Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Overcoming Depression in a Depression

Financial worries and failures can sap our confidence and hope to the point that depression grabs us by the throat. But there is no shame in poverty or failure; happiness requires much less than is commonly supposed.

One of the key purposes of Survival+ is to re-examine what our culture implicitly lays down as the "baseline requirements" for prosperity and happiness.

Comparing ourselves to unattainable idealizations of "success" and "happiness" can cause a gnawing internal misery. As the New Depression takes its toll on the economy, livelihoods and household assets and income, many feel like failures as their jobs, social standing and wealth evaporate.

It is terribly easy to slip into that private Hell of self-recrimination and hopelessness; indeed, once the descent is irreversible then a cruel obsession with past decisions --now revealed as glaringly disastrous--can feel irresistable.

My longtime friend (from high school days) G.F.B. recently opined that fame/media exposure is the "new wealth": people crave it more than money. Private, hidden wealth is simply another form of poverty in our media-deranged society; it is better to be poor and get 15 minutes of fame on the tellie (TV) or Facebook than to be unknown, invisible and wealthy.

Perhaps all this is a function of the great gulf which only widens by the day between wealth and most of the citizenry; with wealth from speculation in housing now a distant memory, and no other means to get rich available, then this mad desire for media recognition seems an attainable substitute.

But let's suppose you get the mansion on the beach and national facetime on TV. The next day, you're still yourself, and your feelings about yourself remain unchanged. You still have the same patterns of thoughts and emotions, and you still have to live an ordinary life, even if you have a personal chef and personal assistant.

It is my observation that the more that is done for a person, the more trivial and petty their concerns become.

There is only one success in life, and that is being yourself. That's the only "career" no one else can pursue, and the only "success" no one else can attain.

It's certainly nice if being yourself leads to the chalet in Aspen, the beachside mansion and facetime on TV; but for most of us, being ourselves doesn't align with the skillsets and character required to become rich and famous. And those who substitute the acquisition of wealth and/or fame for being themselves eventually find themselves firmly bound in a bitter unhappiness sporadically relieved by various addictions and futile therapies.

For some reason beggars and panhandlers have latched onto me as an easy mark since I was a mere lad of 17. I have trained myself to ignore most of the pleas and scams, though I do toss a buck into the open case of street musicians. Since there are hundreds or even thousands of beggars and panhandlers in the urban area around me, even if you felt it a generosity to offer up some coins or a dollar or two, you would quickly use up all your cash within a few blocks.

While I was locking my bicycle downtown yesterday, a tallish male street-person nearby turned round to face me and said in a pleasant voice, "How would you like to sponsor my dinner?" His eyes were clear--he wasn't drunk or stoned--and his entire persona was confident and easy-going.

I replied that I liked his pitch, and he said that he'd panhandled through New Zealand for a number of years. He said "panhandled" not with irony or shame but as if it were as noble a profession or trade as any other. Marvelling at his use of the word "sponsor"-- how much more appealing than "spare change?"--I extracted a small bill from my wallet while we chatted. He noticed my bad eye (torn up by an errant nail 32 years ago) and commented that a friend's daughter had a similar disfigurement in her eye. He was entirely at ease and completely focused on our modest conversation.

Poverty and begging did not strike him as shameful or as a reason to hate his life or himself.

While I don't recommend this gent's lifestyle, I found his positive attitude, self-acceptance and honesty quite refreshing.

I finally saw the recent Japanese film Departures and saw a similar message in the movie (which I highly recommend).

In the film, a young man's musical career as a classical cellist abruptly ends. Knowing he doesn't have the talent to rise any higher in that rarified profession, he sells his very expensive cello and feels a great burden lift from his shoulders as he leaves the store.

Being a professional cellist simply wasn't him; it was a goal pushed on him by his father. While he enjoyed playing the cello, the career was not a match for his character.

I won't give away more of the plot other than to say that his new profession--delivered by Fate, it would seem--is far from performing classical music and distressing enough to drive away his young wife. But it was a profession that somehow suited him in a fundamental fashion.

Recently I received an email from a young attorney in New York City who wrote that my essay For Aspiring Writers: the Worst Advice You'll Ever Read posed a direct challenge to him: though he was working 12-hour days as a lawyer, he wanted to be a fiction writer, and my little essay had fired him up to "prove me wrong," i.e. he could write despite his career and busy days.

I wrote him a reply which basically said, excellent, go for it, but realise you have to like the entire process of writing, and your expectations have to be low enough thathaving a single reader is success.

Being a rich and famous author certainly sounds appealing, and I understand the young attorney's dream. But there is a great and rich irony here; many people who watch TV shows have the impression that a career practicing law is glamorous, exciting and rewarding both in terms of being heroic and well-paid.

They should intern in a real law firm for a few months before filling out that law school application.

We are all bombarded with mass-marketed propaganda about how great it is to be wealthy/well-compensated, to get that corner office with a view, to have 1,000 "friends" on Facebook or to actually be--gasp!--on TV. But the hype is false; it's all about selling you something as an illusion of happiness and fulfillment. It's all a mirage; when you finally reach it, you find not happiness, prosperity or fulfillment but a deep, eviscerating emptiness.

A famous author once recounted that the day after she received a prestigious literary award, she fell into a deep depression that took years to overcome. That's the price of believing happiness flows from recognition and money.

Yes, some money (or equivalent) is necessary to live. But we have to be careful not to draw a causal line between X amount of money, X quantity/quality of possessions or X minutes of time in the media spotlight and happiness, prosperity and fulfillment.

Among many great ironies is this one: a serving of brown rice (or cornbread/tortillas) and beans is a most delicious meal when you're truly hungry. It is very cheap, and easier on the planet and your health that a juicy, fat-marbled chunk of meat or a cream puff or other luxury food item.

Bonus pop music reference: "Savoy Truffle" lyrics Savoy Truffle (Youtube)

Yes, yes, oh yes, luxury, status, wealth and the worshipful gaze of the camera are all wonderful and fine, but they aren't happiness.

An insightful commentator (and reader of this blog) who goes by the screen name Publius recently posted a few lines from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Letter One, on the excellent blog deep into artlife west:

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it;
blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches;
for the Creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.

Yes, I know this sounds awfully precious in a world where people are hungry and broke and their spirits are in tatters. But nonetheless it remains true, and as someone who was down to my literal last $100 in the past "Great Recession" of 1981-82, I don't find it untrue or flippant. It is in fact the tonic which eases the pain of self-recrimination and sense of failure.

Failure is as normal as breathing. To distain and fear failure is akin to saying you only like the intake of breath and not the exhalation.

We are what we do every day. The only thing no one can take away is your personal integrity. It is the ultimate treasure, a foundation that can support the greatest accomplishments. In times like these, accomplishments which may appear small from the outside are great indeed to those struggling through failure, poverty and uncertainty.

As I wrote in the last page of my novel For My Daughter: take strength, you are not alone.

Permanent link: Overcoming Depression in a Depression

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