The following piece was written a little over a year ago, but for some reason never made it to my blog. Reading it over again brought back some insights that I wanted to share with my readers. My hope is that it finds its way to people working through similar issues who might need a fresh look at their relationship with despair.
I recently endured a pretty serious bout of depression – not even sure I should call it depression, but definitely one of the most severe feelings of loneliness I’ve ever experienced. And I don’t mean the feeling that there is no one around to talk to. I mean deep, existential isolation-type loneliness; a psychic suffering that I have no adequate words for. “Despair” probably comes closest.
I have a loving wife, three amazing kids, loving family, friends, wonderful coworkers, etc., yet I was struck by this overwhelming sadness to the point that as I was getting dressed for work that morning I nearly collapsed in tears. I walked over to my wife who was doing her hair and just put my arms around her and broke down weeping. That NEVER happens.
“What’s wrong” she asked, and I had nothing to tell her. I had no idea. I was just sad. I know what triggered it, a conversation I had with a friend just a day or two before and felt the sadness welling up ever since. The conversation was almost completely irrelevant except that somehow it acted as the trigger. And it wasn’t until after the discussion that the motions in my mind began formulating the sadness, one thought feeding on another until I was in the pit.
The sadness continued the rest of the day and the following day. As a therapist I work with sadness all the time, albeit other people’s sadness, but sadness nonetheless. Being a therapist and existentially minded to the bone, the sadness was not something signaling the end, not something prompting me to consider if life was worth living, etc. The sadness invited me into, let’s say, another dimension of existence, one that I would happily pay grand sums of money and travel long distances to experience if it was offered at the feet of some mountain top sage. But as luck would have it, entrance to the dimension was free and following me around everywhere.
This may sound bizarre to some, but when sadness hits me like this, at this stage in my life, it is not something I run from like I did as a teenager and twenty-something. These days I run straight into it with what I can only describe as a sort of optimistic despair.
The next day a massive wave of the sadness hit me just before I had to walk into work (an agency I had started with the week prior). I remember sitting in my truck sniffing back tears, watching myself in the mirror to make sure my eyes were not turning red or puffing up. I won the fight and successfully forced the emotions underground, but promised myself that I would return to them later. I was looking forward to blowing the emotional dam wide open if that was what had to happen. I wanted to get to the bottom of it; being mentally present with the full range of emotion is the best way to get to the root of psychic pain. But I had a job to do so entertaining the pain just wasn’t an option.
As a general rule I’m great at pushing back pain, warding it off with the usual distractions. Like most people, I have my own coping mechanisms that kick in on an unconscious level, always rescuing me temporarily from whatever overpowering emotion I sense coming on. “Temporarily” is the key word. Only a fool believes that emotional suffering can be conquered through coping mechanisms, or emotional deferment, and not through face-to-face combat. Later that night the sadness was back, but, low and behold, once again my habitual coping mechanisms kicked in and before I was aware of it the pain was gone.
Gone, I mean I couldn’t conjure up the feeling if my life depended on it. And this is where it gets weird. As soon as I became conscious of dodging the emotion I became extremely angry with myself for ruining what could have been an amazing encounter with the suffering, the kind that I have not experienced for years.
This sounds masochistic, I know. How on earth could anyone desire to live through an episode of deep psychic suffering when they have at their disposal an easy out? Hell, much of what passes as psychotherapy today is training people to develop and use such escape methods, whether it’s packaged as a “coping skill” or just another medication. The last thing many people want to do is wrestle with demons (or perhaps angels?).
As irritated and disappointed as I was with myself the whole experience taught me something critical: I learned that for most of my life I had been preventing pure encounters with myself – that part of myself that still experiences childhood traumas, neglect, loneliness, lost loves – simply by letting my mind go on autopilot, by allowing distractions to take my mind off the pain just long enough to drain its vital energy.
The old Socratic maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is for me, outside the Bible and the teachings of the Church fathers, probably the most formative bit of wisdom I have ever known. I use it as a guiding principle both in my life and in my profession. There is no school, no book, no human encounter, nothing, that is as self-reveling and enlightening as the experience of one’s own inner suffering.
Looking back over my life I realize that every time I ejected myself out of these encounters with suffering in favor of some momentary comfort I effectively forfeited my ability to live as a whole person. I view it as tragic that while it has always been within my reach to live as a unified whole I have instead, out of fear of suffering, chosen a divided self. I have read libraries worth of theology, psychology, history, and philosophy; I have traveled the world; I once spent eight days and nights in the woods alone fasting and praying, but none of these experiences gave me the insight that I gained the night before last after catching myself in the act of escaping inner suffering.
The original article ended there. Coincidentally, the night before finding the article I was rereading a section of Kierkegaard’s classic work, “Either/Or”, which is highly relevant to all of this. Lacking, at the moment, any clear way to end this article, I thought this would be perfect:
“Just as surely as it is my conviction, my victory over the world, that every man who has not tasted the bitterness of despair has missed the significance of life, however beautiful and joyous his life might be. By despairing you do not defraud the world in which you live, you are not lost to it because you have overcome it, as surely as I can affirm of myself that I am a proper married man, in spite of the fact that I, too, have despaired… For at the instant of despair it is truly of the utmost importance for a man not to be mistaken about life… He who despairs over one particular thing incurs the danger that his despair may not be genuine and profound, that it may be a delusion, a sorrow only for a particular loss… if he believes that the misfortune lies in his multifarious surroundings, then his despair is not genuine and it will lead him to hate the world and not to love it… when in despair you have found yourself you will love the world because it is what it is… And when a man despairs he chooses again—and what is it he chooses? He chooses himself, not in his immediacy, not as this fortuitous individual, but he chooses himself in his eternal validity… for he who despairs finds the eternal man.”
Thanks for reading.