of us sense but can’t measure. “The reason for science’s failure in studying human consciousness,” Kaag writes, “lies in its necessarily objective, analytic method,” which “forever misses the subjective sense of consciousness.” It is this interiority, this depth of being—untouchable from one person to another; “absolute insulation,” in James’ words—which can alone judge life’s worth.

Kaag’s “home remedy” is James’ “will to believe” in the vibrancy of life. He explains that “Acting as if the world is a welcoming and tender place occasionally has the effect of making it more so.” The idea rings true. If you wake and think “Life is meaningless,” then almost surely it will seem to be; but if you act as if, who knows what could happen? As James puts it, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” James’ buoyant, almost defiant, distinctly American philosophy has saved at least two lives, his own, and Kaag’s. “It is up to each of us,” Kaag argues, “to, literally, make ‘what we will’ of life.”

But if there’s anything standing between me and suicide, I, for one, hope that it isn’t free will. I would rather have some sturdier things: a friend, and a help line, and maybe even a rigid doctrine about the sanctity of life.

On my most depressive days, mental gymnastics are a little too much effort. To quote Stein, “Really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” Instead, I need a kind professor, so to speak, to assess me with grace. I need someone who sees and understands, despite the isolation of my thoughts. I need a concrete foundation to keep me up when I am too tired to stand. I need to believe that life is worth living, not because I’ve convinced myself it is, but because it is.

Featured image: “Garth Wilkinson James – Hard at Work (Reading),” by William James.