The black swan is Karl Popper’s concept from the 1930s that suggested that if you observe only white swans, you are using inductive reasoning to extrapolate that all swans are white. This was falsified when black swans were discovered by the English naturalist John Latham in 1790. Science was forced to change the hypothesis that all swans are white by the new evidence.
Almost a year ago, Jonah Lehrer wrote an article called “Depressions Upside” in the New York Times. I was very interested in the response to it because I expected him to get attacked for challenging the prevailing beliefs about depression. A particular response stuck with me to this day and happens to be from someone who writes occasionally on PsychCentral, Dr. Ronald Pies:
“I have seen many hundreds, if not thousands, of patients [with depression] over the past 30 years. I have never had one–no, not one–say to me, ‘Gosh, Doctor, there are some real benefits to all this depression!'”
Dr. Pies made the classic white swan mistake – inducing from his limited experience that all depressives are like the ones he has seen. A few days later he wrote an article called “The Myth of Depression’s Upside” right here on PsychCentral.
My sense at the time was that the emotions of the debate were way too high for me to challenge such notions, but the White Swan of Depression stuck with me ever since. Over the years I have run into the same argument many times and have tried various ways of challenging it, only to be met with complete refusal to even consider the fact that I find depression to be beautiful and among the most valuable experiences of my life. Instead of recognizing the black swan right in front of them, people make the strangest accusations and deny the possibility entirely.
A frequent critique of my work is that I do not represent all bipolar people. I never said that I do; only that my existence contradicts the paradigm that too many hold so rigidly. It is amazing how many people get so upset they accuse me of insisting that everyone is like me. That would be like saying that all swans are black, which is not at all what I was saying.
In the previous three books I was saying that if I could accomplish Bipolar In Order or Depression In Order, then perhaps others can too and we need to change the definition of what is possible to accommodate the new evidence. What I share in my new work are other people’s success stories along with a well defined path for others to follow, which is why the woman in Santa Rosa remarked about how my message has changed.
What is most interesting about Dr. Pies argument is that I meet many people who feel the way I do, or at least in ways that contradict the notion that there are no “real benefits to all this depression.” It seems that we attract people according to what we believe. If you believe it is not possible to see value in depression and therefor do not teach people how to, you spend 30 years with people who share your beliefs.
I run into people who see value all the time. I also have taught many who at first reacted as strongly as any that I am completely wrong, yet now say that depression has become a beautiful and valuable part of their lives too.
I have not met Dr. Pies, but have read much of his work and find him fascinating. Without this one point of contention I would not have been exposed to his insights, many of which I find valuable and I have learned much from him. His work is brilliant and a major contribution to our understanding. I also find him to be very open-minded and interested in things that would lead me to believe that once he met a black swan he would embrace it as strongly as the notion that we don’t exist. I hope that we do meet some day and in some small way I help him to learn something new too.
What is also interesting is that I agree with Dr. Pies about the myths that he pointed out and his specific critiques about studies that Jonah Lehrer sited in his article. They are not at all what I am talking about when I say depression has value. There are at least two distinct kinds of value in depression (including deep clinical depression); the value of learning something from having been through it, and the value of being in it in the moment. I am interested in both and cherish each new example I find.
If you share your story of how you see value in depression it might help others to believe in the possibility too. Please share your thoughts in the comments. If you think that we black swans do not exist, please share your thoughts too. Exploring both sides can help us all to understand better.