A central feature of the sensation of depression is the feeling of hopelessness and despair, the feeling of no movement towards any goal, the feeling of the impossibility of reaching any goal. And the cause of depression is exactly that: absence of movement towards a goal.
When the neshama, the soul, senses that life is sliding by and no meaningful progress is taking place, no real development is occurring, there is a sense of stagnation, of despair. Happiness is the response of the neshama to its journey through life, the response of the neshama to its own development, its own growth and achievement. And depression is the response of the neshama to stagnation, to a situation of motionlessness and the absence of achievement.
Your neshama knows that it is here to grow, to develop. That journey is the essence of life. So when your neshama senses that the journey has come to a halt, that life is sliding by and you are going nowhere, you will become depressed.
The journey is life itself, every step on that journey is essential and priceless (you cannot get to your destination unless you walk the entire road that leads there), and therefore when time is passing but the journey is not progressing the neshama feels the cold hand of death. Depression is no less than a minor experience of death itself; that is exactly why it is so painful.
A depressed person may not know that this is the cause of the problem, but the soul knows. It is weeping, crying out to be allowed to move on, to move actively and urgently to its destination, and it is being obstructed. It is being held back from the most urgent and important task that there is, the task of building itself and its eternity in a race against time. If it fails to build itself now it will exist forever incomplete, deeply lacking. That would be disastrous, painful beyond description. So the response of the soul is a feeling of deep pain, of life and its opportunity lost. And it is possibly the deepest pain there is.
The problem of organic (or medical) states of depression is outside the scope of this discussion. Here we are referring to the depression experienced by people who have not yet discovered their unique path in life, those whose lives seem pointless because there is no real work being done, no meaningful exertion being expended in a positive direction.
What is the cure for depression? What should we tell someone who is depressed? What does such a person need to do?
The answer is: get moving! If the problem is lack of meaningful movement, get busy moving in the right direction. As soon as the soul feels that it is moving and on the correct course for its own development and fulfillment, it will forget all sadness; the depression will end. You cannot feel depressed when you know you are moving correctly towards a correct goal.
You may feel pain, you may feel agony; your face may show strain and your eyes may fill with tears, but if you are winning the battle and moving ahead you cannot be depressed.
Sometimes it is necessary to start the movement in an external area: getting the body moving may be necessary before the soul can be roused. Judaism teaches that the “external awakens the internal”; experiences and actions of the body will stimulate experience of the soul. It may be necessary to begin with physical exercise or occupation for the hands so that the outer can begin to drive inward and affect the soul. But the idea remains: cure stagnation with movement, passive wallowing in misery with activity.
You cannot approach someone who is depressed and say: “Be happy.” That will not work. Instead, take that person for a run, get them moving, doing. Best of all, get them busy doing something for someone else.
And the real cure will be felt when the soul gets moving, when the personality begins its unique journey towards its unique destination.
One who is laboring to achieve, to build, and is aware that the result is taking shape as it should cannot be depressed no matter how hard the work.
Adapted from The Thinking Jewish Teenager's Guide to Life by Akiva Tatz, Published by Targum Press