Our common definition of poverty is when people do not meet their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, that’s when we start calling them poor. An estimated 896 million people or 12.7 of the world’s population fall under that definition, according to the World Bank. We have cut the poverty rate into half between 1990 and 2015. That’s something we should celebrate, something that should encourage us to strengthen our fight against global poverty.
But there is another form of poverty that we rarely talk about. There is no statistics that could tell how prevalent it is, but what I think is that it affects many of us.
Our Poverty of Words
In Indonesia, when one person declares that he’s depressed, it is easy for us to dismiss their state as something of less importance. We think that modern words like galau or baper is the best word to describe what they’re going through.
Galau, by definition, means kacau tidak keruan (pikiran). Many times, I have been told to have gone through kegalauan. Galau, because I don’t look the positive things in life. Galau, because I dwell on painful memories. Galau, because I refuse to move on.
I am impressed by how easy for many people to diagnose what I’m feeling, and I wonder what body of knowledge has turned them into experts in giving unsolicited advice to people suffering from kegalauan.
But of course, as many of you who have experienced kegalauan, galau is not as easy as imagined. In societies where our priority is to fulfil our material needs, there are things that are placed at the sidelines, such as depression, a condition often equated to galau.
My Struggle With Depression
I have been sporadically battling with depression since 2008, the beginning my tumultuous journey with life. Between that that year and 2015, I lost a college friend and a mentor, a colleague, an aunt, and encountered hundreds of families grieving for their loved ones washed away by natural calamities in Southern Philippines. The events happened at short intervals, just right after I thought I have recovered from each of them. In 2012, a month after I got the news that I was awarded a scholarship for a postgraduate study, I was informed by my employer that I have been accused of plagiarising a news report, an act that I denied but somehow people like spreading rumours that plagiarism became an inside joke among people I used to consider as friends. They weren’t.
Sure, I know that while the glass is half-empty, it is also half-full. I tried to look at the positive things of every problem, but depression is a selfish companion that thinks only for himself. There would be mornings where mustering the will to get up is a challenging task. Meeting people was a difficult task. You did not want to meet and talk with people. Your subconscious self refuses to talk. You lose vigour. You wish there wouldn’t be tomorrow so there’s no need to wake up next day.
In developing countries, treating depression does not have the same footing with treating common illnesses. It is understandable. After all, I do not expect much for people to see doctors when they feel they’re suffering from depression (as it may be costly). But, what’s not acceptable is when we try to silence depression, as if it weren’t there.
Depression is “the secret we share,” says American writer Andrew Solomon in his TED Talk. The thing keeping secrets is that it makes understanding even more difficult. Solomon discussed in his speech that people tend to confuse depression, grief, and sadness.
“Grief is explicitly reactive. If you have a loss and you feel incredibly unhappy, and then, six months later, you are deeply sad, but you’re functioning a little better, it’s probably grief, and it will probably ultimately resolve itself in some measure. If you experience a catastrophic loss, and you feel terrible, and six months later you can barely function at all, then it’s probably a depression that was triggered by the catastrophic circumstances.” — Andrew Solomon
Solomon went on to expound on the current state of depression treatment in the world, which he described as appalling. “They’re not very effective. They’re extremely costly. They come with innumerable side effects. They’re a disaster.”
He did not mean that people suffering from depression should not go see a specialist. “But I am so grateful that I live now and not 50 years ago, when there would have been almost nothing to be done.”
Such is true, and what we can also do is to treat depression by exploring such state through language.
‘Poverty’ and Poetry
In 2002, a research published for National Poetry Day said that England’s National Health Service could save nearly £200,000 a year using poems to help people with depression. The report based on 196 people with psychological problems found that 75% found writing poems as an emotional release. Two thirds found reading or listening to poetry helped them be able to relax and feel calm.
Historically, artists have conveyed depression through metaphors. Emily Dickson described it like “a Funeral, in my Brain.” Bei Dao saw everything as “an endless beginning” and hope “hedged with doubt.”
But fast forward to the present, depression is simplified into galau.
Unlike economic poverty which is an important discourse globally, we do not talk about poverty of words. We might have different international lending institutions like the World Bank, but we do not have Word Bank, a multi-lateral organisation that aims to battle our word famine. That doesn’t mean, however, there is nothing we can do.
In the summer of 2014, I found myself applying for a literary fellowship, where I met some of the Philippines award-winning writers who gave me a deeper understanding of poetry.
For one week, we would listen to lectures, and in the afternoon, the works we submitted before the workshop would be critiqued by these esteemed writers.
The fellows came from different backgrounds. But what was strikingly common was that all of us were facing battles. We were needing a weapon, so when we come back to our normal lives, would have the ability to navigate the complexities of life.
The task of poetry, according to Filipino poet Mikael Co, is to never run out of words. Its task is to let those who battle the spectre of despair become victorious, in an age where people suffering deep inside continue to find the words that best describe their state of mind.
If some of you happen to be in the same predicament as mine, I invite you to enter the world of poetry, and discover what creative language can do for you, in dire situations where you think there is no more reason for you to live.
Because there is. And to support what I believe, let me leave you a poetry that I continue to read, especially when depression creeps.
Also All (in answer to Bei Dao’s “All”)
Not all trees are felled by storms.
Not every seed finds barren soil.
Not all the wings of dream are broken,
nor is all affection doomed
to wither in a desolate heart.
No, not all is as you say.
Not all flames consume themselves,
shedding no ling on other lives.
Not all starts announce the night
and never dawn. Not every song
will drift past every ear and heart.
No, not all is as you say.
Not every cry for help is silenced,
nor every loss beyond recall.
Not every chasm spells disaster.
Not only the weak will be brought to their knees,
nor every soul be trodden under.
It won’t all end in tears and blood.
Today is heavy with tomorrow—
the future was planted yesterday.
Hope is a burden all of us shoulder
though we might stumble under the load.
Photo courtesy of János Csongor Kerekes