Making Something of Memory (part 2)

To give some context to my previous ramblings on memory, I can’t help but marvel at my own forgetfulness in respect to one relatively recent period of my life. Despite being the source of one of the most distinct paradigm shifts I’ve had, the memories contained in this period – memories that once held so much depth and nuance – have somehow seemed to flatten out with time, creating the false impression that the perceptions I held by the end of it were ones I had held all along. But I know this is far from the reality. I am reminded of the deceptions produced by my own forgetfulness each time I find myself at another major life event or shifting context, searching again for the exact same gems of wisdom I had once held firmly within my grasp.

Even in knowing the inevitable distortions that result from my repeated recollection of events after the fact, it seems revisiting them, tracing their progression and attempting to remember them in fuller detail through conscious effort, is the best means I have of keeping the underlying value of the memories alive. As incomplete and inaccurate as my attempt may be to give shape to them through words, maybe I can at least imbue them with more indelibility than they would otherwise have. And most importantly, maybe I can then maintain the lessons embodied by them not as fading memories of the past but as insights integrated into the actions that shape my present and future.

As I think is characteristic of all memory, what I remember most vividly is the ‘beginning’ and the ‘ending’, with the middle condensed into a series of unorganized and probably disordered fragments…

The ending: Seated on one of the white plastic foldout chairs that had been arranged a few hours earlier into several neat rows on the grassy open space besides our office building. My gaze directed at the mini podium placed at the front of the row of chairs, just behind the thatched roof gazebo – normally the sole centerpiece to the office lawn – its wooden tables now host to several large platters of assorted meats. The same set up of assorted meats and foldout chairs I’d been witness to on multiple occasions, the standard package for office birthdays or farewells, now felt like superfluous emblems of recognition as I reexamined them through the eyes of my own farewell gathering.

My body overheated and face flushed from the weight of all the attention centred on me, heightened by the mere presence of the podium and meat platters, I sat there with a strained half smile on my face and quivering lips as I fixed my attention on those addressing me from behind the podium. While my eyes remained fixed on the speakers, my mind struggled to fully comprehend their words, catching only bits and pieces of amusingly disjointed compliments and parables (…one involving something about a tortoise, a lion, and a watering hole…perhaps what was an extended metaphor for my work ethic?). In between confounding bits of tortoise-related commentary, a billion other disheveled thoughts flooded my mind…the rest of my handover notes I still had to finish despite having to catch a plane in a few hours, the colleagues I had yet to say a proper goodbye to, the strangeness of the fact that I would soon be an unemployed person, and even stranger, that I had chosen this fate…

As some of the distraction subsided and my attention found its way back to my immediate surroundings, I felt both my gratitude and discomfort levels rising as I listened to the rest of my colleagues and superiors tell me what they thought of me: that thing we can’t help but want to know (with the exception of maybe the most enlightened and self-assured among us), compelled by our egos and general curiosity, but which we nonetheless never really want to hear, much less relayed to us from a podium in front of other people. As more relayed their kind words of acknowledgement (coupled with half-joking commentary about how I managed to have any friends when I spent all my time at the office), expressing the ways they thought I had contributed to the work of the organization, I felt something inside me click – a subtle paradigm shift of sorts. Struck by my own interior reactions to each of their words, from “I didn’t actually do that,” “he’s giving me credit for something that was a team effort,” “they don’t know what they’re saying,” or “they’re just being nice,” I had this simultaneous realization that what I thought about what they thought about me didn’t actually matter. In this case, what actually mattered was their perceptions, not the ‘objective’ reality of what I thought I had achieved during my time there.

That is, if my own judgment of my accomplishments did not align with what was perceived by the people who in fact were meant to be the ultimate judges of my work (like my supervisors), then whose standards was I actually referring to? Who exactly was I comparing myself to in thinking that no matter what I did, it didn’t measure up to what someone more qualified would have achieved in my position? Unable to definitively answer these questions, I was forced to take a step back from all the assumptions I had held up to that point, including about all the imaginary ‘others’ around me who were so much more stable, accomplished, and effective at what they did: all the people who had that mysterious quality that I somehow did not and never could possess. For once, stripped of my idealization of them, I saw them as actual people. Maybe, just maybe, everyone – my colleagues, my bosses, my peers – actually did not have all the answers, all the skills, and all the confidence. Maybe I was so caught up in my own failures that I failed to actually notice the struggles and failures of those around me, instead noticing only their impressive feats and public facades and piecing together narratives of perfection from these limited insights into their realities.

While written out in this way, these realizations probably seem rather evident (i.e. of course nobody is perfect), recognition of a truth is different from internalization of it. For some things, words only go so far – sometimes it takes being pushed to your limits and emerging on the other side to actually realize what you are capable of (or at the very least, to accept that you can never truly discern your own abilities or potential abilities). And perhaps it takes embracing all the mistakes and shortcomings that characterized your own road to the other side to actually recognize all the mistakes and uncertainties that equally shape and define the successfulness of everyone around you.

While seemingly simple, the mere mental exercise of truly considering that my abilities were no less than anyone else in my position – that my confusion or discomfort in various situations was not something singular to me – was one of the most profound and even life-altering realizations I have had to date. It was the first time I actually felt that adulthood and maturity were not things to be earned through self-defined benchmarks, confidence levels, or achievement, but rather, states of being already granted to me whether I liked it or not. Equipped with this new knowledge, the ‘future’ – the thing which until then had seemed like this constant shadow looming over me, bringing with it unwanted motion whilst I remained a constant, inevitably leaving me ever more behind in relation to everything around me such that I could never catch up to whatever or wherever I was supposed to be – suddenly felt like something full of possibility, a thing at least partially within my power to mold.

The beginning: My body pressed against the hard wood floor, crumpled beneath an overwhelming heaviness, as though the invisible weight of life itself was literally pushing me to the ground, pinning me down with all its force until my body ceased to be more than a mass of misshapen flesh, another weight to carry. The feeling of nothing and everything. All at once. The sensation of inhabiting this physical form convulsing from the force of heaving cries between gasps for breath, fingertips clutching at a cool hard surface…yet somehow being outside of it…or below it…not really there at all. Inhabiting a space that didn’t feel real, a body that didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. The only thing that felt of me was an overwhelming desire to literally sink into the ground…

Some days earlier I had learned that I got the job someone had recommended me for – a new position in a new country with massively more responsibility than my current one. It was the exact kind of opportunity I had hoped for for months, the kind of field experience I desired, the chance to see and be part of the work closer to the ‘ground’ and to develop myself further in work I found intriguing and meaningful. Yet, at the time of receiving this news, I had been immersed in a period of depression that rendered me unable to fully access my own desires except as distant memories of things I knew some part of me wanted. This recognition, this knowledge that the news I received did in fact constitute good news, was not enough to convince my mind that happiness or excitement was the appropriate response.

Fear, guilt, confusion, doubt, horror: these were my mind’s chosen responses. Knowing what I was capable of, and knowing what the position expected of me, what the person who recommended me thought of me, what my future boss would expect me to be…these were the thoughts that kept circling through my mind. Circling and circling until they all made less and less sense….until none of it made any sense at all…until the whole situation simply felt like some illusion. I knew who I was, what I was able to do. None of this aligned with the world I was about to enter. The fact that I had somehow slipped my way into this new role, one that had a real impact on other people, one for which I knew myself to be incapable of fulfilling, was baffling and horrifying. It was unreal, and yet it was my reality: this contradiction was simply more than my mind could handle, an impossible thing to reconcile. The more I tried to grasp it, the less real it felt, until eventually nothing at all felt real…in the most literal sense. And here I struggle to find words that can actually convey what it is I felt in that moment…this disconnect from reality (particularly in the challenge of truly re-accessing, much less describing, a mental state that was so specific to my depression at the time)…but it was as if I was floating outside of my own life, glimpsing into this strange and unlikely thing, and despite my desperate attempts to reconnect with it, to actually inhabit my own existence and the world which surrounded it, I simply could not.

The middle: Kind faces and potent words – some profound, but most quite simple – delivered at the right time by the right people. Moments of mutual respect and admiration shared with people whose mere presence radiated warmth and kindness. Glimpses of myself as seen through their eyes. The magnitude of meaning through a simple “I see myself in you” offered by an individual whose qualities and world views I deeply admired, from someone I saw as possessing all the qualities I thought were beyond my reach.

Friendship. The kind devoid of judgement or expectation – just pure, unfiltered love and understanding. The kind where new roommates, ones I’d only known for a short time, find me in the dark, turn on the lights and come sit by me, providing me with extra illumination through their simple yet invaluable words of reason when everything felt beyond reason. The kind where an older friend exhibits persistent patience and determination in forcing me away from the serious things, re-igniting in me curiosity and creativity when I needed it most.

Unexpected friendship – people willing to be vulnerable, or embracing my vulnerability – in contexts normally reserved for professionalism and self-regulation, contexts where vulnerability is not meant to be displayed: where the personal is meant to be left at home, neatly tucked away until you’ve closed your laptop and left the office compound. An invitation to a coffee break and an open and nonjudgmental ear to my sleep-deprived musings. A “how are you doing?” delivered with the kind of sincerity meant for a real response rather than a passing pleasantry. Subtle reminders that I was seen, that I was more than just a worker, more than my successes or my failures.

~~~***~~~

Inasmuch as the ‘middle’ remains the most elusive in my memory, accessible now only as these fragments and feelings more than concrete moments with well-defined boundaries, they contain probably the most power. While the ultimate remembered paradigm shifting moment came from the totality of the period, from simply surviving all the difficult moments and finding myself at the finish line in tact, all the little victories along the way, the ability to transcend the perceived chaos that surrounded me at the time, was rarely of my own doing. Even in the newfound ‘self’ confidence produced by these experiences, I am humbled by a greater awareness of my dependence on others – not as something antithetical to self confidence but as necessarily intertwined with it.

Still, even as this exercise in memory enables me to remember the source of my current perceptions and even recognize them as feats in themselves, I know this particular set of memories is particularly vulnerable to forgetting. Unlike other types of memories that merely become lost to time, these ones – the ones linked to confidence – also face active opposing forces of the mind: put to the test over and over again when new contexts and challenges bring with them new doubts. And there’s nothing like being a student again (i.e. by definition, someone whose entire world is future-oriented, whose acquisition of knowledge and experience is intended to set them up for what will come after graduation), or like job searching (i.e. being questioned and judged for your abilities, your plans and interests, and your ability to eloquently articulate said plans), to make you turn inward and start regressing towards the same doubts and uncertainties that past experiences had already proved to be unnecessary.

And so I hold on to what I can, each time the doubts return, because I know that fear only serves to blind us from what is really possible. As Maria Popova so accurately articulates, “the choices we make in life in discerning what we ought to do are invariably limited by our perception of what we can do, which are in turn a function of our individual talents and the cultural canvas of permission and possibility onto which these talents can unfold.” Permission and possibility – those incredibly powerful forces that guide what we do – are just as much self-produced as culturally constructed. If nothing else, I hope that my memories will help to always remind me of the true power I hold to either limit or expand the boundaries of my own possibilities.

Depth in Darkness

I’ve often found a certain gratification in lingering on the darkest elements of a painting: the spaces between the subjects in the foreground or the whites and yellows intended to portray light, between those colors that not so much ask for your attention but demand it. Often, in serving their humble purpose of contour and shadow, the dark spaces go beyond notice – quietly resigning themselves to the background of the viewer’s attention. Yet in this humble role, they paradoxically bring life and vitality to the painting in its entirety, providing the backdrop against which the lighter colors achieve contrast; without which, even the most vibrant of colors appear flat and lifeless.

Out of darkness comes depth.

My appreciation for darkness on canvas parallels the gradual appreciation I’ve gained for darkness in life more broadly. In using the word ‘appreciation’, I am cautious also not to connote this with ‘glorification’, but rather, a conscious awareness of the depth darkness can add when appreciated for what it is. I say this particularly with respect to the kind of darkness, or suffering, that comes from depression.

In recognizing that the idea of appreciating trials and suffering is often more easily applied to the kind of experiences that come from circumstances or events outside of oneself or in the wake of something lofty such as love or passion or belief, such a concept feels much less applicable to the kind of suffering that comes without reason or purpose and from a place neither fully from within or exterior to oneself. In such a context, in fact, the concept of ‘appreciation’ feels somehow inappropriate in relation to the basis of the experience.

It actually wasn’t even until recently, in coming across this podcast reflecting on the concept of the ‘soul in depression’ – attempting to grapple with the “spiritual territory of despair” – that I even found it acceptable to use the word appreciation in relation to depression. Admittedly, I had written in the past about depression and the valuable lessons I had come to find from it following the experience – yet even in such expression I don’t think I ever came to internalize it as an ‘appreciation’ for the depression in itself. In fact, my initial neat summation of the life lessons gleaned from my first period of depression, once I felt enough time and distance from its memory, suddenly became hypocritical words of false growth when this distant experience of my past unexpectedly re-emerged into my present – when the experience I had assumed to be an abnormal, first and only occurrence, now learned from and overcome, became not the last.

And maybe therein lies the key, most challenging aspect of achieving genuine and constructive appreciation for something negative: not only coming to recognize the significance of past experiences in hindsight, or in drawing the abstract, profound lessons from them only after having securely moved on, but in holding to the value of those lessons even when the context in which you formed them starts to become less stable. That is, in continuing to find a place and purpose for the positive meaning once derived from a negative experience, even when the trajectory of growth following the experience and lessons gained turns out to not be as direct and clear as expected or assumed. More often than not, life gifts us with periods of growth followed by new and unexpected periods of turmoil or struggle – periods that catch us all the more off guard after having grown from past struggles and perhaps come to feel a heightened sense of assurance in our own stability. But rising above one experience does not mean we are equipped to immediately find our way through every related future challenge, nor does it mean that we are any weaker if we find ourselves brought down again by the same challenge we once rose above. As evident as this sounds, I think it’s something easily forgotten when actually experienced, leaving us wondering how we could have gone backwards or lost our way again amidst familiar territory.

But humans are infinitely resilient creatures.

This idea, as it relates to depression in particular, is so keenly articulated in this quote from the interviewer in the above mentioned podcast: “…emerging from depression — ‘healing’ if you will — doesn’t mean leaving darkness behind. It means being aware and whole enough to accept dark months and dark times as expressions of human vitality.”

As a common theme iterated by all of those speaking in the podcast, a likely reason that it is so difficult as well to contemplate benefits linked to the spirit or soul when it comes to depression is that such understanding or appreciation is only actually possible after the period of depression – whereas whilst in the midst of it, it feels almost as if the spirit has somehow left altogether. It is a strange phenomenon in a way to imagine that an experience that can so deeply alienate you from the world, your sense of spirituality, and ultimately, yourself, could – for those fortunate enough to emerge from it, whether naturally or with the help of medication – in some ways create new opportunities to engage more deeply with each of these facets of life.

Again, this is by no means to glorify or romanticize an experience that presents itself as an all-encompassing and devastating force in so many lives, but to recognize that there is value even in the darkest of experiences. Thus, in an attempt to convey an appreciation grounded in something meaningful and un-exaggerated, I want to only highlight those beneficial experiences that, in my own case at least, I don’t think I could have arrived at to such a degree without having gone through depression.

The first is: an appreciation for the ability to appreciate beauty. More specifically, by ‘appreciation’ for beauty, I mean the ability to not only consciously recognize or acknowledge the beauty of something, but to possess the capacity to actually internalize and feel the power of something perceived as beautiful.

Perhaps one of the most centrally defining features of depression – at least in my personal experience – is incapacity to feel the depth of emotion you would normally feel in response to certain experiences: in particular, those powerful emotions such as passion, wonder, inspiration, and excitement. Such incapacity is all the more frustrating as you find yourself able to recognize the beauty or amazingness of something on a cognitive level, yet unable to connect it to something deeper within yourself. It is almost as if going through life encompassed by a thick foggy glass, through which you are able to still perceive the world on the other side but only in muted distant images you can see but not touch or fully engage.

I’ve often heard people with depression recount such frustrations in the wake of loved ones’ efforts to be supportive. One story that struck me was a man who described how a good friend, in seeing him sitting desolate in his office each day, pleaded that he come outside as it was a beautiful day, saying he would feel better if he just came out and smelled the flowers. While appreciating the sentiments of his friend, such encouragements only deepened the disconnect and sorrow he felt, as he was able to see and recognize that it was a beautiful day, and wanted nothing more than to experience it as his friend suggested, but nonetheless remained unaffected by the beauty he knew to be around him.

The first moment I actually recognized that I had hit a turning point in finally starting to emerge from a period of depression was an experience grounded in my relationship to beauty. Perhaps the simplicity of the experience is in itself telling of its power: a simple moment where, when standing outside waiting for the bus, I found my attention momentarily yet fully enveloped by the beauty of a tree beside me. For a moment, I was not only enraptured by the vibrant purple of the tree’s blossoms, but in such a way that my attention was simultaneously focused in on the singular beauty of the tree whilst opened up to the expansive beauty of all things around me and the world more broadly. In sum, it was an experience of beauty in how I would normally have defined true beauty: an experience of spirituality and connection to the deeper essence of the things around us.

In recounting this example, though, it should be noted that such experiences are all relative to the individual: if you are not someone that normally finds awe-inspiring moments of spirituality and life-shifting perspectives from purple trees, then it is obviously not a sign of depression that you don’t come across such moments in daily life. But as someone that has always found beauty to be a central and defining feature of life, it was through temporarily finding myself detached from such a faculty that I discovered an even deeper appreciation for the experience of beauty in itself, rather than mere recognition of it.

The second, and perhaps most valuable and unique benefit I have gained from depression is an opportunity to exhibit more compassion for the experience of others: an opportunity largely derived from a widened understanding of what it means to exercise compassion in the first place. To some extent, I’ve always thought compassion is something that ultimately originates from an ability to resonate and sympathize with another person – to attempt to put yourself in their shoes and strive to understand their experience and point of view.

While depression has on the one hand heightened my awareness of the futility in trying to ever fully understand another human being – particularly given the futility of even trying to fully understand oneself – it is in this awareness that I have paradoxically come to find a platform for deeper compassion. In trying to sympathize with other people and show compassion towards their experiences, I think we naturally strive to do so from the basis of our own experiences – that is, we attempt to relate to and understand another person by drawing on the only reference points we have available: our own life experiences and thought processes. Sometimes, this does allow us to form deeper connections with the people around us, but this is often the case in contexts where our own experiences already mirror those of another. It is often the reality, however, that our experiences may be nothing like that of another person’s, yet we inevitably attempt to apply what we know to our interpretation of what the other person is feeling – and in doing so, we create limitations to the depth of compassion we are able to show for what they are experiencing.

Put more simply, experiencing depression has given me a deeper recognition of the fact that no individual’s experience should serve as a basis upon which to interpret another person’s reality. And given the natural human tendency to attempt to understand other people from the basis of our own perceptions and understanding of the world, it is a recognition that I think requires continuous nurturing and conscious effort to put into practice. Through such efforts, we are able to exhibit deeper compassion for the experiences of others, not because we understand exactly where they are coming from, but because we acknowledge the uniqueness of what they are feeling from the context in which they are feeling it.

I realize this explanation is probably incoherent, as it is an attempt to describe something in words that I am still to fully grasp in thoughts, so to give some more specific context to what I mean, I’ll illustrate the evolution of my thinking around it: most notably, it is only in experiencing the disorienting disconnect from my own mind and relationship to the world, as a phenomenon of going through depression, that I came to realize the illusion of what it meant to ‘know myself’. More specifically, in going through moments or periods where I found myself paralyzed by emotions and physiological effects for which I quite literally couldn’t even identify the specific origin or thoughts behind them at the time, I felt for the first time that I didn’t even know myself. Further than not knowing myself, that I didn’t have full control over my own emotions, body, or thoughts.

The most significant aspect of such an experience as it relates to compassion was this: that I never would have thought such an experience possible or feasible or even within my capacity to understand until I had actually gone through it. In that realization was the realization that just as it is possible to experience something that was beyond my realm of thought or even belief up until that point (that is, the belief that it is even possible to not have complete control of our own emotions), it is possible that the experiences of others may lie beyond our realm of comprehension. The value in such a realization is in allowing ourselves the space to detach from what we subconsciously hold onto as singular realities in life that are true for everyone. For example, I once met a man who was deeply devoted to the spiritual practice of yoga, and who described to me an experience he once had where he had been observing his yoga instructor, and her form started to change, such that she essentially evolved into an ora of light before his eyes. Who’s to say even an experience like that, which may not be within my own realm of experience or full comprehension, is still not a reality equally real as the reality I myself know?

While that may be a bit of an extreme example, I think the mere attempt to detach ourselves from what we subconsciously know to be ‘true’ is an important step towards deeper compassion. On a less abstract level, I have often heard people that have not gone through depression wonder at how some people could become so distressed – to the point of even taking their own lives in some cases – in response to life events or triggers that seem so miniscule in their minds: a break-up or failure at work or in school etc. ‘Why couldn’t they just see how unimportant such things were in the grand scheme of things? If only they had focused on the positive things in life or gotten through those times, they would have seen how great they had it, and not felt in such a way.’

In hearing such sentiments, I can on the one hand still relate to such a point of view – in previously having felt the same before going through depression, within the context of an understanding of reality that we have control of our emotions and that our happiness is fully dependent on how we choose to see the world at any given moment – but at the same time, I now see the harm in such a mindset when it is used as the basis for understanding everyone’s reality. Even if we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of another person, I think it is equally powerful if not more so to acknowledge that we cannot relate sometimes, and simply strive to be fully and deeply present for someone else in the absence of doubt or judgment for their experiences. In my own case, I think the most beautiful and powerful experience of compassion I can draw to mind in such a context was the moment where a friend, who had never experienced depression and who had strived to be supportive in the best way she knew how, merely acknowledged that she couldn’t fully understand or relate to what I was going through, but nonetheless trusted in the reality of what I described to her.

Anyways, while I may have not originally intended to write such a ridiculously long narrative, particularly one as rambling and incoherent as this, I hope that publicly sharing some of my own experiences, and attempting to put some words and coherence to something so confusing and disorienting, at the very least contributes to a sense of greater openness on the topic itself. Particularly given that it is something so many people will experience at least once in their lives, why not strive to take from it something positive where and when possible.