I’ve been stuck lately. It happens to all of us. Now and then, we feel like Dante, who opens his Divine Comedy in the midst of an existential crisis:
IN the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct. . .
Fortunately, most of us don’t need to walk through hell and purgatory before we reach the heaven on the other side. And we don’t need to need to wander between dream vision and sleep, gradually learning how to “do well” like William Langland’s protagonist in Piers Plowman.
But what these texts from the Middle Ages note remains true: sometimes we lose our momentum. Like a turtle pushed out to the center of a frozen pond, unable to gain footing and reach the shore again, we feel lost, adrift, and powerless. Sometimes, this makes us stiff and wooden. As Albert Camus writes in his essay “Return to Tipasa“:
A day comes when, thanks to rigidity, nothing causes wonder any more, everything is known, and life is spent in beginning over again. These are the days of exile, of desiccated life, of dead souls. To come alive again, one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland.
Indeed, sometimes we really do need to come alive again.
Each year around the final week of October, a depression hits. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the weather, with its diminished light, gray dawns, and drippy days. It also could be the unfortunate academic timing that final papers and projects come in imposing clumps around now. Or, what I’ve come to think, it’s simply brain chemistry. A diagnosed depressive, I’ve learned to accept the mysterious flux of moods. Like Henry James notes, the weather of the mind is like any weather: some days it’s sunny and some days it’s not.
And each year, the depression gets harder to fight. Year by year, wear me out, like a longterm siege.
So it was this semester. The same weary weight. The same unknown source and inexplicable severity. Like a drop of dye in clear water, my life tinted, and I fell, prostrate and stuck. Meanwhile, work piles up, responsibilities accumulate, the clock ticks on, and the everyday rolls forward, a conveyor belt that won’t wait for us to catch our breath.
Most of the time, stoicism provides an easy rout. Grit through it. Get ‘er done. Swallow that bitter pill and bite that iron bullet. Eventually, it’ll all pass (maybe) and you can rest. Sometime over the hill or on the other side. But meanwhile, don’t look at the pile; just keep shoveling. If anything, it’s like Friedrich Nietzsche’s adage, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
But as one of my old friends once told me, quoting Judith Guest: “People who keep stiff upper lips find that it’s damn hard to smile.”
And so it’s been with me. It’s gotten damn hard to smile.
And so comes the stuckness. Resolved to the same repetitive depression, the same routine of work-induced stoicism, I’ve decided that life isn’t necessarily something we’re meant to enjoy much. It’s something we get done. A task that needs finishing. And gradually, after years of this, the bruise-built calluses of everyday life toughen our skin and we get used to it. Children who hope for a better world are simply rosy idealists. As Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in his Studies in Pessimism:
If two men who were friends in their youth meet again when they are old, after being separated for a life-time, the chief feeling they will have at the sight of each other will be one of complete disappointment at life as a whole; because their thoughts will be carried back to that earlier time when life seemed so fair as it lay spread out before them in the rosy light of dawn, promised so much — and then performed so little.
Looking back on broad, blue days or laughing with friends may provide momentary comfort, but on the whole, life isn’t enjoyable, so we might as well get on with it and stop trying to improve. As I’ve come to ask myself, “Why get better?”
And so I stopped trying to enjoy life or get better. I stuck to what I could manage: mostly my day-to-day duties. But after awhile, hit with the insidious spectrum of depressive symptoms, duty became hard. Then simply getting out of bed, or talking, or sleeping, or thinking became hard.
And now, I recognize I need a change. And this is natural, too, I suppose. I’m not quite sure how to look at depression–or inexplicable difficulties in general. Perhaps some can grit their teeth and endure. Perhaps others can simply detach themselves from it. A few born optimists may be able to float through, buoyed by some natural resilience and ready-made smile. I’m not that way.
Perhaps my natural rhythm is to let it flood, combat it, and rebuild. I’m like a town on a flood plane, flooded each year and forced to rebuild. I’ve never been able to “defeat” my depression, after trying to for the past nine years. Maybe some day, but I don’t know. Instead, each year, I do get over it, and most of the time, I have to fight to get better.
So, instead of looking at the impossible, trying to change this yearly rhythm or this condition, I should recognize the truth: this too shall pass, and just as I get depressed each year, I must do my best to take stock, rebuild, and see the beauty in life again. This is the human condition, after all. It has its highs and lows, and history–both current and past–is a tragic catalogue. As one of my favorite World War II poets wrote,
Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.
Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.
isn’t that young girl anymore. . .
A despiser of blind optimism, I often come back to this. But optimism doesn’t need to be blind. It can recognize that one must prove what makes one happy or what makes life livable, even if one can’t end suffering–or even reduce it. But this doesn’t mean the struggle is hopeless or mechanical. It means that we must find shelter in the storm or joy in struggle, clinging to our buoyancy. And since we’re imperfect, we’re bound to fail sometimes and get stuck. That’s life.
Like Dante or Langland’s protagonist, we get stuck, but we must learn to unstick regardless, and sometimes those journey’s, like Dante’s taste of Paradisio, are beautiful and worth the struggle. Or at the very least, we learn to appreciate them better and gain a deeper compassion for the suffering people around us.