Bear: A Soulful Illustrated Meditation on Life with and Liberation from Depression
By Maria Popova
Those of us who have lived with depression know the way it blindfolds us to beauty, the way it muffles the song of life, until we are left in the solitary confinement of our own somber ruminations, all the world a blank. It might feel like the visitation of some monster, but it is not something that happens upon us from the outside — it is our own undulating neurochemistry, it is the parts of ourselves we have not yet befriended, integrated, understood. “The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” William Styron wrote in his timeless account of depression. The pain can feel interminable. It is a lifeline to remember that it is not — that there is an other side, that the blindfold and the muffler can come off just like they came on.
That is what Swedish-born, London-based printmaker and graphic artist Staffan Gnosspelius explores with great subtlety and soulfulness in Bear (public library) — a wordless picture-book for grownups about life with and liberation from depression.
We meet a bear with a body bent in the shape of sorrow and a cone on its head — a cone that won’t come off, only plunging the bear deeper into despair with each failed attempt.
One day, a white rabbit comes along and tries to help the bear take the cone off, but the small creature is powerless to remove it by force — the cone remains, and through it the bear growls the terrifying growl of menacing despair, terrifying his new friend.
So blinded to the reality of the wilderness, the bear comes to perceive the branches of the trees as the tentacles of some monstrous octopus and the blades of the grass as an assault of sharp swords.
Still, the rabbit persists, embracing the bear’s large cone-bowed body and simply being near, bearing witness to the suffering — that best aid for a friend in sorrow.
Watching its friend struggle, the rabbit begins gently singing to the bear.
Everywhere bear and cone go, rabbit and song go.
But when the bear tries to sing back through the cone, only those terrifying growls come out.
And so they continue — the sorrowing bear, the singing rabbit — until one day a trap in the forest snaps shut on the bear’s foot.
It is then, as pain mounts onto pain and becomes unbearable, that something breaks open in the bear and it sings out for help.
Across the forest, the rabbit hears the faint song and rushes over to release its friend.
Set free, the bear thanks the singing rabbit and timidly begins singing back, until a storm of song fills the forest — that great operatic scream of catalytic release, primal and numinous.
So it is that the song of life begins singing itself through the bear and the cone comes gently off — a tender reminder that no one can save anyone, not even with love; that we only ever save ourselves when we are ready: but love is what readies us to be our own savior.
Complement Bear with Bloom — a touching animated short film about depression and what it takes to recover the light of being — and The Rabbit Box — a wondrous vintage picture-book for grownups about the mystery of life — then revisit some of humanity’s most beloved writers on the mightiest antidote to depression.
Published February 22, 2023