As I still struggle to fully comprehend the fact that I am about to be 23, a number which once seemed so large and mature in my middle school imagination, I also am kind of ready to embrace it. In particular, as I think back to all that has happened in 22 and the countless ways I have grown because of it, I am curious to see what 23 will bring. Before entering this new, slightly daunting age, however, I just want to take one last moment to reflect on some of the important realizations from the past year.
So with that, here are the lessons that 22 taught me:
1. You are stronger than you think.
This one probably took the longest to arrive at and apparently it took getting through depression to actually realize it. I still feel a weird sense of guilt just using the term itself, because I know of people who have suffered from depression their entire lives and it feels like I am somehow claiming the same level of struggle by use of the term. But perhaps my hesitance to state it is partially an effect of the general stigma towards it…I’ve realized I shouldn’t feel guilty or embarrassed to admit to something that was out of my control, and does in fact affect a lot of people at least once in their lives. Mine was short-term (only a few months) and not brought on by any single event or moment, but was basically the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced: the feeling of having lost all control over my own thoughts and emotions.
It’s not just being sad for an extended period of time; it’s having your mind constantly tell you things that are untrue and having some recognition of their absurdity to some extent, but still being unable to stop thinking them and being physically and mentally affected by them on a daily basis. It’s becoming so out of touch with reality (about yourself and about how other’s see you) that you don’t realize how irrational your thoughts are until you’ve managed to finally snap out of the depressive state. The worst moment I can remember was just simply coming to understand what it meant to feel hopeless (while at the same time guilty for feeling that way because I knew I had no real reason to be sad about anything). I can vividly recall the day I had gone into my friend’s room, who was usually the one person that could actually make me feel better when something was bothering me, and she happened to also be going through something at the time. As we just laid there, each trying to comfort the other with words of reason, neither really getting through to the other, I suddenly realized that no matter what she told me, and no matter how much I wanted to believe it all, I just couldn’t. I finally just stopped trying and stared silently at the ceiling as I wondered to myself if I’d ever be able to just feel happy again.
This all sounds so melodramatic and ridiculous as I write it out now, but that is truly how I felt at the time and I think that is what makes it so scary. For me, it was almost as if I was just an entirely different person when I look back at the way I felt during that time and how I possibly could have thought and believed the things I did. But from having been in that state and comparing it to where I am and how I feel now, it is impossible to not feel as though I have become at least a little stronger because of it. I still have a billion doubts about myself, as do many people, but having come out of something that I literally thought was impossible a year ago, and now having the ability to look back and see the good that came out of the bad, it also makes me feel slightly more assured in my ability to overcome whatever other challenges I might face in the future. At the same time, by attributing feeling stronger to overcoming a period of depression, I want to be sure not to imply that depression is in any way a sign of weakness, and I know that so many people suffer through it their entire lives and it is out of their control to ever fully come out of it. I just mean that everyone has challenges they will overcome in their life, whatever they may be, and the great thing are those times when you can clearly see the positive aspects that came out of things that were terrible.
2. There are some things in life that are out of your control.
I think this was the hardest lesson I learned this year – especially as it pertains to friendships. Before last year, I had always thought that if a friendship ends, it is because people gradually grew apart with distance and time, or because of a fight in which someone hurt the other. As much as people had told me of their experiences with friendships ending just as a natural part of adulthood and people changing, I still never believed that things really worked that way. Depression just adds a whole new level of complexity to the reality of people growing apart. When you yourself are not even sure what is going on with you and why your are feeling the way you are, it is inevitable that other people may not necessarily understand it either. I don’t mean to say that a person can’t be supportive even when they can’t relate, but just that there are some times when the divide becomes too big and neither one really gets the other anymore.
In sum, I basically lost a a friendship I valued as a result of this divide. And the hardest part of it all was coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Our life experiences shape who we are and how we think, and sometimes you just come to a point where you realize you no longer are on the same page with someone you used to be close to. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do to make a person understand where you’re coming from, and sometimes, in rare cases, the only thing you can do is accept it and move on.
In any case, the experience has taught me an extremely valuable lesson in love and forgiveness. There is a Baha’i quote that says: “Recognize your enemies as friends, and consider those who wish you evil as the wishers of good. You must not see evil as evil and then compromise with your opinion, for to treat in a smooth, kindly way one whom you consider evil or an enemy is hypocrisy, and this is not worthy or allowable. You must consider your enemies as your friends, look upon your evil-wishers as your well-wishers and treat them accordingly. Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. Let not your heart be offended with anyone. If some one commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him.”
Although I would obviously never go so far as to call anyone my enemy, this quote still so beautifully describes what it truly is to forgive….just in any situation where you are hurt by another person, whether intentionally or not. Forgiveness isn’t simply letting go of what happened, but actually loving the other person regardless and considering them as a friend irrespective of how they see or treat you. It is easy to tell yourself that you’ve forgiven someone, and even fool yourself into believing that you have, but you soon come to realize that you haven’t truly forgiven until you can draw that person to mind and wish nothing but the best for them.
3. Always appreciate your friends.
Although difficult life experiences like depression can sometimes lead to people growing apart, it also can make you realize just how amazing the people in your life are. I can’t even properly express how much appreciation and awe I have for my friends…from the friend who I always knew had my back, but never could have imagined the amount of patience and love that could be exhibited by any single person, to the friend who never showed much emotion but with a few simple, straightforward words, somehow made me aware of the thousands of different ways that people can show they care, to the friends who didn’t even really know what I was going through at the time but simply reminded me of the fact that so many amazing people exist in the world and that in itself is something to be happy about. And then there are the new friends I made later in the year, and whose friendships I am almost equally grateful for — for those new friendships helped me to stop worrying so much about the fact that as we leave college and go our billion different ways, it is impossible to maintain every single friendship we had in college. It reminded me that no matter where you end up in the world, there will never be a shortage of amazing people and the potential for new amazing friendships.
4. Passion is vital.
One of the defining characteristics of my general state of mind during the depression was a general lack of passion for anything — or, more accurately, a lack of ability to properly feel the sense of passion and excitement for the things I knew I should feel passionate about. When I finally discovered I had gotten the fellowship I had wanted more than anything in the world, for instance, I cried. Not out of happiness, but out of frustration for the fact that I didn’t feel happy for the thing I had yearned for for months, the thing that used to keep me awake at night sometimes just out of pure excitement as I imagined how incredible and perfect it would be if I actually got it.
I think it also had something to do with the college bubble I was still in, which made it harder to really think beyond my current surroundings and remember all the things that mattered. It wasn’t really until the fellowship orientation that I was able to finally absorb what it was that I would be embarking on, and remember why I was so passionate about it in the first place. Even in simply meeting the other fellows, and being so inspired by the passion in each one of them, I couldn’t help but feel moved. I almost think that orientation was the turning point for me to finally snap out of whatever was keeping me depressed. There’s just something about being able to feel passion for something relating to the betterment of others that allows you to focus less on yourself and your own limitations.
5. Never underestimate the value of a compliment.
I know this doesn’t sound as big as some of the other lessons, but having felt the significant impact from such a lesson myself this year, I just want it to be something I remember and make use of in the coming years. Perhaps it was the specific context and the state of mind I happened to be in at the time, but I still can’t believe just how big a difference a compliment can make. Even as I recall it now, it sounds so simple and meaningless, but a girl I had met at orientation at one point said to me, in a really sincere manner, that she thought I was a funny and candid person. Honestly, in any other situation, this might have just been like any other casual fleeting compliment, in which it is thanked and forgotten as soon as the moment passes, but in this moment, a moment that came after months spent in a delusional state basically hating myself for how boring and worthless I was, the simple words of a new friend acknowledging something positive about me was like a sudden jolt of realization that made me start to question everything I had been telling myself for quite some time.
I realize that not every compliment you give someone will have such a significant effect on them and it is all completely contextual, but you really never know how much your sincere compliment might mean to someone at any particular time, so why not take advantage of all the opportunities you have to let someone know the good that you see in them.
6. There is truly no greater source of happiness than bringing happiness to others.
And finally, a lesson I feel like I continue to learn again and again, on new and deeper levels each time. I think the best way to sum this one up is with another Baha’i quote that I love:
“Be not the slave of your moods, but their master. But if you are so angry, so depressed and so sore that your spirit cannot find deliverance and peace even in prayer, then quickly go and give some pleasure to someone lowly or sorrowful, or to a guilty or innocent sufferer! Sacrifice yourself, your talent, your time, your rest to another, to one who has to bear a heavier load than you — and your unhappy mood will dissolve into a blessed, contented submission to God.”
When all of your thoughts are focused on others, you begin to simply become forgetful of self. And when you aren’t thinking about yourself, there’s also less chances to put yourself down or focus on all the negative things that might otherwise absorb your thoughts. Trying to rationalize yourself into happiness when you’re feeling any kind of negative emotion typically ends in failure because every person has faults, and it’s easy for anyone to get caught up in these faults when your thoughts are focused inwardly. But when your only aim and desire is to make someone else happy, you can’t help but feel a sense of joy in the mere fact that you are capable of doing something good for someone else. In that, there is peace.
So there it is. 6 lessons that 22 taught me. I apologize for the fact that this long post was so me-centric while ironically talking about how important it is to not think about myself, but more than anything, I just wanted to write these thoughts out and remember them as I embark on 23. For a while, I thought the best way to move forward was to forget the bad moments of the past and just make the most of the future, but with time, I’ve realized that every moment of 22 was crucial to the things I now know, and for that, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
…and since this whole post was all cheesy and reflective, I might as well follow it up with some cheesy sunset photos from my recent trip to Cape Town…