Ellie asked me to write about hopelessness. I accepted the challenge. It was a hard post to write, though oddly cathartic. Some people may think I’m crazy for writing this, but (hopefully) a few folks will nod in agreement. And maybe it helps someone out there.
My goal was to model the importance of talking about hard things instead of burying them. If I can talk about this, my daughters can too. Thanks for reading.
I’ve suffered from a low-level depression (dysthymia) for years. It ebbs and flows, but when it’s on, it’s like living in “energy-saver mode” – just existing through life in a low state where joy is not just elusive, but often nonexistent.
In the spring of 2016, I recall it coming to a head. Ellie had left for her residential program, my last startup had failed, and I was having a difficult time finding a project that mattered. I was untethered.
Being disconnected from people, purpose and structure made the darkness grow in intensity. No longer just low energy, now it was becoming a storm.
I recall being alone in the house one morning cooking eggs (should have been a sign – is there more of sad food?). I tried playing uplifting songs to get a bit of momentum.
Then the chorus for Smile by the Jayhawks came on…
You don’t really have a problem
(Chin up, chin up)
In your hour of despair
And smile when you’re down and out
(Find something inside you)
Something about it caused a spontaneous collapse of shame and paralysis. Probably not the response the Jayhawks had in mind when they wrote the song. I held onto the spoon like a totem, but couldn’t stand up. The eggs burned while I sat in a pathetic heap.
The weight of holding it all for so long finally caught up. The song reminded me of the “easy solution” responses people have to depression: don’t be a victim, see the positive, be grateful, take a walk. All of which makes me feel worse for suffering in the first place.
Trust me, I’m as proactive as anyone I know. If wearing gravity boots while learning Shakespeare sonnets and eating grub worms would help, I’d be all over it.
Escape from depression is not easy…in the least.
I grew up thinking depression was a weakness and not talked about. Most people still feel afraid to talk about the D Word. Thankfully we are improving as a society, but the increased alienation through technology is making the core problem much worse.
The feelings may be chemical in nature (I won’t go there in this post), but frequently our “fading into oblivion” stems from how we see the world:
- We have been hurt and protect ourselves by pushing people away (can’t escape our wounding)
- We see no opportunity to be creative
- We feel trapped by circumstance
- We feel alienated
- We tried and failed
- We are vicious with ourselves
- We are stuck a dark narrative
- We don’t see a path forward
It’s as if nothing works, and nothing feels good anymore, so why try? Not only is there no light at the end of the tunnel, it’s closing in, and we have no desire to escape.
What I’ve learned, however, is this:
A darkened soul is a calling towards growth.
As hard as it is to accept while in depression’s throes, our journey to the ugly part of our psyche is integral to a fully-lived life.
Despite the doubt and despair, the enlightened journey is to not run from the demons or cower in their presence, but to “invite Mara in for tea” as the Buddhists say. (Mara was the demon in Buddhism who attempts to seduce and distract Buddha from enlightenment.)
In Theodore Roethke’s brilliant poem, “In a Dark Time” he describes the descent into hopelessness and its potential for redemption:
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
The awareness that depression is a part of a larger spiritual journey allows us to accept that we are not only our bruised ego or sadness, but rather part of the tapestry of existence in all its forms.
When that’s the case, depression no longer appears as a demon or murderer chasing us through the labyrinth of our soul, but a hurt child needing care and attention.
And that’s when the possibility for hope, however small, is able to come through. Cue Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Allie Brosh in Hyperbole and a Half unexpectedly finds hope and humor in a piece of corn under the fridge after months of severe depression:
“I don’t claim to know why this happened, but when I saw the piece of corn, something snapped. And then that thing twisted through a few permutations of logic that I don’t understand, and produced the most confusing bout of uncontrollable, debilitating laughter that I have ever experienced….My brain had apparently been storing every unfelt scrap of happiness from the last nineteen months, and it had impulsively decided to unleash all of it at once in what would appear to be an act of vengeance.”
We may not even see it coming, but if we are open to even the tiniest bit of hope, we can latch on like a rock climber’s finger-hold. From there, we take the next little step, and the next.
What does that mean? Use that moment to call a friend, make an unbreakable commitment, hike, help someone else. Just move.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened. summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
The power of art is that it can make us aware of this shared journey: we are not alone, and the darkness is not to be feared or used as a weapon against our soul, but a painful beckoning towards change and enlightenment.
For me, years of suffering ultimately created movement. I was trying to go through a door that no longer fit me, like a despondent Winnie the Pooh. I needed that egg-burning crisis moment to propel me toward a more expansive door where soul can lead the way, not pain.
The darkness still comes and goes, but my navigation skills are strong.
If the storm of hopelessness or depression comes over you, my deep desire is that you don’t cower in the corner but bravely invite your demons in for tea, and in doing so, find small pockets of light and hope in what it means to be human. From there you can take tiny achievable steps towards awakening, and help others through your new awareness.
This may be one of the hardest things you’ll do, but it will be living fully.