In reverse chronological order,
- Change of seasons
- Happy children
- Donating blood
- Waist coats
- Medical imaging
- Tree canopies
- Climbing trees
- Tall trees
- Formatting dates YYYY-MM-DD
- Crunchy peanut butter
- The day after laundry day
- Sun showers
- Foreign language
- Efficient sleep
- Correct change
- Decent surf
- Lucid dreaming
- Tail wind
- Bare feet
- Being early
- Clean teeth
- Dress pants
- SMS poems
- Soft misty rain
- Double clutching
- Lady Gray tea
- and riding my new bike
- Rain water
- Fresh air
- Clean sheets
- Freshly shaven skin
- and Orang-utans
It has the power to blindside you even when you expect it. That initial shock which sucks all of the oxygen from the room and leaves you feeling weak in the knees. Things slow down as reality starts to fragment; your mind attempts to perform some impossible gymnastics to reconcile the facts. The news is simple; they have died, and yet you can’t make that fit. Instead you flip back-and-forth in disbelief. At times you find yourself cycling through absurd alternative realities; where you’d intervened, where this was a dream, where you can wind back the clock, where things were different. Sometimes you wish it, sometimes you believe it.
This is interspersed with moments of distress. Overwhelmed, there’s little more than pure anguish. Somewhere underneath you may be longing for them or angry at yourself or angry at the injustice of reality. For now this is all drowned out by misery. It will repeat.
Then, perhaps after a day or so things start to feel like they settle back to earth. And just when it feels like you’re regaining your balance it returns and knocks the wind out of you. The warmup is over. While before you felt overwhelmed now there is no rhyme or reason to what is taking place. It often stops as abruptly as it starts. You cry like you’re fitting – a spasm of violent sadness. Exhausted, your body stops and comes up for oxygen. In this scramble of thoughts nothing is coherent, your thrashing body a tiny expression of the anger. I’ve seen it written that “it’s only possible to grieve with 100% of one’s being” and after a bit you need a break. Soon enough there’ll be another bout. Tomorrow you’ll wonder why your ribs feel bruised.
Once your body is exhausted it will yield for a moment. Your mind is stagnant as the same thoughts continue their plague. Maybe you can distract yourself for a period, but you know it’ll return. Eventually these distractions improve in effectiveness. The thoughts recirculate but less regularly or dominantly. Then you wake during the early hours of the morning with them running through your head at full volume. It feels like it’ll be this way forever. It’s possible that those unanswerable questions will not be answered but eventually the intensity driving them will dim.
For now you just roll with the punches. This is how it gets better.
I wrote this a few weeks ago, but now seems as good as any to post it.
I think the film Melancholia does a good job showcasing mental illness from two opposing points of view. It is centred around a woman named Justine who has depression and is unable to achieve much in life. It seems that whenever she makes an effort it results in more sadness. In one of the more extreme examples we see her sit down to enjoy some of her favourite food with her family; she musters up some positivity but before she’s finished her first mouthful she collapses, sobbing that the food tastes like ashes. From her perspective there is little point in investing in anything because she’s only going to feel new misery.
There’s a growing sense of separation between her and the rest of the population who are busy enjoying life. At the best of times Justine is a chore to be around. As her state degenerates she is profoundly debilitated and her melancholia saps the joy out of the room. I feel like the way that she is ostracised for her misery is quite realistic; sympathy only stretches so far and when the tolerance wears out they wish that she would just pull herself together.
Then, half way through the film Earth faces an apocalyptic threat. It’s revealed that a previously undetected planet is set to collide with our planet in a number of days. All of the adults stop investing in life in any meaningful way. The looming annihilation drives everyone into a nihilistic frenzy. They make some futile attempts to desperately revive their happiness, but ultimately they know they’re destined to experience nothing more than an ashy aftertaste.
For me, this is a perfect picture of what it is like to live with depression. From a depressed standpoint the world looks miserable. The only thing keeping people here is their blissful hedonism and all of these efforts are temporary. We suffer and we cause suffering upon others for our short stint on Earth and when we’re done we are soon forgotten. Eventually the sun will cease to nurture the planet before the universe winds down into a perfect chaos of entropy. Whatever the case, our effect in the long term is ultimately futile.
This is the most coherent example of my depressed thinking that I can put to print. Most of it is not that coherent. Actually most of my depressed thinking is absurd. But the solidity of my thinking is of little importance, it still colours the world in greys and turns every flavour to ash. This is my experience with depression, of course everyone is different, YMMV.
On occasion when I’ve been in the midst of this some people have insinuated that I should pull myself together or make a fresh start. This is impractical. From my perspective there might as well be a planet about to collide with earth and this person is suggesting that I should lighten-the-fuck-up and enjoy a glass of wine. Regardless of how I present, there is no enjoyment at times like these. Negative emotions echo every effort. I feel my experiences are limited to a lonely sense of gloom and doom with the occasional suicidal impulse.
I started writing about this because I’d been reading about the recent suicide of Aaron Swartz. I spent a few weeks trying to distil some thoughts regarding his death. I’ve read a lot of opinions, but at best I think we can only have a good guess regarding what happened and his state of mind.
The only conclusions that I can draw are that we need to keep pushing for more effective and easier to access psychiatric services, and we need to look out for those around us. Those at risk need to be nurtured. In a perfect world this would be unconditional. They would never be turned away or assaulted by the justice system as was the case with Aaron.
Instead we’re left with another tragic loss.
Following the publication of beady eyes a valued reader emailed in, complaining that The Soothing Call was not very soothing. Specifically this reader noted that there was a continued focus on death, suicide and dying. Furthermore apparently quoting Radiohead and David Foster Wallace can promote tiresome feelings of depression. In part, we responded; ‘if at any stage during your digestion of The Soothing Call you feel depressed or uneasy our staff would like to remind you of our on-going list of favourite things.’
The response to this suggestion was yet another(!) complaint that the list was too hard to navigate because it’s scattered over several posts and none of the posts are tagged (there’s no pleasing some people). We do not currently have the human resources that would be required to tag all of the posts and generally we find that the less time that we spend playing with WordPress the happier our lives are. However, on reflection, an amalgamation of the list is a great idea. Thank you as always for the critical feedback.
So, in reverse chronological order,
Formatting dates YYYY-MM-DD
crunchy peanut butter
the day after laundry day
soft misty rain
Lady Gray tea
and riding my new bike
freshly shaven skin
(disclosure: I’m an Aussie who only takes an intermittent and fleeting interest in US politics).
I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protestors. The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.”
- Barack Obama, January 28, 2011
I’ve watched the footage of police spraying the student protestors at the University of California, Davis, several times – Andy Baio has put together a nice compilation here.
The peaceful protest carried out by these students is uplifting. The response by the police is tyrannical. There have been dozens of other reports of police assaulting people during these protests. I have a few concerns:
It is also abundantly clear that the system is rigged to look after the rich. The police aren’t protecting the people; the people are still being exploited by the “1%” (who control the police and the politics).
The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”
― Frank Zappa
Last year we saw Bradley Manning arrested and tortured by his government. We’ve also seen the powers-that-be do what they can to destroy wikileaks, Julian Assange and finally Charlie Veitch. They’re a bunch of bullies.
It will be interesting to see what happens. I wonder how the police would behave if these people where exercising their second amendment rights (not that I support that idea, but it does always strike me as bizarre that for a society which largely values peace, we instil it with the barrel of a gun). Speaking of which, I thought this post on veterans today was also worthwhile.
We’re here for such a short time. To operate day-to-day I try to push this fact aside and pretend that it’ll be ok. I will escape. Or at the very least my end will be peaceful. I’ll be ready.
The daunting truth is that we have no idea when our time will come. Will we be ready? What will we leave unfinished and who will we leave behind? Death is the end of all the conversations and meals and hugs that you will ever share. It creates an unfulfilled future without the opportunity to cherish another moment.
As i reflect on this I can’t drop the mental image of an animal in its final moments of struggle. As Radiohead illustrate:
Cracked eggs / dead birds
Scream as they fight for life
I can feel death / can see its beady eyes
All these things into position
All these things we’ll one day swallow whole
One day I will be the creature staring into death’s beady eyes and choking as I struggle to swallow the truth of the situation. Once it is too late I’ll come to recognise that time is up. I will share the confusion and anguish of that premature bird.
The other “natural” possibility is the fate of my Great-grandmother. After 99 years her life concluded in a nursing home; senile and waiting for Jesus to come and take her. Her last few years didn’t appear to be particularly dignified or happy. Come to think of it, in many ways it was the same fate, only drawn-out.
Perhaps this is one reason why parts of my brain continue to advocate the third option.
I’ll end this piece with a quote from David Foster Wallace:
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flame yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
crunchy peanut butter
the day after laundry day
Yesterday I was watching this. Towards the end the interviewer asks what the meaning of life is. I’d just been mulling over my previous post and felt that I should be able to answer that, but not everybody wants the 2000 word version. In a nutshell…
From the big-bang to the potential heat death, our consciousness is a marvellous aberration in a universe that is typically occupied with nothingness. We should embrace this brief interlude from the void. To the best of our ability we should attempt to appreciate this world and the opportunities around us. We should do our part to preserve life so that the adventure may continue.
Why are we here? Does any of this pain and pleasure hold any long term meaning, or is it all for nothing? At times quitting can seem like the safe option in a world where you could be indirectly contributing to other’s pain while pursuing this meaningless pleasure. This was the subtext to a discussion I was having with my GP a few years ago as we considered a different course of antidepressants.
I think we both understood that there was something greater than a chemical imbalance at the heart of my problem. He justified it, “Medication is just one tool that we can use. The same is true of counselling or therapy. It may feel like these problems are insolvable, but there are answers, if you keep at it you will find resolution. Eventually you will reach a point where you’re content with where you stand, you’ll feel like you don’t need to pursue this any further.” I looked past him at the framed photo of his wife and kids on the bookshelf behind him. Maybe in one sense he could understand where I was coming from, but his life was probably sufficiently busy that these thoughts would not entertain him very far beyond the moment I stepped out of his office.
As a child I assumed God knew why there was something rather than nothing. He understood the bigger picture. It may have been possible that this was outside of the realm of human understanding, but if that was the case I thought it was a reasonable oversight that God would create intelligent beings and not grant us a richer existential foundation. Still, when I probed further I found that most Christians seemed pacified by the idea that God would enlighten them regarding the meaning of life once it was over. It was irritating to avoid the issue in this manner but I accepted it for the time being.
As I transitioned from theist to deist to a more naturalistic world view I came to see God as a simple solution to this difficult problem. This was one of the most lucrative properties of religious belief: faith offers many simple solutions, turning one’s back on this path and venturing into unchartered territory may be daunting.¹
I became fixated on the long term. At some point within around five billion years it’s predicted that the sun will expand and swallow the earth, provided it isn’t first destroyed by the collision of the Milky Way with the Andromeda Galaxy. Either way, the entire record of life on this planet will be annihilated. Even if our species escapes this rock it’s unlikely that we’ll escape the eventual heat death of the universe (or whatever the final destination is). This bleak outlook makes me wonder what the meaning any of this pain or pleasure will hold in the end. Is there any value in being nice or having fulfilling relationships or saving the environment or caring about the truth or enjoying life when ultimately none of it’s going to make a scrap of difference? No matter how you live the result will ultimately be the same. If everything’s heading towards unmitigated annihilation, all of the events between now and then appear to be nothing more than busy work.
From this grim position it was recommended that I should acquaint myself with several authors to get a better grasp on existentialism and nihilism. After a few false starts things started making sense one night when I devoured Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Unlike Nietzsche or Sartre, Frankl’s book is more down to earth, more easily accessible. Frankl’s ideas were refined while he was held as a prisoner in nazi concentration camps. He was a psychiatrist and for some of the duration he was able to take on the task of caring for the large number of depressed and suicidal internees.
While helping these people he came to the opinion,
“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning to one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy.”
It felt to me that the inverse was also true; a person who sees no reason to live is incapable of bearing almost any ‘how’. I wasn’t suffering, especially compared to a Jewish prisoner trapped in Nazi Germany. But the hopeless meaningless depression which seemed to resonate every hour of the day following my little existential crisis helped me feel like nothing was worth delaying the inevitable for.
Despite sensing that Frankl understood my problem, his solution still felt lacking. His logotherapy is centred around this idea that it’s critical to find a meaning in life. But all the examples he gave seemed frivolous to me. Love was the most prominent example; early on Frankl describes how he meditated on his wife and his family and sought to honour them. He also gave other examples:
“I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument‚ they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.”
Similar ideas had been with me since pondering that family portrait in my GP’s office. Most people seem to find genuine fulfilment in relationships or, failing that, work. They feel a duty to see things through, to be a faithful partner or good parent or complete their tasks with diligence. That’s fine because it works for them. Perhaps similarly to the religious experience, this fulfilment seems so blinding that many people come across as incapable of worrying about the long term, they’re happy enough and life feels meaningful enough that they seem unable to question the pointlessness of existence.
For me, this solution was thoroughly unsatisfying. It reminded me of the proverb of Sisyphus; generation after generation keeps following in the same footsteps until eventually it will all come to an end. Although, unlike Sisyphus, we don’t have to continue. We have the opportunity to opt-out, we can end this perpetual boulder pushing. In my suicidal ravings I speculated whether quitting this cycle could be our ethical obligation.
However, after reading Frankl I maintained some hope that there was something else worth pursuing. I was stuck here for some time; in a sense the new meaning for my existence became the exploration of said meaning. Then I came across this extract which Richard Dawkins has earmarked to be read at his funeral:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century.’ The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I…”
We’re in a very privileged position. Not only have we won against all the odds, but we’re comparatively well equipped to appreciate those odds. Humans are capable of perceiving and enhancing their fair share of sensory information. We have an understanding of the wider universe; from the very microscopic to the very macroscopic. We’re capable of sharing these experiences in elaborate ways; we write songs, poetry, plays, essays. We describe our experience through maths, philosophy, literature, art, religion. We love, we are capable of acts of passion, we mourn our dead. Yes, it is temporary, but that is why it is special. Our conscious experience is a marvellous aberration in a universe which is mostly filled with nothingness. This immense random number generator has given us a unique opportunity, an opportunity that would be deplorable to pass up.
This notion was fortified at the end of the book God is not Great, where Christopher Hitchens writes:
“Lucretius anticipated David Hume in saying that the prospect of future annihilation was no worse than the contemplation of the nothingness from which one came‚” (pg 259)
Maybe this should’ve been obvious from the start. Perhaps it was because I had always been busy fretting over the looming annihilation of something or the heat-death of something else, but this quote changed my perspective. We are very likely in the process of moving from one state of annihilation to another, but this should only serve to reinforce the concept that we should make the most of this transition while we have the opportunity.²
It’s somewhat daunting to think that we could be wasting time, neglecting this rare opportunity that we’ve been granted. How you spend existence is your prerogative. You could choose to enjoy the wonders of the universe studying the night sky or staring down at your own bellybutton. You could choose to focus on the experience shared with people or the wider world. Now that we’ve established that human experience holds some value it’s also commendable to help others, preserve humanity and look after the earth. The opportunity to continue the pursuit of amazement is worthwhile, even in the face of an ultimate nihilistic nothingness.
As I write this I’m aware that I may have made it sound like there’s some hierarchy of ways to find fulfilment. I doubt this is the case, perhaps there is an argument that the religious or the love sick are equally sensible motivators as this “unique opportunity of appreciation”. Or maybe there are better motivators, honourable causes within this finite world or possibilities to think beyond those horizons. But as my GP said, “eventually you will reach a point where you’re content with where you stand, you’ll feel like you don’t need to pursue this any further.” That’s where I am at the moment. I might try to go and think about something else for a bit.
1. “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.” – George Bernard Shaw
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” – Carl Sagan
2. Nietzsche has an even more poetic (although of course less optimistic) take on this in the first paragraph of On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.
So, the other day I was thinking about ‘Mother and Child, Divided’, a piece by Damien Hirst (pictured below). I was thinking how unacceptable it is to take away two lives – to kill two sentient creatures to create some art. I see this piece mainly as a form of entertainment; people enjoy being provoked by it, or there’s some idle curiosity which is being fulfilled, or perhaps it’s trying to communicate a clever idea that I’ve missed. Whatever the case, I question whether any animals needed to be harmed. To me, the suffering and loss caused by this killing is contemptible especially if the motivation is merely some derivation of entertainment. In my mind it’s slightly better than dog/cock/bull fighting only because I assume that these cows were killed “humanely”.
But this got me thinking – if there’s no nutritional requirement for people to eat animals then most people frequently indulge in similar behaviour. The enjoyment of eating meat is just another way to entertain your senses. I think it’s such a poor justification and I feel the same contempt.
Now I’m not sure what to think regarding ‘Mother and Child, Divided’ – if I wasn’t aware of the piece I’d feel less steadfast to this vegetarian thinking. It tastes a little like hypocrisy.