Money and depression, a dynamic duo

Depression—that condition which saps the spirit, clouds the thoughts, and drains motivation from the limbs—has a way of amplifying the worst in everything, including our relationship with money. One of the advantages of an animist worldview is being able to look at these spirits, how they relate to you, and how they relate to each other. While the way they manifest in the world is different, money and depression are both spirits that been part of human lives since before the dawn of written language.

One quality that the spirits of depression and money have in common is a silencing effect: anyone experiencing depression doesn’t want to talk about it, and very few people are comfortable talking about their personal relationship with money, either. In both cases, this reluctance is reinforced by the behavior of our fellow humans. There is a perception of stigma around mental health issues, an idea that any condition of this type makes one weak or a burden or undesirable. Our societal pressure around money is incredibly strong: many of us won’t discuss our pay with coworkers, despite this being protected by law in the United States. The nature of these two spirits can amplify their presence in a person’s life. Worries about money can easily be a contributing or triggering event for an episode of depression, and during depression how we manage money can be distorted: we might spend as a way to feel better, and then avoid even looking at the bills that have to be paid because the very thought of those consequences is too much to bear.

The spirit infusing money is older than the minting of coins and the keeping of accounts. This is a spirit that feeds on the movement of energy, and has evolved to facilitate that exchange by providing short-term rewards to our meaty brains. Likewise, it seems clear from the earliest writings about depression that this condition was nothing novel even in those ancient days. It could well be that this spirit was protective of those who were injured or ill, altering behavior to promote healing and minimize risk to the tribe.

We are beings driven by chemical reactions. Our brains direct the manufacture of chemicals to alter our behavior based on circumstances, such as adrenaline. We also encounter chemicals in our environment, and ingest them regularly, whether we are aware of this or not. Our brains do not distinguish between chemicals created in the body and introduced from outside it; particular compounds affect our behavior in predictable ways, and we consistently rationalize the results. Spirits have the ability to trigger the manufacture of chemicals in our bodies, modifying our behavior. A sufficiently trained practitioner can intentionally trigger the release of particular hormones or other compounds within oneself. A human baby, a kitty cat, a charging bear, or a sudden sound like a gunshot can do the same. Is there any reason to believe that a spirit with fewer tangible dimensions is less able to affect the human brain?

Ideally, the motivations spirits have align with our interests. That may well have been true about depression once upon a time, but it’s hard to see vestiges of those benefits in modern society. As for money, it seems to me that releasing endorphins when we spend some could have some advantage, but now that money is used as a proxy for most other human interactions, it’s hard to imagine life without it. That makes it an incredibly dangerous spirit with tremendous power; power we crave because we see other humans wielding it.

The focus on accumulating money, or worry over not having enough, generates stress. It’s when we reach our personal stress threshold that we are most vulnerable to depression. On the flip side, during a period of depression any thoughts about money can be used to force us to withdraw into that darkness: whether you’re struggling to save your first hundred or earn your first billion, it may not feel like enough to prove that you are a worthwhile person. Whether you’re snagging a cute little dress through a buy-now-pay-later deal or taking a few of your pals into orbit in your own rocket, that chemical burst of happiness is never permanent. Money does not replace self-worth, and trying to use it that way always results in a crash. When we crash, the black dog of depression is always ready to curl up and keep us home and alone in that misery.

Money is not evil, but it is misunderstood. Humans think we invented money, and as a result that we control its behavior. Focusing energy through money allows us to bring stupendous change to the world, creating shortcuts around the barriers to human cooperation and achievement. Assuming that money is the key to happiness will instead result in bringing stupendous changes to ourselves, none of them good. In Empty Cauldrons I compare depression to poison ivy; read the book if you want to understand my reasons. Money can also be compared to poison ivy. I do not handle poison ivy carelessly, and I aim to be conscious of where it grows on my property. The same is true of money: I try never to handle it thoughtlessly, and always to be clear on how much I have, how much is coming in, and how much is going out. If you’re thinking that this is a poor analogy, because poison ivy can be eliminated from my life much more easily than money, think again: many birds eat poison ivy, and even depend on its berries during the winter. To poison the earth against this plant is to turn my back on my nature-loving ways. I can’t quit poison ivy without contributing even more to the destruction of the earth. I can’t quit money any more easily.

This post is not a love letter to money, but recall that depression amplifies the negative and minimizes the positive, and that money accelerates and amplifies any human endeavor. These two spirits feed off each other, it’s true, but money is a spirit that can and has been used to bring education, and empowerment, and peace when we have the will it work with it in that way. Each of these spirits has something to teach us, but it’s best to deal with them separately or they can quickly overwhelm us.

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