[guest post] The Dharma of Depression

My friend Seth, who has guest-posted here before (read it, it’s awesome), returns to talk about depression and Buddhism.

Note: The following is a transcript of a speech given at the weekly College Meeting for Worship at Earlham College.

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me that people have come to hear me talk about this.

For my entire adult life, and most of my adolescence, I have struggled with depression.

Sorry to drop the heavy stuff on you right away, but this must be understood if anything is to come of the rest of my talk.

In many ways, I have been very lucky. I have never had to take medication; I know people who have. I know people who would not be with us today if they hadn’t had medication. I know people who are no longer with us. I have attended memorials for those people in this very meeting house.

Depression is a terrible, terrible disease.

Other diseases ravage your body; depression ravages your mind. It tears away at you will, your hope, at everything that makes you, you.

Let me be clear about this: depression is not sadness. 24/7 sadness would be incredibly obvious to everybody around you. But depression is much more insidious than that, and in my experience, it often takes your friends and loved ones by surprise when it crops up.

So what is depression, then?

Well, I obviously can’t speak for everybody, but here’s my experience:

Depression is being trapped in a slow, steady downward spiral of negative thoughts. Depression is thinking that the biggest mistake you made all day was getting out of bed. Depression is the feeling that you’re slowly falling to pieces, and the inability to pick yourself back up and put yourself back together. Depression is the irrational yet inescapable idea that your life means nothing to anybody, and that nothing would change if you just suddenly vanished from off the face of the earth.

The worst thing about depression, though, is that it devours the very resource that is necessary to fight it: your willpower. Sure, maybe you know that you should try talking about it to a friend you trust, or make an appointment to see a councilor, and that might help. But how in the world are you going to do that when you’re lucky just to have the ability to pry yourself out of bed in the morning?

All this is very important to understand. Partly for my story, because this is what I mean when I say that I was depressed. But also because you may well meet somebody suffering from depression in the future, or maybe you already know somebody who is. It will help both of you if you have at least some idea of what they’re going through.

But back to my question, because for far too many people, it isn’t rhetorical. How do you fight something that destroys your ability to fight?

Like the experience of depression, the key to overcoming it is different for each individual person. For me, the key was faith, which is why I’m here talking to you all today.

It may surprise some of those here that know me when I say that I consider myself a deeply religious person. Part of that is probably because I’m not extremely outspoken about my religious beliefs, and when I do talk about them I tend to frame them as a general philosophy about the world rather than a spiritual belief. Part of that is probably a cultural tendency to assume that “religious” means Christian, or at least Abrahamic, which I am neither. Nor is the religion I wound up devoting myself to the same one I was brought up with. Nevertheless, I consider myself religious because my personal philosophy and sense of morality are, if not directly taken from my religion’s teachings, very much in sync with them.

Allow me to explain.

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I Won’t Write About the Conflict; Or, What I Think Of When I Think Of Israel

My hometown, Haifa

I won’t write about the conflict.

Yes, I know I’m from there. I know I must have Such Interesting Perspectives on that whole…situation.

I know I have friends in the IDF. I know I once strongly considered moving back, and thus getting drafted myself. I know I’ve seen rubble and remains of Qassam rockets and tanks and bomb shelters and graves. What do I think of all this?

Not much, anymore. I’ve gone numb.

I used to write about it, publicly. I had a newspaper column and everything. You can probably guess which perspective I took. My family was so proud, sending the articles to their friends, saying, See, here’s a young person who gets it.

And then I stopped, cold turkey.

I’m not ignorant. I read the news. But the news is so damn different depending on who reports it, and each side can easily counter the other with endless barrels of (factual? fake?) evidence.

I am a skeptic. When I don’t know the facts, I keep my mind unmade. Israeli politics, like Israeli cities and streets and social codes, are so much messier than their American counterparts. So on this issue, like so few others, I remain not apathetic, but agnostic.

Most of my friends don’t know that I prefer not to talk about it. Those who aren’t close enough to be friends will even ask me upon first learning about my nationality: “So, you’re from Israel, huh? What’s your take on what’s going on over there?” I usually mumble something about not really following that whole thing anymore.

Before I understood how to assert my conversational boundaries, I once let a friend lead me into a discussion about it. He didn’t know that it’s a sensitive issue, and that conversation ended with a moment that wasn’t one of my best: me snapping at him that maybe he’d feel differently if he didn’t have an aging grandmother over there, a widow, who has had to evacuate her city when the wars start.

But another time, a new friend did one of the kindest things possible: after I’d asked him a personal question, he reassured me that he’s open to discussing just about anything, except Middle Eastern politics. For a long time, I wondered what personal connection this decidedly not Middle Eastern person could possibly have to the conflict. Only later did I find out that he has no issues with discussing it at all; he’d said that only to free me from any obligation I might feel to discuss it with him. And, indeed, I’d been freed.

I disagree with those fellow Jews who think I have an obligation to defend Israel (some of whom say that my talent is being wasted on subjects like mental illness and assaults on women’s rights). I likewise disagree with those fellow progressives who think I have an obligation to denounce Israel. It is my home. I learned to breathe, walk, eat, talk, think, and exist here. My first memories are here. This hot breeze was the first to ever rustle through my hair. These salty waves were the first to ever knock me over and make me gasp for air. These narrow, winding streets are the ones on which I saw, for the first time, a world beyond myself and my family.

I can no more divest this place of its emotional significance and denounce it than I could my own mother and father.

To those who have never been to Israel–and that’s most Americans, even those who have plenty of opinions on the conflict–it must be hard to imagine thinking and writing about Israel without also thinking and writing about the conflict.

I can see why. When you think of Israel, you think of the nightly news. You think of fiery politicians and clashing religions. You think of security walls, blockades, and death counts.

I think of those things, too. I have to.

But I also think of the way the passengers burst into applause whenever an airplane lands in Israel.

I think of stepping into the Mediterranean for the first time in years. The water is clear and the sea is turquoise, and tiny fish swarm around my feet. The current pulls me in, and when the waves slam, it feels amazing.

Carmel Beach, Haifa

Carmel Beach, Haifa

I think of weathered blue-and-white flags hanging from windows, fences, car antennas.

I think of the obvious hummus, pita, and falafel, but also of schnitzel, shashlik, tabbouleh, schwarma, tahini, and beesli.

I think of eating figs and mangoes right off the tree.

I think of hearing a language I usually only hear at Friday night services–on the street, in the bus, at the supermarket. I think of how the little I know of that language tumbles out so naturally, with the pronunciation and intonation almost right.

I think of the Russian woman we talked to at the bus stop, who could remember and list all of the day’s product prices from the market.

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha'anan, Haifa

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha’anan, Haifa

I think of the strangers wishing me shana tova (happy new year).

I think of clinging to the pole as the bus careens down the mountain, around corners, and of laughing as the driver slams on the breaks, opens the door, and curses out another driver, as they do in Israel.

I think of the shuk (market) on Friday afternoon, before Shabbat.

I think of factory cooling towers, roundabouts, solar panels, and other staples of Israeli infrastructure.

I think of the white buildings designed like cascading steps, their balconies overflowing with flowers.

I think of how things are messy. The streets aren’t laid out in a grid like in American cities; they twist themselves into knots. People are impatient. Taxi drivers charge whatever they want. Rules and signs are ignored.

Produce at the market

Produce at a market stall

I think of palm, pine, olive, and eucalyptus trees, and of the smell of the pines in the park where we used to go before the forest burned down.

I think of laundry drying on clotheslines hung beneath windows.

I think of the huge families camping on the beach with tents, mattresses, grills, stereos, portable generators, pets, and, in one case, an actual refrigerator.

I think of Middle Eastern music and Russian talk shows blaring out of open windows.

I think of heat, dirt, sand, and blinding sunlight.

I think of how, somewhere in the thickets behind my grandmother’s apartment building, there is a single grave. It belongs to a 16-year-old boy who died defending Haifa decades ago. And despite its entirely unobvious location, the grave marker is always piled high with rocks.

View from Yad Lebanim Road

I think of vendors selling huge bouquets of flowers by the side of the road for the new year, which would begin that night.

I think of how slowly life moves here in some ways. Buses run late, eating at restaurants can take hours. Young adults take years off between the army and college. Our nation has been around in some way for thousands of years, so I suppose hurrying seems a bit silly.

I think of the cemetery by the sea, where my grandfather is buried, and where the silence and stillness is comforting.

I think of the history embedded in every stone, and of how the steps of Haifa’s endless staircases are worn smooth.

Stairs between streets

I think of how it must have felt to be despised, discriminated against, and even murdered for your peculiarities, and then coming to a country where everyone shares them with you.

I think of floating in the sea at night with friends I’ve known since before my memory begins. The water, completely still now, reflects the orange lights on the shore.

And here, in a place most know only for its violence, I have found a peace that eludes me in the safe and orderly country where I live.

So I won’t write about the conflict.

I will only write about my home.

Sunrise over Haifa

Sunrise over Haifa

[In Brief] On “Smug” Liberals

Sometimes I see conservatives derisively claiming that liberals/feminists/progressives are just “smug” and self-satisfied, that we hold the opinions that we hold because it gives us some sense of self-righteousness, that we do it in order to feel like we’re better than everyone else.

I find this bizarre. I, for one, was considerably more smug and self-righteous when I was a far-right conservative than I am now as a progressive feminist.

Yes, I think I’m right. No, I’m not a relativist when it comes to human rights and social justice. I’m right, and the belief that certain people should be denied rights is not equivalent to the belief that they should have those rights. No, I’m not going to do what women are supposed to do in our culture; that is, hem and haw and say “well of course all opinions are equally valid” and “I mean it’s just my opinion and I could be wrong” and whatever. Nope, I’m not wrong. Sorry.

But I’m not saying this in order to feel superior to you. I’m saying it because that just happens to be what I believe.

I don’t feel self-righteous about my political views, but I do feel proud, and it has nothing to do with you, hypothetical person who disagrees with me. I feel proud because I care about people. I feel proud because when people read my writing and see the stickers on my laptop and the books on my shelf, they know that I’m someone they can come to. Someone who won’t tell them, “But come on, that’s not really racism” and “Don’t you have more important things to worry about?” and “I’m sorry you got raped and all, but why’d you go out wearing that?” and “You and your boyfriend did what? That’s disgusting.

I feel proud because I still remember the alternative: that festering sinkhole of judgment I lived in, in which I thought of some people as “those people” and meticulously drew lines in the sand to separate myself from those people.

I feel proud because I am absolutely, positively fine with being told that I have “privilege” and that my life has been easier than many other lives for reasons none of us control. I’m not fine with the fact that privilege is a thingI mean, but I don’t get defensive about being called out on it. Not anymore.

I feel proud because I think–I hope–that my friends would feel comfortable letting me know if I’ve said something that marginalizes their race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identity. I feel especially proud of that knowing that I have not always had friends whom I would feel comfortable telling that.

I feel proud because I don’t think that my personal morals should have anything to do with the law, which means that in my ideal society, people who disagree with me on just about everything would still be free to live as they choose (provided, of course, that they do not impose on the rights of others).

I think those are all things to be proud of. It’s fine if you don’t, but don’t assume that my politics have anything to do with making myself look better than you. That’s something I couldn’t care less about.

Now, as for liberals who actually behave smugly towards conservatives, two points: 1) Rude people exist within every conceivable political orientation, and we can all agree that they are bothersome; and 2) they’re probably not being smug simply because you’re a conservative.

They’re being smug, specifically, because you believe they shouldn’t be able to marry their same-sex partner whom they love, or that they should be forced to carry their rapist’s baby to term, or that their children should learn insufferable nonsense rather than the theory of evolution in school. 

I would say, in those cases, that smugness is quite warranted.

1 + 1 = 2: Why I’m Not Looking for My “Other Half”

I was listening to music today when I noticed something odd about the lyrics to many of the songs:

Give me a reason to fall in love

Take my hand and let’s dance

Give me a reason to make me smile

Cause I think I forgot how (Meiko)

 

Who doesn’t long for someone to hold

Who knows how to love you without being told

Somebody tell me why I’m on my own

If there’s a soulmate for everyone (Natasha Bedingfield)

 

You got a piece of me, and honestly

My life would suck without you (Kelly Clarkson)

 

Before you met me, I was a wreck

But things were kinda heavy

You brought me to life

Now every February, you’ll be my valentine (Katy Perry)

 

Look into your heart pretty baby

Is it aching with some nameless need?

Is there something wrong and you can’t put your finger on it

Right then, roll to me (Del Amitri)

If you pay attention to these songs, it seems that romantic love is something that “saves” you from loneliness and misery. It’s not just in our music that you see this sort of thing, either. Plenty of movies and novels are based on the premise that one or both of the people in the love story are lost and broken until they find each other, and there’s a reason, I suppose, that we talk about “finding our other half.” My parents, too, always told me that once I fell in love I would not be depressed anymore, and used my ongoing depression as “proof” that I didn’t really love my boyfriend.

In a way, this seems like an extension of the rescue trope in our love stories. Typically, it’s a woman being rescued by a man, but you see the story play out the other way around, too, with the woman “rescuing” the man from workaholism, domestic ineptitude, skirt-chasing, substance addiction, emotional numbness, and even, apparently, a propensity for BDSM. All ills, it seems, can be cured by falling in love with the right person.

I used to buy into this myth completely. The fact that I had depression and few genuine friends probably fueled my acceptance of it, as did the fact that in our culture it’s freakin’ everywhere. I told myself, “I can never be happy if I’m single,” and believed that once I was in a stable relationship, I would immediately feel understood and loved–and thus would finally begin to understand and love myself.

Well. I don’t buy this anymore. (I also don’t buy the other extreme, which is that “you must love yourself in order to be loved” or whatever. People with self-esteem issues are capable of having relationships, thank you.) At one point I took stock of my life and realized that I’m single and…happy. I would still like to have a significant other sometime soon, but not because they will make me “complete.” I already am.

I now believe that the fundamental “unit” of humanity is not a couple or a family, but a single person. Nobody can ever be as close to you as you are to yourself, but you can choose to make connections of varying degrees of closeness with others. After all, if we’re all “meant” to be half of a couple, why are many people genuinely happy being single? Why do some people choose to form triads or group marriages? Why do some people find happiness as single parents? Why are some people’s greatest loves their friends, not their spouses?

Now that I’ve realized that I don’t “need” a partner, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate why I nevertheless want one. I don’t need to be “saved” from anything, and I don’t think that a relationship would (or should) change my life in a huge way. Now that I have lots of good friends, I don’t need much emotional support from a partner (or from any one person), and now that I don’t have depression, I don’t need much emotional support anyway.

If you were to imagine relationships as a mathematic equation, the traditional one would be 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 (or, perhaps more paradoxically, 1 + 1 = 1). I like to think of them as 1 + 1 = 2. Two people in a relationship are still two people. They still have (or should have) their own personalities, friends, hobbies, careers, and lives. (In my view, they should have their own last names and bank accounts, too, but I suppose that’s not for everyone.)

They also still have their own problems, because you can’t cure loneliness or depression or insecurity or boredom by adding into the mix another person and all of their own issues. I think a relationship between people who consider themselves whole is by default healthier than one between people who consider themselves fractions.

[storytime] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It’s Like To Consider Suicide

Somebody, somewhere in the world, kills themselves every 40 seconds.

Set a timer on your phone or watch for 40 seconds. When it beeps, another precious, beloved life is gone.

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day. Although suicide prevention entails important things like improving mental health screening and treatment, increasing access to mental health services, and decreasing the stigma of admitting and treating mental health problems, I think there’s another part that we usually miss when we talk about prevention. And that part is understanding what being suicidal is really like.

Those who kill themselves (or wish to do so) are not selfish.

They are not weak.

They are not simply having a bad day.

All of these tropes about suicide, and many others, are wrong.

I can only speak for myself, not for any of the other millions of people who have struggled with this most ultimate of dilemmas. But for me, at least, here is what it was really like.

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