Making Something of Memory (part 1)

When does a fascination with memory border on obsession? Obsession seems to imply thought that is unwarranted, unnecessary…superfluous. But if the focus of such attention is not one singular, definable, graspable thing, but really more a means or a channel through which to understand other phenomena, then can it really ever be an obsession? With that said, if the focus of the memories are inward and grounded in an effort to understand one’s self merely for the sake of understanding one’s self, then maybe such mental occupation can be said to be egotistical. I wouldn’t deny this. Memory, in its connection to one’s selfhood, is more often then not evoked in times of introspection and perhaps overly self-focused intentions. Still, I continue to straddle this line, wondering whether my preoccupation with memory is of little, or even regressive value, but nonetheless finding myself locked in its grips whether I choose to be or not.

Paradoxically, every time I find myself at a crossroads concerning the future, my mind seems to revert that much more towards what I assume it feels is the source of answers in the wake of uncertainty: the past. It is as though, faced with this insurmountable obstacle before its forward-looking line of sight, with an inability to visualize what one month ahead could like look, much less 10 years, it simply looks backward in its search for anything concrete. Sometimes it also feels like my mind, in recognising the imminent closure of a period with clear defining features (i.e. defined by a certain overarching goal, be it school, a certain type of job, etc. – coupled with a specific external context, both physically and socially – and characterised by a specific self-definition and way of moving through the world as a result of these other factors), it undertakes a sort of wrapping up and moving on exercise. It is almost like my subconscious puts together one of those Facebook ‘year in review’s, enticing me to stop and look at what it has chosen to assemble and what it has assumed would be most relevant to my interests. Often, it goes far beyond a ‘year’ in review, projecting several years into the past and neatly sorting the memories into these deceptively categorized experiences: each occurring within its own separate definable timeframe and context.

And most often, just as with Facebook’s selection process, the actual ‘highlights’ that surface most often are rarely relevant to what I would have thought to focus on had I picked them myself (although, yes, I realize here I cannot speak of my mind as though a thing separate from me; if I am remembering something, it is of course because some part of me has selectively chosen to remember it). In general, though, the memories that resurface and revisit me have this disjointed quality from my present experiences. They feel random, and in this randomness, mysterious in a sense…I can’t help but wonder at times whether my subconscious is trying to tell me something in its choice of memories. Or, more likely, given the deep interconnection between emotion and memory (i.e. we tend to remember most vividly those moments that we experienced in the most heightened emotional states), they are simply granting me access to some emotional territory I am craving at any given moment, whether fully conscious of it or not…

…pausing at the cross street during a Sunday morning run in Harare, the one that headed into the tree-covered quiet bend of road before the city suddenly transformed into a mini countryside oasis, connected by that thin strip of pavement where the sunlight always played magical games between the thick cover of branches …

…that time I had my scarf pulled down over my head as we inched our way down the congested Johannesburg highway at rush hour, feeling your presence next to mine and your concern as I kept hold of that thin fabric veil that felt like a literal and necessary shield between myself and the world in that moment…

…standing beside the little white car that had become over-heated in its efforts to pull the five us along the stretch of road from South Africa to Lesotho, accepting the failure of our aim to reach the border before nightfall, both defeated and inspired by the night sky now in full bloom, its stars encompassing every inch of the domed darkness overhead; watching as you guys submersed yourself in the darkness to frolic in the field besides the road while we waited for the determined little vehicle to regain its mobility…

…alone in my meekly furnished, very square bedroom in a suburban (dreary) area of Johannesburg, a few months after I had started my first post-graduate job, on a Sunday where I had finished all that I had to do for the day and just sat there on my bed possessed by thoughts of the past: of the college bubble so close yet distant in my memory, of a friendship recently ended, of the future ahead, of where I was and what I was doing in that moment, about my newfound independence, adultness, aloneness…

As with the last memory, oftentimes my most recurrent memories are ironically memories of profound moments of remembering. They also tend to have this common characteristic of deep solitude within a context where everything felt foreign. And maybe because of this, many of the most deeply embedded and recurrently resurfacing ones took place in hotel rooms in parts of the world I never envisioned myself or new apartments not yet imbued with a sense of home, places whose physical elements held no particular emotional sentiment. They were moments in which my direct, physical surroundings embodied blank slates – surrounded by ‘foreign’ territories just beyond their walls – yet perhaps owing to these concrete physical boundaries, tended to position my thoughts towards an inexplicable space not quite in the present, past, or future.

Other times, though, my memories are not mere happenings before which I feel like an observer of something presented to me. While the resurfacing of these seemingly uneventful moments provide their own form of insights, I am guilty of willing other ones to the surface and consciously dwelling there. In this form of remembering, or re-remembering, I feel even less certain of its actual value or harm, probably in large part influenced by social conditioning as to the appropriateness of dwelling on the past. I get the sense that, as a whole, our society is attached to forward motion as this embodiment of progress – whether for an individual or a nation. Implicit in this connotation is the necessity of always “moving on” from the past, to not dwell on things that are no longer there and instead look to the future. I recognise that this attitude does have value in certain contexts and for certain types of memories, individual or collective. Yet, more often than not, I find this approach to be overly simplistic and perhaps limiting in its recognition of what it is to be human.

Not least of which are those memories that pertain to loss — I have been fortunate to not yet have experienced the physical loss of a close loved one, but from hearing others’ stories and their description of grief in particular, it becomes quickly evident that expecting people to “move on from” memories of people they loved is both unrealistic and unhelpful. In the case of grief, it seems that while its initial, debilitating form eventually subsides, the grief remains; it merely takes on new forms until it becomes just another facet of a person’s life (on this subject, I also found this podcast on the myth of closure really powerful). Perhaps if one were able to completely erase the memory of another, then the grief would be erased with it — but in what world would we want this to be anyone’s reality? To know that we can be forgotten from those whom we are most connected to? Or that we would be capable of forgetting those most intimately a part of our own being? To believe either would seem to negate a belief in the power of love – a force so powerful so as to persist beyond the end of physical access to another. Or at least I would like to think.

Earlier today I was listening to a podcast that interviewed an artist whose work attempts to embody the spiritual capacity of material objects, exploring also the interplay between memory, time, and these physical objects. Over the course of this interview, I latched onto one comment in particular: that memory represents an intentional creative response to loss…a tool with which we attempt to guard against decay. The artist also spoke of his connection to a grandmother who had passed away, describing his own memory as a capacity to still honour her, underlined by the title of one of his art pieces, ‘Heaven is Being a Memory to Others.’ While I don’t necessarily think that being remembered by others in this life is by any means a purpose or goal we should live by, I do think it has some kind of value for both the rememberer and the remembered – whether or not the latter is aware of their being remembered.

Tangibly, in my own life, recalling people who have at one point or another mattered to me feels like an exercise both in gratitude as well as in honouring the value of those I love or have loved (and here I mean love in the grandest sense – not simply familial or romantic). This often feels all the more necessary for those people no longer in my life, including those who merely passed through it (I don’t think meaningful connection is necessarily a function of the length of time two people are in each other’s presence). And, more selfishly, I also hold onto these memories for the sake of what all of these people inspire in me or remind me about the world. It is a very conscious, almost desperate, use of the one tool in my grasp to guard against the decay that is forgetting.

Equally so, and perhaps less lofty an exercise, I tend to quite consciously wield this tool in my possession to guard against the loss of my past selves. I say less lofty because, on the one hand, I recognize a kind of egotistical undertone in both the defining of “self” (and even more so in identifying and attempting to reconcile multiple “selves”), as opposed to merely existing as an inseparable part of the larger universe. Perhaps this sentiment is also influenced by those who speak of the self as this false and unnecessary concept, both in scientific terms (e.g. one physicist describes that all reality is in fact interaction, and that everything, including humans, are not ‘things’ but really ‘happenings’) as well as philosophical (e.g. those like Alan Watts who speak of the ‘self’ as this deceptive human construction). Nonetheless, this [perhaps egotistical] ‘need’ remains. And the deeper my sense of disconnect with a past time-period, and the more jarring the divides between each one, the more I fear letting them slip forever out of the conscious parts of my mind (all whilst cognizant of the fact that the more you recall any memory, the more your subjectivity distorts it, until it eventually becomes a mere skeleton of what the true, real-life experience was).

But maybe I find justification for this form of remembering mainly under the banner of maintaining ‘wisdom’. I notice in particular that each time I submerge myself into a completely new life (usually corresponding to a new city or country), no matter how much I initially think otherwise, the speed and depth by which my recollection of the former fades is rather astonishing. Moreover, beyond the memories of events and people, the fading of the way in which I perceived both my interior and exterior worlds within those contexts also begins to quickly slip out of my grasp. It is in this fading of perception that I feel the greatest weight of loss. For only certain experiences, certain tests and difficulties, certain people, and the unique mixing of all of them at any given period, allow us moments of clarity or bridges into new expanses of thought never before experienced. Yet even these paradigm-shifting experiences can be just as feeble as memory itself. They represent forms of personal growth that do not necessarily come with an inherent quality of permanence or linear movement. No doubt, some insights cannot be reversed — once you have realized something, you cannot unrealize it. But in particular when it comes to new, valuable insights about ourselves, given all the subjectivity and complexity and emotional distortions that come with them, I think it is particularly easy to forget the incisive things we may have once realized. Perhaps retaining a positive self paradigm-shift actually requires some intentional cultivating and processing of the initial insights, a process mainly enabled through the traces left behind of the moments that enabled them in the first place: our memories.

Without all the chatter

The other day, following two weeks of solo travel around central Europe coupled with a temporary hiatus from all forms of social media, the one thing I was probably most pathetically excited for in returning to my home base in Paris was reinstalling my WhatsApp: to be able to satiate that socially conditioned desire to see that little orange notification button on my phone screen and open all the messages sent over the past weeks from closest friends; to finally reconnect with the world I had cut out during my self-imposed period of solitude. And then. That evening as I reinstall the app, anticipation rising (solitude gets to you after a while), I finally open it to find I can no longer log into my old account: everything from the past few weeks, and the past few years – all message history, photos, correspondence with interesting acquaintances met along the way or loved ones or lover, as well as a few of my contacts – gone. Permanently inaccessible.

Of course, it was not the end of the world. I still have most of my contacts, can still reach out again to the friends I’m still actually in communication with. But at that initial moment of rejected entry to my WhatsApp history, as much as I’d like to deny it (and as what may easily constitute the definition of an ‘overreaction’), I felt this strange sensation of the ground sucked out from under me… as though I had suddenly lost the gravity and weight of self-ness: the cognition of actually being me, in my own body, in the place I was sitting, in my corner of the world, with all the relations and social ties to which I am inextricably bound.

To give some context to this mother of overreactions, I had just previously been reflecting on the concept of memory and its role in giving continuity to our past and present selves, essentially providing a basis for the formulation of our conception of selfhood at all. I had recently come across an article, referencing an idea from modern psychology, suggesting that memory in fact constitutes the ‘crucible of the self’. The poet John O’Donohue, in his writing on transience as the one constant in our lives, elsewhere described memory as ‘that which holds out against transience’…as ‘the place where our vanished lives secretly gather.’ I had found a certain comfort in this description, and especially liked the reference to vanished ‘lives’ in the plural. Particularly in the place I found myself at the time of reading these words — alone in Vienna, a solo traveler surrounded by couples and families during the holiday period, on the road for the past few weeks in a state of self-enforced solitude (I’ll get to this later), living in Paris, a U.S. citizen, an Ethiopian-American, unable to recall the last time I was physically with my entire family, having spent the past few years living in South Africa and Zimbabwe, finding myself periodically in countries and contexts I never expected to be, a constantly revolving set of friends and communities, and recent shift in title from ‘boss’ and ‘diplomat’ to ‘poor student’ — I felt all the more drawn to the idea of memory as this shield against complete transience, this keeper of continuity.

Each time I delve into the bank of my own memories, whether by conscious intentional digging, something triggered by a scent, a song, an image, or just the regular intermittent infiltration of unexpected and completely random memories that surface from time to time with no evident reason as memories do, I often feel as though I’m peering into several separate lives, unconnected and unrelated from my own: characterized not only by different places and people but, perhaps most notably, by distinctly different conceptions of self and paradigms for interpreting the world. Despite being able to remember what I thought at a given time or how I felt, as filtered through the non-static and often unreliable medium of memory, I am always keenly aware of my inability to inhabit that same space again. And in this inability, I feel I can only catch glimpses of something that is not my own, inasmuch as I am aware of the fact that it is.

But even amidst this overwhelming sense of discontinuity that seems to taint most recollections of the past, the ability to still regain bits and pieces of it, in whatever form, provides some basis for imagining a kind of coherent whole out of all the separate parts. And for someone like me with the worst memory ever, to reach back every now and then through the potent medium of an old message or photo long forgotten – to be transported momentarily by that mysterious mnemonic power latent in certain physical and technological traces of our past lives – feels like something invaluable in this clumsy attempt at reconstructing wholeness. I am also not sure why this impulse to grasp at something complete and continuous even feels necessary in the first place, but I assume it is linked to what is probably a universal human instinct to make sense of oneself and to a broader extent, everything outside of oneself, through the roots on which we’ve been formed – both in the immediate context of one’s own life as well as roots that are familial, historical, etc.

Such was the mental state in which I found myself at the time of the WhatsApp incident. And so, given these impulses just described, my decision a few weeks ago to completely cut myself off in the first place from all the social networks that provided me with unfettered access to my ‘other lives’ so to speak – to all those relationships and memories that are a part of me but not a part of my immediate physical life context – may seem counterintuitive. In a way, though, I think it was actually one stemming from the same impulse behind my evident attachment to social media in the first place: connection.

For while these networks provide us with the channels for maintaining, strengthening, establishing, and mapping out our human connections, I think their oversaturation in our modern social realities can simultaneously hamper our capacity to actually be fully present in any of it. In this effort to always be connected, there is inevitably this stretching of the mind and heart to encompass the various spaces where connection is sought. It manifests in this feeling of being in touch with everyone all the time but concurrently somehow not really with anyone – including one’s self. This is not to say that love, or friendship, or authentic connection in whatever form, is a limited good, something we can only possess or share in finite quantities. But I do think the human mind’s capacity for attention is limited. In fact, it would seem that by definition the most profound forms of attentiveness require a certain level of restriction. For how can we truly give someone else, or ourselves, or our surroundings, this gift of attentiveness – one of the deepest manifestations of love – when we find ourselves stretched out in all directions, leaving access to only thinned out, fragile slivers of attention that we can allot to any one thing or person at a given moment?

I could be making assumptions here in implying this is a universal phenomenon, but at least in my own case, I couldn’t help but notice from time to time the effect that even the mere access to this technological world of social networks was having on me. It became even more noticeable while traveling: surrounded by inspiring street art in Berlin or magical architecture in Prague and finding that my mind was always only partially there – the other parts thinking about what I was planning to tell a friend about it or how I needed to capture the most beautiful places in photos to share on Instagram later or making a note to self to catch up with so and so while I had time. Even whilst my mind was there in Prague, it was simultaneously in Bangkok with my best friend, in Johannesburg with my nostalgia, in Harare with the work I missed or people I longed for – brought back to each of these places with each seemingly harmless text or glance at an old photo. Equally disconcerting was the realization that in my desire to share so much of my lived experience with other people or to just post it somewhere, the motivation behind my every action felt somehow less authentic. I began to wonder whether I would even live out my life the same way in the absence of these external social forces: to do things merely for the sake of doing them. I can’t remember where I read or saw it, but someone once spoke about societal fears of solitude as stemming in part from this need to constantly validate one’s own existence. It’s probably not a conscious thing someone would admit to or necessarily find true of their own impulses, but nonetheless, it seems fitting in a way to understand platforms like Instagram and Facebook (and, of course, blogs) as spheres that enable us to validate and shape our lived realities – to place them in a context in which they become subject to reaction and take on meaning beyond something that would otherwise be fleeting and lost to time and our own feeble memories.

None of this is inherently negative necessarily, but I do think it can become less benign in those moments where it detracts from the experiences we might otherwise have. For me, each time I allowed myself the distractions linked to these networks, I couldn’t help but notice a general sense of flatness to what I was feeling, as though a thin wall stood between me and the deeper emotions I wanted to access at times, the emotions that felt present yet never exposed in their fullness. And while I’m sure a range of factors can contribute to this, it felt quite evident at the time that much of that wall was constructed out of the consistent safety net of social distraction at my fingertips, and consequently, at the center of my thoughts.

Through my search for better words to articulate the numbing quality of these networks, I found an incisive description of the phenomenon by the writer Rebecca Solnit. In lamenting the “lost world” of the time before network technologies, she describes the loss of a world made up of two poles: solitude and communion, saying that this “new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.” I also resonated with words I stumbled upon in Krista Tippet’s book that “there is that window of choice, moment by moment, to go for distraction instead, to settle into numb…” I can’t remember the actual context in which she made this comment but it felt perfectly germane to the kind of escape allowed by social media, (in addition to television and the array of other media that so often take us away from our present moment).

And in fact, in cutting myself off from the choice to connect to these networks, I did feel a marked shift in the locus of my thoughts. I found myself increasingly awed by the banal things around me, forced to put forth more effort in keeping myself entertained from moment to moment with what was at hand – my beautiful surroundings, interesting strangers, my own thoughts. Perhaps less expected, I found myself actually feeling things with greater weight. It was as though, without the choice to retreat into the immediate yet somewhat false comfort of connection allowed by exchanging words or even simply an emoji with a close friend on the other side of the world, there was no longer a veil between me and my own thoughts. In the absence of a buffer, any inkling of a thought or emotion that may have otherwise been unintentionally (or sometimes intentionally) suppressed by an easy distraction was instead given free reign to unfold in its fullness, unencumbered and uninhibited. Meanwhile, bare and exposed by my own solitude, I was left with no alternatives but to actually confront whatever was there.

The thoughts or feelings that surfaced were nothing too shocking or unexpected, but nonetheless challenging to face at times. There are always those things you know are true but you may be ashamed to admit even to yourself, and so you avoid or ignore them and pretend like they aren’t there. A common one for many I think would be the fear of loneliness – or admitting to ever feeling alone at all (particularly when you are aware of all the love and support that surrounds you). Such admissions appear all the more unacceptable within the context of our social media saturated lives and the kind of taboo attached to the idea of solitude in general. I think Martha Nussbaum quite nicely touched upon the roots of some of these fears – fears that likely fuel our attachment to those outlets providing us with safeguards against the risk of fully seeing and accepting our own emotions. I found her framing of emotions particularly insightful in stating that“our emotional life maps our incompleteness”, explaining how “a creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them.”

In a way, it is actually extremely liberating to admit to one’s own dependency. Perhaps also counterintuitively, finding solace in solitude – learning to be content in one’s aloneness (as distinct from loneliness) – seems like one of the best ways to embrace this dependent nature and discover the most fulfilling application for the impulses born out of it. Ironically, the less I was surrounded by endless streams of digital communication with friends and family, the more I was able to actually feel the depths of my connection with individuals and find myself immersed in the beauty of that recognition. And the longer I went about each day without the usual mental distractions, the more I found myself forced to reckon with truths I so often suppress in fear of failing to meet my own expectations: the loudest and most recurring of which related to the mere acknowledgement of my connection and interdependency with humanity as a whole. For in this acknowledgement is felt the weight of responsibility – the beautiful yet overwhelming and in many ways painful weightiness of a reality that is there regardless of whether one chooses to engage with it. Herein, I found in solitude a necessary reckoning with the complacency and numbness I had allowed to replace moments that might otherwise have been spent in benefiting the world of humanity, another individual, or in simply elevating my own state of awareness about those things that are hardest to face but most necessary to grapple with as a member of society and the human race.

All this to say that, in my own temporary immersion into one form of solitude, I have come to better appreciate the power of allowing silence to replace chatter that might otherwise blind us to fragments of wisdom already latent in our own emotions and consciousness. For, as so perfectly put by the writer Wendell Berry, and as the most apt elucidation of my own experience, in solitude, “one’s inner voice becomes audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”

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.