Recently Robert M. Pirsig passed away at age 88 in his house in Maine. He became instantly famous when he published the philosophical novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” in 1974.
His only other novel “Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals” appeared later in 1991 and tells the partially autobiographical story of Pirsig’s trip aboard his sailboat, a cutter rigged Westsail 32 named Arête (from the Greek “moral virtue” or “excellence of any kind”) down the Hudson River from Lake Ontario to Florida via New York City. In “real life”, he eventually spent few years living aboard and crossing the Atlantic to England and Scandinavia before sailing back to the United States.
On the subject of sailing, Pirsig also published a less famous article for Esquire in 1977, titled “Cruising Blues and Their Cure”. This piece shine a light over an often less discussed topic: dealing with depression while sailing.
Dream vs. Reality
The romantic idea to sail toward the horizon, visit endless tropical islands and live a happy and worry-free life is confronted in Pirsig’s article with the reality of depression while sailing. In his opinion, people who save up for years dreaming to evade the harsh reality of their nine-to-five life in a consumeristic world fail to recognize that they are embarking on a trip that will bring them to face an even harder reality:
“For centuries, man suffered from the reality of an earth that was too dark or too hot or too cold for his comfort, and to escape this he invented complex systems of lighting, heating and air conditioning. Sailing rejects these and returns to the old realities of dark and heat and cold”
Something a little less attractive lies behind the fascination of a simple life in direct contact with Mother Nature. In a world where manual labor is ever increasingly turned to automatic systems and computers, people are losing basic manual skills. They soon realize once underway that cruising on a sailboat often translates to hard manual labor and problem solving with limited resources in exotic places. If they were looking for a vacation, a relaxing journey through the water, the everyday life of cruising would soon turn to a much less enjoyable activity:
“I don’t know what it was we thought we were looking for,” one wife said in a St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, harbor after she and her husband had decided to put their boat up for sale and go home. “But whatever it was, we certainly haven’t discovered it in sailing. It seemed that it was going to be such a dream life, but now, looking back on it, it just seems . . . oh, there have been beautiful times, of course, but mostly it’s just been hard work and misery. More than we would have had if we had stayed home.“
The elation mechanism
In Pirsig’s article there is a good description of how depression works. If you know of any friend or relative who suffers from severe depression this mechanism will sound familiar:
“There is no way to escape the mechanism of depression. It results from lack of a pleasant stimulus and is inevitable because the more pleasant stimuli you receive the less effective they become. If, for example, you receive an unexpected gift of money on Monday, you are elated. If the same gift is repeated on Tuesday, you are elated again but a little less so because it is a repetition of Monday’s experience. On Wednesday the elation drops a little lower and on Thursday and Friday a little lower still. By Saturday you are rather accustomed to the daily gift and take it for granted. Sunday, if there is no gift, you are suddenly depressed. Your level of expectation has adjusted upward during the week and now must adjust downward.”
But even if inescapable, depression could be faced by acceptance and exposure to it. Today people seek treatment even in the case intense, but normal, states of sadness. Depression can assume a severe clinical condition that could become unberable, but the blues are a common experience of human psyche.
Common sense tells us that we can’t be always happy and content and that swinging from one pole to the other is rather normal. Pirsig offers a cure to the “Cruising Blues”, or better said, some suggestions on what to do when the we are facing depression while sailing in paradise, or in every other life circumstance:
“It follows that the best way to defeat cruising depression is never to run from it. You must face into it, enter it when it comes, just be gloomy and enjoy the gloominess while it lasts. You can be sure that the same mechanism that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable. Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings. The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious plateau.”
If it was easy, everybody would be doing this
If you think that “real world” sucks, try cruising! Everybody seem to overcharge you because you own a boat, the more you sail the more repairs you have to make to your boat. The idea, fueled by the marine industry marketers, that technology and sailing gear can spare the cruisers from the hardest reality of sailing, is rather unrealistic. No matter how much gear and cubic footage and money you throw into a cruising dream (or to the bottom of the ocean), sailing is intrinsically uncomfortable, slow and obsolete, as well as prone to depression, as any other life choice. Sailing may not be enough to cure it.