When Things Pile Up

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My family’s bird feeder, on an unusually sunny winter day.

The world of London, Ontario is slowly moving into spring — finally, undeniably. Most of the snow has melted and it is even possible (if one listens carefully past the sound of traffic, beeping cell phones, the chatter of television, and every other noise cluttering our lives) to hear the song of birds, perched high on telephone wires and in trees, or stomping about in the yard looking for worms. In springtime, and especially in the life of a student, all the stresses that have gathered and piled up like the high snow banks in winter begin to melt, acquire less density, leak away. Final assignments and essays are completed and submitted; only the exams hang looming like dark clouds ahead. The dim promise of four months of warm summer nights (those not spent at a grueling minimum wage job) provide an elating sense of hope and freedom. As a woman in my meditation class observed, “it feels as though we have overcome a large obstacle, or relieved ourselves of a heavy burden. The winter feels like a sort of personal oppression and battle that we must defeat every year.”

And yet, statistically, most suicides occur in springtime. There is no perfect explanation for this: all of gender, biology, environment, and psychology play a role (as with most other cases of mental illness). It might have something to do with the fact that those who were struggling with mental illness throughout the winter gain the energy (because of seasonal effects) to actually commit the act of suicide.

My mother recently told me a story of when she was young in which she was walking with her father in a graveyard (yes, the morbidity of the setting is truly fitting), and he told her of his theory that perhaps it is the rejuvenation of life, the bright and shining hope all around that springtime brings, that attributes to the heightened hopelessness of the mentally ill. In winter, everyone is a little miserable, enduring the lack of light and cold weather, so it is easier to feel miserable yourself. It is probably not too far-fetched to conclude that the liveliness of others and nature itself could be the source of a dissatisfaction in one’s own miserableness. Everyone else is changing and you are not. Then you get worse.Things pile up.

For me, when things pile up, as they have been recently, I like to repeat one thought to myself: in life, you suffer, and then you die. This thought that I find so comforting may seem extremely pessimistic to you, but please let me explain before you shut down your computer and declare that I have proven to be as depressing as the depression that afflicts me.

To begin, this thought admits two facts that many people try to ignore. The first is suffering. We have all suffered in the past, and we are all going to suffer in the future. To reject the knowledge of suffering is a terrible mistake; it only causes more suffering!

Two years ago when I attended therapy regularly, my therapist explained to me the different forms of suffering in Buddhism. Now, I am in no way a Buddhist expert — I know only the very basics of the religion, so please forgive me for any mistakes I make in this explanation. She told me of “dukkha,” a word often translated to mean “suffering.” There are three main types of dukkha.

First, there is dukkha-dukkha: the dukkha of painful experiences. This is the suffering that nature causes. It comes from birth, aging, illness, dying, as well as natural fear, jealousy, anger, guilt, anxiety, stress, and so on. It is the suffering that no one can avoid because we live in a world that hurts us, over and over.

Second is viparinama-dukkha: the dukkha of the changing nature of all things. This also has to do with the effects a natural life has on us, but more so with our psychological desire to keep things the same. The world is constantly changing, and there is nothing we can do to stop this. Viparinama-dukkha is the suffering that results from losing things that we love and not being able to get what we want.

Last is sankhara-dukkha: the dukkha of conditioned experience. This is the suffering that results from our expectation that there will be no suffering, or that there should be no suffering. This is our constant cry of WHY ME? It is a general dissatisfaction with the way life has played out, and it is a struggle against our natural emotions, rather than just allowing and experiencing them. This is a rejection of suffering, and, as you can see, it is a form of suffering all on its own.

To accept the first two forms of suffering (and therefore eliminate the third form of suffering) is extremely hard, and I’m not certain it can ever truly be accomplished. But it is worth the effort. It is worth it to obtain the knowledge that life is suffering, and this sucks but there is no way to fix it.

Enduring depression and mental illness is a whole lot easier when you know that suffering is natural. Accepting depression is half the battle won. As Thomas Moore, in his book Care of the Soul, states so poignantly, “what if ‘depression’ were simply a state of being, neither good nor bad, something the soul does in its own good time and for its own good reasons?”

Unfortunately, society doesn’t often allow us to think of depression in these terms, or else it encourages us not to. Moore goes on to speak of the depressed soul in relation to society:

 “The soul presents itself in a variety of colors, including all the shades of gray-blue, and black. To care for the soul, we must observe the full range of all its coloring, and resist the temptation to approve only of white, red, and orange—the brilliant colors. The ‘bright’ idea of colorizing old black and white movies is consistent with our culture’s general rejection of the dark and the gray. In a society that is defended against the tragic sense of life, depression will appear as an enemy, an unredeemable malady; yet in such a society, devoted to light, depression, in compensation, will be unusually strong.

Here again is the idea that not accepting the natural suffering of life causes greater suffering, or a worse depression. Of course, there is a difference between the natural mood changes of life and a crippling depression that disallows you from getting out of bed for months and months, but I don’t think it would hurt to think of even that form of depression as merely a condition of the soul. This doesn’t mean that you need to succumb to your depression, or that you will never get better, just that you are attempting to live in harmony with your illness, and not adding additional suffering to your load by believing you shouldn’t be suffering in the first place.

The second part of this comforting thought — in life, you suffer, and then you die — is that after everything is said and done, you are going to die. To some, the impending certainty of death might cause them to not want to do anything at all. What’s the point? they might ask. To me, the certainty of death gives me an excuse to do what I love, really aspire toward my dreams, and let all the worries of life, all the things that have piled up, to fall away.

When you know that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you suffer, and then you die, and you know that that is going to happen anyway, it makes all the little disturbances and obstacles much more manageable. You might as well do what you love when pain is inevitable and death is unavoidable.

So, if things pile up, try to remember you’re not a freak of nature. Try to remember everyone around you is not as invincible as they seem, and that suffering is quite natural. Realizing that depression could be a normal state of the soul will not take all of the weight off your chest, but it might be just enough to let you breathe.

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4 thoughts on “When Things Pile Up

  1. Very insightful. I’m sure this will help many who are suffering or depressed. So nice to see you quote from my favorite book,’Care of the Soul’.

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  2. A very wise young lady! Must be good blood. Jesus wants us to embrace our suffering and today is a good day to think about that.

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    • Yes, the concept of accepting suffering is pretty much universal — it appears in so many different religions. Jesus was especially aware of the need for this. And you’re right, this Easter weekend was a great time to reflect on how suffering can lead to good things!

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