On Despair and Depression

Or, "why we are compelled to give up despite knowing the answer"

Note: this post was derived from a series of rambling PMs, so it might be incoherent in some parts; just know that the whole point of this is to try to figure out why I'm so goddamn depressed and dejected.
This post is, and never will be, "completed", and neither will my daily struggles be. I apologize in advance for the poor and unstructured writing.

I think for all of us, depression stems from the perceived lack of any hope in the future, which leads to the collapse of the whole risk vs. reward tradeoff that keeps us living, thus causing  the “what’s the point might as well die now instead of suffering through the pains of daily life” symptom known as depression.

For some people, future REALLY is just that fucking bleak, the game IS rigged against them, the tradeoffs (at least for the game they’re playing) REALLY aren’t worth it. But what about me? I should be thankful about, well, everything - I have a (relatively) good paying job, I can work in the safety and comfort of my own home, and yeah, some people at work are annoying as fuck, but surely they can’t be nearly as bad as what retail workers face, not even close.

So why do I perceive my own fate to be not worth the tradeoffs? I think one part is that I just face a lot of shit (a whole mountain of mental disabilities like ADD, autism, mood & personality disorders, shit health, being trans, being immigrant with no "stable" visa, being from a country with mandatory conscription for “males” where I’d be dragged into should I return, parents still have no home at the age of 50 so it’s not like I can just move in with them, etc), so the payoff just naturally has to be higher for it to be “worth it”.

Fine, but I even have my own projects in the pipeline that would lead to EXTREMELY huge payoffs (not just financially, but also in terms of my levels of satisfaction of the world, as I would be reshaping it in my image) should they work out, and even if they don’t, I should be relatively cruising with a relatively stable career, no matter in which country I work, and all of the problems outlined above should be fixable given enough time and resources - there are known ways to do this! So why do I feel so hopeless about the future?

The only thing I can think of is that my brain is overweighing the short-term risks (my visa runs out next year should I not be selected, my place within this specific team in this company is shaky, etc) but drastically downplaying the short-term rewards (I’m likely to be promoted to a senior software engineer within the next 1-2 years, my father recently got the EB-2 visa so I will soon have basically zero burden from my family on my shoulders, I will soon not have to pay for my sister’s insanely overpriced tuition, etc) but even then, as I’m writing this I see that the “positives” are really more like "things might not get worse" rather than "this is something positive in my life!"

There is no carrot, only the lack of "being beaten by a stick".

I think this type of seemingly bleak future (absolutely hopeless, seemingly no way out no matter what you do) is why people willingly resort to religion (we're not talking about the people who simply grew up into a religion because that's what their parents taught them) - what is there to do other than pray when all your struggles are seemingly for naught? When you are so powerless against the powers that be, against the forces at play, what to do other than simply hope for things to "magically" be better, to wish for an unknown saviour (which you could not have possibly accounted for because it simply doesn't play by the rules us mere mortals are subject to) to suddenly make things better?

It is true that what we CAN account and plan for is limited; after all, there is the known unknown (things we KNOW we can't control, but at least we're aware of it) and there is the unknown unknown (things we don't even KNOW we should be aware of it); and it is the unknown unknown that we attribute "magic" and "miracles" and other forms of the supernatural to.

However, I think that I am so hopeless because I only choose to account for the known unknowns. True, the "correct" answer when you face abject despair is to try your best anyway because there are inevitably some unknown unknowns you don't even know about at play that might suddenly make things better. But that unknown unknown might suddenly make things worse, and you can't even SEE it coming. So because of the unreliable nature of it, I choose not to rely on it just so I can make myself feel better.

Then, given only what I can account for, the situation IS seemingly hopeless, leading to depression and leading to "giving up". It's ironic - that I know that the "answer" is to "try till the bitter fucking end", but given what I know, the hurdles are seemingly insurmountable, the risks (e.g. the visa might get rejected next year, I might even be fired from the company before I even get to go through the full H-1B application process) are seemingly completely unaccountable.

Now, to solve this mess (in particular, the problem we're trying to solve is how to not be dejected by a problem you seemingly cannot solve, not how to get out of whatever predicament you're put in - that's your job). I know that one (easy) way out of this that I know of is to simply believe in the supernatural, whether it be superstition or religion. But due to reasons I've outlined above, that is a non-option for me.

Another option would be to downplay the severity of the risks and the personal trouble by recognizing that, in the end, I'm just some worm food, a pile of living dirt that will go back to regular dirt on the ground within the century. True, in the grand scheme of things, whether I get the visa or not will not matter, whether I "succeed" in life will not matter. But that is nihilism, and I refuse to give into it - at least for now.

The final option that I see is to accept the unknown unknown only for the outcome while not accounting for it in the process (other than giving leeway, such as allowing for ±x% variation from the plan). Basically, the aforementioned distress comes from seemingly not being able to do something about the current situation. However, we despair not because there's nothing we can do about it, but because there's nothing we can do about reaching the failure scenario, something we're so afraid of.

Think of it like this: say someone will give you $10 if you manage to toss a coin and have it land heads 100 times in a row. Statistically, it's essentially impossible, and there's really nothing you can do about it. But you don't despair because even though you will most likely fail, it's not the end of the world.

Now say someone will make your debt go away if you manage to land heads 100 times in a row. And you'd really like to be free from your debt. You toss and toss, so far it's landed heads 5 times in a row. But 100? That's not possible. There's nothing you could do about it, and if you fail, you will fall back into your debt. You despair, because you're so afraid of the failure case, despite knowing that the best you can do is to just keep tossing it until you either succeed or it lands tail.

The goal with the final option is to absolve yourself from the certainty of the failure case. When you remove the "if you fail, it's the end of the world" element from these seemingly impossible challenges we face, all we're left is... simply challenges to overcome, ones that we know the solution (or rather, the best approach) to.

Yes, your loan is going to continue haunting you if you land tail, but you don't know what's going to happen to it. You don't know whether your career track might get better and let you pay off the loan sooner than expected; whether you're suddenly going to "hit gold" with anything you might or might not be doing. You don't know for sure.

While it is the nature of our risk management (after all, extrapolating possible future outcomes and judging risk based on that is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence), we have to keep in mind that it is, after all, a prediction; yet we tend to see these (especially the negative ones) as inviolable truths, and perhaps if we accept it "as-is" (a range of uncertain possibilities, not a single projected scenario), we might be able to better focus on the process and not be compelled to give up.

Of course, even the final option is much easier said than done - it is a bitter fucking pill to swallow. But it is an option, something I haven't tried yet. And I have a feeling that perhaps it might be the more "accurate" representation of reality, which would lead to better risk management. Who knows.