Words shape the way we see the world around us. We are a social animal that relies on discussion and interpretation to understand what we see, figuring things out in a kind of committee. Our thoughts are often in language, a Jungian dialogue between our outer and inner selves. There is a rich meaning beyond the simple names that make up our lives like “house” or “car” or “spaghettios”. When events overtake us we need words that describe them such as “Depression” – the alternative is anxiety. Yet choosing the right word with the right color is tricky.
This isn’t totally rational, of course. As a Taoist, I find myself saying in inappropriate places the opening of the Tao Te Ching:
Tao ke tao, feichang tao;
Ming ke ming, feichang ming.
The way that is known is not the true way,
The name that it is known by is not its true name.
In other words, words aren’t as important in the grand scheme of things as we’d like to think. That is definitely true over the spiritual long haul, but in the short run we are comforted by naming things. It’s one of the first things Adam did when he was granted “dominion” over Eden – and it all went downhill from there.
We might see on the news that Scientists, ideally in white lab coats, have named a disorder or disease. “The carefree clubbing and partying seen among today’s youth is how they release nervous tension that clouds their future. It’s being referred to as Audenism, for the Age of Anxiety that we now live in.” I can wish the names were that literate, can’t I? What’s important is that the process of naming makes it sound as though it’s a phenom, a thing in and of itself. We can love the parties or hate the music or warn of the dangers of whatever the latest fad drug is, but what matters is that it has a label. We can describe it and we can react to it.
These names aren’t always great. The name “9/11” has a rich meaning beyond a few numbers and a slash, and we just haven’t come up with a better handle. It stuck. That particular name had the advantage of being very new, so it could be filled with the shock and horror we needed it to have. Very new events require very new words. The need for that term, right away, left little time to come up with something better. It’ll have to do, and does nicely because it has a social context that gives it a rich meaning.
Right now, I tell people we are in a “Depression”. I tell them this because I know that until we get into our heads what we have, we’re not gonna be able to do anything about it. The problem, of course, is that “Depression” is a word that already has its own meaning apart from our current problem. The dictionary definition is not the issue here, since there are many very different literal definitions; I use the word to describe a dramatic stoppage in the credit and money system, which is to say a particular kind of economic downturn. The real problem for most people are the images of breadlines and just a few corny old tunes in their heads like, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” Dictionary definitions have nothing on a solid image when it comes to shaping the language; in modern English, Merriam-Webster responds to the usage and not the other way ‘round.
But there is another definition of “Depression”. Nikolai Kondratiev, working in the Soviet Union in 1925, proposed that economic cycles take the form of very long waves running 50-54 years. He was proposing new economic theories to help run a modern Soviet state, but this work suggested capitalism would always recover. Kondratiev (sometimes spelled Kondratieff) was executed in 1938 as a reactionary in the Great Purges.
This definition of “Depression” places it in a context of history and the natural cycles of human activity. While it’s been 75 years since the last one, it’s worth noting that the previous Depression was in 1893, meaning two cycles in 118 years or 59 years each. Throw in the Panic of 1857 as the last one, and we had 3 cycles in 151 years or about 50 years each. Kondratiev was just about right, on average, and time didn’t stop for the fabulous new modern economy. What’s happening now is simply part of the cycle of things.
None of this erases the image most people have when we hear the word “Depression”, however. There was a time when I was furious that President Obama could make a speech on the economy without using the word “Depression”; I wanted him to clarify what is going on and force people to understand it. Instead, Obama steered a careful course between panic and complacency, stressing the urgency without using the word that would make everyone freak out. He was right, and I was clearly wrong – we’re not ready for the scary word “Depression”, at least not from our leader. But we still have to rely on people like me to sneak it in to our dialogue, both inside and outside our heads.
Unfortunately, that word represents something that isn’t exactly right in most people’s heads. In the long run, the Tao Te Ching is right – the words are only a shorthand for what the thing is itself, and the meanings we give words are often just wrong enough to make them misleading. Yet in our daily lives, they mean a lot to us because the describe our world.
We are in a Depression, but that doesn’t mean it will be as bad as the last one. Accepting that word is not a death sentence – it has the potential to be very liberating.