“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.”
So did Vincent van Gogh write in a letter to his brother on July 21st, 1882, and ever since I read this letter, parts of it were branded in my mind that I recall and recite them every once in a while and feel the bitterness of Vincent’s words pierce my heart.
Before I go on, please give me a 10-minute break from the incessant positivity cheerleading; it’s a big, passive-aggressive bully. Pain is not shameful, tears are not a disgrace and anger does not constitute the absence of gratitude. No emotion should be dismissed.
You must have at least once in your life believed you were a nonentity—if not, you may be a psychopathic narcissist; check with your therapist. However, some of us experience recurring feelings of utter worthlessness.
“Gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression,” concluded James T. Webb, who has been recognized as one of the most influential psychologists in the United States on gifted education.
“Although an episode of existential depression may be precipitated in anyone by a major loss or the threat of a loss which highlights the transient nature of life, persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to experience existential depression spontaneously,” he added.
Psychologist Hilary Beech believes there are several reasons behind this. She suggests that gifted individuals are more sensitive and tend to react more strongly to their intense feelings, and they get greatly affected by injustice. “They feel the wrongs of the world more deeply and feel a strong desire to right these,” she wrote.
Gifted people are also usually perfectionists, according to Beech, and thus “they get frustrated in their struggle to reconcile imperfect systems and behaviors in the world with the ideals they can imagine.”
She added: “They can feel lonely due to feeling different and alienated as they constantly tussle with existential questions.”
Painful life events, like the death of a loved one, losing a job or being cheated on, are very likely to cause anyone existential depression, but gifted people experience it periodically.
Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom believes there are four primary causes of this type of depression: death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. These ultimate concerns, according to Yalom, are fundamental concepts that sufferers will almost inevitably confront.
However, going through an existential crisis and being haunted by questions like “why was I born?”, “what am I in this world?” and “where do I fit in?” as well as enduring the bitter feeling of emptiness and worthlessness have a flipside—a positive one. It can drive a person to explore the meaning of their life and, eventually, find it.
Vincent made a promise in that very letter: “All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love malgré tout, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.”
He embarked on becoming an artist. He painted the most extraordinary works of art almost effortlessly. He poured his aspirations, his senses and his wounds into his paintings, and later on became the great, controversial Vincent Van Gogh.
Until today, people write about him, make movies about his misfortunes, stare in disbelief at the magnificence of his brushwork, discuss his mental state and read his heartwarming letters.
Maybe we all need to feel like a nonentity in order to unlock our full potential—or at least a large part of it.