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.

The Breakdown

“…there’s beauty in the breakdown…”

A fragment of lyrics from an old Frou Frou song that randomly surfaces in my mind. The words repeat themselves a few times, seeming to originate from somewhere else…like a whispered suggestion from someone in the distance. I grasp on to them momentarily with my conscious mind, wondering at their strangeness yet at the same time grappling with the way they seem to resonate with some part of me. This part of me desperately urges my mind try to hold onto the words whilst it fails to hold onto much else – letting reason, comprehension, control slip quickly slip away and fade into something unrecognizable.

They represent reassurance, or some semblance of hope at least, as my body gradually becomes lost in the confusion of my thoughts…no longer an entity that is my own but something that feels indescribably out of my control…control that feels increasingly lost in my heaving chest and pounding heart, my gasps for breaths that no longer come so naturally, my trembling hands and arms that feel stiffened by the overwhelming tingling that slowly starts to spread, a tingling that paradoxically feels heavy and suffocating while making me feel light and non-existent, as if my body were not even touching the surfaces on which it were seated, and of course, the tears. The tears that form an ever consistent shield over my eyes, separating me further from my surroundings as they blur my vision with an unwelcome yet unstoppable stream of translucent distortion. I let my mind fixate on the breathing, the quick and sharp in and out gasps that fill my chest, a motion that feels at least partially of my doing, revelatory of some intentionality and control.

Is this the breakdown, I wonder. Is there beauty in this?

Or does the beauty only come from a certain kind of breakdown? The kind that leaves you so broken and shattered that you are left with no alternatives but to pick up some of the pieces and slowly mend them back together. I can see beauty in that – in the poetry of coming to find understanding in the pain, to let oneself be completely and fully vulnerable to it. In vulnerability, one inevitably finds meaning; something constructive and valuable – perhaps all the more valuable because of the struggle it took to find it, the pain that was necessary to become a stronger person and arrive at the new depths of enlightenment that naturally emerge from the experience.

But what if the remnants of the breakdown are not shattered fragments of self waiting to be pieced back together, but simply dust – a dust that dissipates into something unrecognizable, the particles of which quickly blow away and scatter in every direction as you frantically try to scoop them back together, leaving you with nothing but empty space where once there was at least something tangible?

In other words, what if the breakdown renders you unable to piece parts back together because the parts no longer feel like you. What if that fading semblance of an identity, now barely existent, was the one thing keeping you sane, giving some direction to your functioning in the world and your relationship to it – but which seems to become ever more distant with each breakdown. And rather than creating the space for the formation of new identities, leaving you only more lost each time.

I think we often don’t even realize the role that our identities have in our lives until we find them changed or become more consciously attuned to their malleable nature. More process than noun, they represent an ongoing construction, deconstruction, reconstruction, and sense-making of the spaces we occupy in the world. They consist of our self-perceptions and the stories we weave of our own lives and experiences in order to arrive at something coherent and whole. But in the single word ‘identity’ lies manifold definitions and stories, rendered all the more complex by the continuous influences of the identities imposed on us from the outside – the identities we have to other people, or, on a more general level, to the societies whose structures and norms we function within.

Yet despite such illusiveness, malleability, and subjectivity, this concept we’ve come to know as ‘identity’ holds so much power or latent potential for influence (both positive and negative) within our lives that it’s no wonder we come to view it as something so concrete and definable. In my own experience, at least, feeling the loss of this thing that once felt so concrete was enough to make me question reality itself…leading me to the realization that my so-called ‘identity’, or subconscious understanding of self, had become in a way my reality. And honestly, I don’t know that I can even put into words what I mean by ‘reality’ or losing this sense of what is real, because what the heck does ‘reality’ even mean? And yet, clearly I thought I had some grasp of it at one point, otherwise losing it (whatever ‘it’ is) wouldn’t have felt so deeply disorienting.

And when I speak of reality, and identities as they relate to our connection to the world, I’m not even talking about identity in the straightforward or obvious sense (things like race, class, gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion, relationships, ethics, etc…not that any of these are by any means even straightforward or definable in themselves) but identity at an even more basic and deeply embedded level…the kind of identity that runs so deep that we rarely even come to question or realize we define ourselves by it until the assumptions upon which it is based become shaken – for instance, assumptions of what we would do or how we would react in certain situations, or assumptions of how we think or feel and how much we control those thoughts and feelings.

And when even the deepest assumptions you have of yourself suddenly become malleable, what do you have left?

I’m not really sure at this point. And I’m also not sure whether it is necessarily a bad thing. From my own experiences and conversations with others, it’s clear that we all seek and crave a sense of identity – and yet, when having these conversations, it’s not always clear, even in hearing how people seek out these identities, why they feel they need them so much to begin with. I can understand striving for identities that contribute to a sense of purpose or lead someone to forge or feel part of a community, or holding to those that acknowledge the struggle or common experience of a certain community, but when it comes to identities that have to do with simply knowing who or what we are and what makes us ‘us’, what true value do they have?

While I have yet to piece together the remnants of unrecognizable scattered dust from my own previously assumed identities, I can at least say that there is something freeing in admitting to the chaos and uncertainty that is being human. I also don’t know that I’ve found beauty in the breakdown, nor have I found peace or enlightenment in the uncertainty, but maybe grasping for such things would ultimately render the uncertainty somehow shallow and in a way, less powerful, by assigning a sense of meaning and definability to something that has no real definition. Most of us are so quick to take the messy, confusing, disorienting, and puzzling of our lives and mold them into something we can understand or relate to or take meaning from – and not to say that these efforts and search for understanding are not critical, but more that the problem lies in our vision of what the end result will be – the implicit assumption that our search must ultimately lead to clarity. But would we still continue to strive and search even if we knew there might never be an answer?

And maybe, instead of constant searching and categorizing and identifying, there is more value in striving to take each new introspection and self-insight as it comes and not attempt to place it in a box or piece it into our overall self-concept…

…essentially, maybe it is better to strive simply to be.

22.

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…

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