Life has a way of creeping up on you, casting you out on adventures even when you don’t intend to seek them out. Like a good little Hobbit, I was holed up in my home and in my head, with not much else to be bothered by than what I encountered on my day-to-day. I was, admittedly, hibernating quite a bit more intentionally than I had the previous couple of years. The year teaching in Burma, the main reason I started this blog, seemed to be a lifetime away (I returned at the end of April 2014) and I’m not sure that I really properly addressed reentry in a way that was helpful to me. Instead of giving myself time to process anything, or space to decide what I thought (if anything in particular) of my return and potential re-departure, I launched into a position locally helping refugees from Burma/Myanmar in the Des Moines area, with the organization EMBARC.
After a summer, I took an AmeriCorp position with them…and while the job sounded tremendous and perfect, my execution was lackluster and tumultuous. I didn’t fortify myself against worries or dread as intentionally as I should have, and as a result wasn’t prepared for the dark, dreary months ahead.
I admit, last Winter was fairly precarious to navigate. I had spent a year in 80-90 degree weather, with a beautiful two month rainy season, and was not really acclimated to revisit Iowa Winter. As a general rule, even when you are in the regular 4-season rotation, seasonal depression puts a good swath of the populace out of commission, and the doldrums of the workforce take care of most of the rest of us throughout the year. Truly, woe is the individual caught in the overlapping gridlock of that Venn Diagram. *faints dramatically*
I have heard that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master of a craft, and if that is so I am a Jill of Many Trades, Master of None Except Self-Deprecation. Math tells me that if you work at something for 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, you will reach the 10,000 hour mark in just under five years. I have spent a large portion of my life (much more than five years, at this point) dabbling in all manner of self loathing, pessimism, self-sabotage, intense scrutiny, and cynicism. In this, I am surely well qualified to speak on Weakness. We qualify our self-worth according to a list of traits handed out in social circles, and some groups are taught more strictly to adhere to making sure you do not exhibit certain Weaknesses, all the while being constantly reminded that, according to Group A, all of us who find ourselves in Groups B, C, or D are incapable of escaping the traits that are so fundamental to our inherently inferior selves. But I digress.
In all seriousness, however, I had not prepared myself fully for the change encountered in returning home, and instead threw myself into work. As a result, normal stress from life, from work, from feeling worthless in floundering pursuit of purpose, left me weakly struggling against the stranglehold of seasonal and situational depression. As someone who has just enough information to be dangerously self-analytical, I even spent a brief stint at odds with our less-than-superb mental health system, in an attempt to correct my clumsy oversight.
Not to pull focus by dwelling on that, I will say that the average therapist is put in a corner to defer to prescription solutions, and does not have the safety net to honestly accept and admit that the average patient may have absolutely reasonable circumstances under which to be overwhelmed, anxious, frightened, or otherwise put off.
Instead, they rely on handing out pills that make you numb, make you not care that circumstances are shitty. (This will have to be an entirely separate entry, I feel…)
Talk therapy is significantly more difficult to come by than is reasonable, and most people doing good work juggle a precarious workload.
What I found, in short, was that the help I was seeking was not to be found in a formal institution. I was not a lost cause, I was merely experiencing a hiccup in ability; I had stumbled along my path and was merely reaching out to ask directions, and instead received an entirely different account of reality than what I had perceived and put forth for analysis, one that made it seem really scary and debilitating to formally seek out a generalized “help” in lieu of seeking out individuals/places that are more specifically comfortable.
‘Tis the dark times in our lives that cast us back towards the light, and after attempting to keep my head above water in the precarious, socio-economic kiddie pool of white middle class hardship, I was thrown a life preserver. I relaxed enough to float, to wait, and to stop struggling–not to give in, but to perch, gather strength, and wait to make a strategic move, when and whatever I eventually determined that to be.
Yesterday marked the 100th day since my life markedly changed direction for the better.
Let me back up.
On top of the seasonal, social BS I was struggling with, my body collapsed and decided that since I wasn’t pacing myself appropriately, that it needed to pull a handbrake: I found out that I had mono in May, which really put a wrench in my overall recovery.
But every step back created a perspective to make a more informed several steps forward. The ugly depression I fought off last winter, which caused me to shrink from people almost entirely also caused me to hole up and rediscover my love of painting, a practice in which I immersed myself as self-therapy. Being ill required me to stop wasting energy worrying about every little thing I had no control over to begin with. It gave me an opportunity to filter the people I let into my life, and a necessity to prioritize my time accordingly, since everything suddenly became significantly more difficult, time consuming, and labor intensive to accomplish.
The week of my birthday, as I was still getting used to the idea of how best to navigate the final chapter of my 20’s, I was invited to a free event of music in the park. It was exactly the kind of thing I had been telling myself I needed more of in my life. Contrary to that knowledge, I had no desire to “people.” The last year, for whatever reason, had exposed me to a toxic mixture that zapped my ability to socialize. I had no defenses against crowd-inducing panic; I was a full blown Introvert now, and any exposure to people, even my best and dearest hand-picked from my inner circle, took significant resources for me to withstand.
I arrived at the park, and sat for a full ten minutes in my car, attempting to regulate my breathing and to psych myself up to walk among people that I may have to make eye contact with, or with whom I might have to (Science Forbid!) make conversation.
Forty-two (42!!) days later, another encounter blossomed from the first one.
And 100 days from that, my life sits on a foundation which is distinctly different than the crumbling shambles I was attempting to craft into something meaningful this time last year.
I intentionally withhold all the juicy details, to be introduced for monetary gain once I receive a book deal for all my blogging efforts. (Jokes.) The details don’t particularly matter, though I do like to revel in the details alongside the inspiration for this blog entry, with whom I collided and then who proceeded to save me in ways that I lacked the strength to save myself. The source for such a successful turnabout seems to be in the way I defined and responded to my own vulnerability, and the way they allowed me to be comfortable in examining and accepting my limitations realistically.
We are not meant to do everything, and certainly not alone.
Weakness is a curious trait that we don’t often permit to exist in ourselves, one that we use as a marker; more often than not, its mere recognition causes us to despise people, including ourselves.
Weakness is cultivated by things like pity, empathy–anything that doesn’t bring our boot down on the throats of our foes. Mercy is weakness in such a ruthless, selfish, opportunistic world, and we have mistakenly forgotten the strength of that statements inversion.
Such attributes are cowardice, and weak. Love has been similarly labeled.
We alternately revel in our weakness (as an unshakable line of reasonable excuses as to why our individual change is impossible) and condemn it, as folly relegating to the mentally infirm.
We are ashamed to let others see our weakness, when we feel it deprives us of status or respect.
(Many excellent things have been written on the power of vulnerability. My scribbles amount to no more than my own two cents on the topic.)
To love someone allows for recognizing our mutual weaknesses–being vulnerable–and granting the other the kind of permission we dare not grant ourselves for even such wretched, unwanted aspects of self to exist. To love a person “warts and all” allows for both of you to blossom in ways that we are incapable of accessing in any other way.
When you pick someone apart, when you “could love them, if not for X, Y, Z”– you are systematically obliterating bits of them that help hold together the whole; what we are quick to define as shortcomings are really the glue that holds our particular selves together. True, people have less than desirable traits, but until each person recognizes their own power and decision to change those things, picking them apart will cause the whole structure to crumble. We have to renovate ourselves with the proper scaffolding, allocating proper support for the weight that must be redistributed, not just by haphazardly tearing out chunks as we identify them.
When we berate groups for their monikers of “otherness,” we are attempting to dehumanize someone very much like ourselves by prioritizing particular aspects of their larger self over others; most commonly, these are things that we make easily distinguishable by oversimplifying them, things like race, religion, or political affiliations.
Previous observations I have made (but not published) on the concept of interpersonal connections and “soulmates” remind me that “when you meet your soulmate, you will be calm,” according to Buddhist thought (according to my notes from a book that, sadly, did not stand up to my previous encounter with it).
Souls are like stardust: they fracture and scatter so easily. When you feel the aforementioned calm with another person, it’s a sign that a spec in you has been drawn like a magnet to a spec in them, and in that moment of recognition you have joined up with a part of yourself that was otherwise inaccessible, one that you didn’t’ even know was missing.
That’s what I think empathy is: an ability to recognize and accept “weakness” in others in a world where we so vehemently and systematically are charged with denying it to ourselves.
Love is an extension of empathy, and both could be considered “weaknesses.” Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to mislabel or shirk either of them if we really recognized how closely the two are intertwined. They are fundamental and they are necessary for the process of accessing our highest form of humanity.