Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi struggled with depression, which conceivably led them to advocate non-violent resistance.
In all likelihood, few people would suspect that two leaders who inspired – and continue to inspire – hope in millions of people were depressive characters. The author, Ghaemi, believes Mahatma Gandhi was a dysthymic personality, while Martin Luther King Jr. experienced at least three episodes of severe depression. Both of these leaders initially suffered periods of depression in childhood, which set a trend into adulthood. As it happens, both King and Gandhi attempted suicide at young ages.
When Gandhi was a teenager, he deliberately ate some poisonous seeds with a friend. His rationale was that he wasn’t able to care properly for his elderly father. He felt guilty.
As for King, he twice jumped out of a window when he was 12. King’s friend, the psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, explained this behavior as merely an impulsive reaction to the death of King’s grandmother. However, the author is firmly of the belief that these were real suicide attempts.
The author sees similar behavior patterns in these two leaders’ later years. Apparently, depression was either triggered or exacerbated by the pressure in their lives. After all, both led rights movements that were faced with huge counter-reactions. When you think about it, then, these leaders probably felt great responsibility for their followers and were frustrated that obstacles seemed unsurpassable.
Empathy can be observed as a neurological phenomenon – for example, when we see another person being abused, our brains react as though we were the ones on the receiving end of the abuse. It’s known as the mirror neuron system and has been seen in experiments on macaques.
As we saw in the last blink, depression strengthens empathy. A study of college students showed that depression lets people feel what others feel more intensely, even when they’re not in a depressive episode.
The author sees a link with King and Gandhi’s politics here, interpreting their politics as a form of “radical empathy.” In other words, both leaders advocated for love and understanding; opponents were not to be hated.
The connection is clear for the author. These two leaders set about resolving conflict through non-violent means, but it was an approach that drew upon non-normative world views shaped by mental illness.