Monday, February 13, 2012

From Depression Towards the Great Unknown

(Have you taken the Monday Challenge? If not, check it out. Every week presents a new challenge. Something different. Okay, onto this week’s Monday Encouragement.)


As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been jealous of people who always seemed to be on the move. People taking trips and taking chances to go after life. People with the nerve and audacity to be bold in their life choices. For as much as I’ve pursued the dream of writing, I’ve always been hesitant when it comes to things like exploring a new city or travelling somewhere new. As I’ve worked my way through my thirties, it’s become even tougher to break through that mindset. I don’t imagine it will ever be easy.

Part of that is my writer’s dream which has, for a long time, deposited me squarely in the category of starving artist. But a large part of it lies in my mental health struggles. I’ve battled depression since my early twenties, and there remain days when basic functioning is about all I can do, when stepping outside my routine or myself is a nearly insurmountable task. This past week, Canada celebrated Mental Illness Awareness Week. A number of people came forward to talk about their struggles, including perhaps Canada’s greatest athlete, Clara Hughes. (Medalist in both summer and winter Olympics) 

Her testimony, along with others, was well received by the public. For me, as one of the millions who struggle with mental health issues, it was a sign of our growing understanding as a society that some things (most things?) aren’t simple. That this notion we should just “pick ourselves up” or “stop focusing on the bad” simply isn’t the answer. Life is more complicated than that. And yet, we still hear, particularly from the idiots binary thinkers in many churches and mosques that mental health issues are merely the symptom of spiritual damage. It isn’t true, but it offers people a chance to fit everything into a simplistic worldview. These are not, generally speaking, horrible humans. They are often kind and sincere. The problem lies with the importance they place on the necessity of their worldview’s perfection.

Certain worldviews demand that they be correct in every way to function at all. We see this primarily in fundamentalist ideals, not just here in the West, but everywhere, be it Communist China or certain Islamic countries or portions of North America. We see these countries and populations go through great pains to control information, to provide all the answers to people about everything. People who suffer from mental health issues do not fit into these controlled people groups because there’s no place for them in this type of absolute worldview. In fact, most minority groups don’t fit into these power structures. Gays, women, minority races, people of differing faiths, the handicapped, none of them fit. However, having once shared this rigid worldview, I understand why they work so hard to control information and seem so closed. They are terrified that they will fall off the “belief cliff.” That cliff is steep, believe me, because once you leave behind a worldview that held every answer to every question, there is nothing to break your fall but the stones below. Sounds pretty terrifying, doesn’t it?

It is. I went through it, and in some ways, I’m not sure that I’ve ever fully recovered. Having everything explained simply, even when it was clearly wrong, made the world seem smaller and less frightening. I knew who God loved and why I was here and why we had pain in the world and why I was special and why certain cultures were evil. I understood all the spiritual intricacies, the “why’s” and “how’s”, as if I’d been given a secret guide map to the universe. In some ways, it was like being eight-years-old again. People were easy to define as good or evil. I didn’t have to worry about nuance. I didn’t have to deal with complexity. And most importantly, I didn’t have to deal with the Unknown.

And of all the things we’ll face in our life, perhaps the most terrifying, and the most human, is the Unknown. The understanding that we don’t know what we’ll be facing a year from now or what will happen when we die. We don’t know what our job situation will be like or what will happen with our kids or if we’ll ever have kids. We don’t know if we’ll be healthy or where our friends will be or if we’ll find ourselves in a loving relationship.

***

The desert is an overused metaphor, but it fits here. And it isn’t simply those who have fallen off the “Belief Cliff” who face the desert. At some point in our lives, each one of us will find ourselves looking towards the horizon and find nothing there but the shifting sand. We’ll be asked to walk across it anyway.

If you’re like me, and you’re facing the desert for the first time, you scurry back to your books and theories and turn on the hockey game. Nothing like the drone of announcers and the whir of skates and pucks to get your mind off such horrible things. Your next step is to wrap yourself in religion and religious indignation, spew great volumes of words on how easily we can “know God” and how our confusion can be easily addressed by following these few, simple principles. But somewhere in the back of your mind, that picture looms. You remember watching the sand shift in the breeze, the heat of the sun on your face, and the way the horizon shimmered as if you’d disturbed something sacred. Mostly you remember the vastness of it all, as if every bit of emptiness you’d ever felt had been poured out to create this space where the world had swallowed everyone else and left you alone. Out there, your theories and books and distractions didn’t work. Out there, you learned two things: the burning sand and the fallibility of your beliefs.

***

So much is available for us today to know. Encyclopedias of knowledge stored on pieces of metal the size of a thumbnail. We can ask seemingly any question and get an answer in seconds. So much knowledge, and yet, we still know so little. And it’s this gap, this understanding that we will never have all the answers, or worse, that our answers are all wrong, where find the essence of humanity. Where we stand on the edge of the desert and realize that though ages have passed, the desert itself remains untouched, and that we all must face it at one time or another.

We can avoid it, or attempt to, by distracting ourselves with busy work and family stuff and a noisy life. We can ignore the memory of the sand burning under our feet and the questions that keep us awake at night. That’s our choice too. We can claim that such business is “melodramatic” or “artsy nonsense” or “just more excuses” not to be happy with what we have. As always, the simple answer remains tempting. But then, there’s a reason why war and hatred permeate our species. Why people of certain races or religions or gender or sexuality are persecuted and killed.

Unfortunately, it’s our love for the simple answer that drives us further away from our humanity. From the character that we hope to develop and the person we dream of becoming. It’s the simple answer that drives wedges between dissimilar people groups. That sees the world as a pre-ordered hierarchy and not a living sanctuary. And it’s the simple answer that denies us the terrifying but sacred ordeal of witnessing something much greater than ourselves.

The desert brings more questions than answers, but the implications of humility are so immense that they inevitably lead us on a new journey. They take us on a path away from knowledge and surety and move us towards wisdom and empathy. As fearful as it sounds, there’s something wonderful in the change, something wonderful in the comfort of embracing our humanity, of accepting our struggles and questions and knowing that we are not supposed to have all the answers. That we’ll never have all the answers. That whatever our lives are to become, they will never be perfect, and that’s okay, too.

I still struggle with depression. I imagine that I always will. Some days will inevitably be more difficult than others, and on those days I’ll ask for grace from my family and friends and feel the weight of discouragement cover me like a lead jacket. This matters because too often I read religious books or self-help books that promise a secret that will take away all your questions and pain. We get caught up in these ideas, and then come crashing down again when they don’t work, and when the pain remains.

The struggle of being human will always be there, I think, because it is the very thing that defines us. The question, then, is what to do. What do we do when we face the Desert? What do we do when life weights us down? What do we do when our dreams seem to have passed us by?

So many questions, and yet the answer, I think, is found only when we embrace the questions. When we embrace the difficulty of our humanity and celebrate it anyway. When we accept the path of the Unknown and continue to walk, knowing that the path is built for faulty steps, built to handle our errors of judgment and times we get lost.

People are inevitably going to tell us what they think about our path. They’ll tell us that we’re wrong or right because that’s part of being human, too. Just so long as we keep walking, remembering that we all face time in the desert, that we all ask the same questions, and that no one has all the answers. If we remember that, we can push towards the life we want with no regrets. And if we’re lucky, with just a bit more grace and empathy than we had when we started.

Much love

Steve