How to Be Depressed

How to Be Depressed

meanwhile, two weeks ago…

I used to be good at being depressed. I knew what to expect from myself and others knew what to expect from me. I was that girl. It was almost a joke, although I was miserable and did feel truly alone, worthless, and angry.

I don’t know how to do it anymore. Monthly, when my hormonal changes peak, I just try to get through the day or days, knowing it’s temporary, knowing I haven’t fallen into a pit, but just tripped on a gopher hole. Allowing myself a little more distraction or a little more morbid indulgence than usual: dark fiction, climate reports, BoJack Horseman.

This week has been different, because it’s just not ending. I wake up in literal and figurative darkness – not despair, just not really looking forward to anything. That’s really rare for me, and it is a bit scary. I really think that’s the worst part of depression. No matter how bad things are, either because of brain chemistry or actual horrific life situations or both, the worst part is never the thing or feeling itself, it’s the fear that you will always feel like this. Like Kimmy Schmidt said, “you can do anything for 10 seconds.” Just keep restarting at 1 and you might be able to trick yourself that it hasn’t been so bad for so long. And since our slow-to-adapt brains are wired for patterns, we can tell ourselves that since it hasn’t gone on forever, it won’t last forever.

And then, of course, the occasional depressive looks for answers. Explanations. I’ve gathered a few: my job is boring me into an existential crisis. The additional job I’ve agreed to take on for the next 9 months is feeling like a terrible idea and gives me anxiety whenever I’m reminded of it. I seem to have finally entered recognizable peri-menopause, much later than my peers, after skirting around the edges for years, which may be the chemical cause of 90% of this current state, or the sugar I’ve been eating more of lately. And then there’s winter: white and greyness everywhere, shocking cold for this early in the season, concern for my homeless friend and discomfort with my own comfort; the isolation of being carless most of the time, of working alone from home everyday. And as supportive as my partner is, he’s the one with chronic mental illness. He’s not accustomed to being the light in the room. He asks if he can help, and I have no idea what to suggest.

I know it will pass, or at least change. I am an acolyte of impermanence. But it’s hard. It’s not as hard for me now to shed the identity by which I usually define myself (able to find the beauty in everyday moments), as it is to see the world so differently. How can the stupid shit that brought me joy yesterday leave me dry today. Why do the tricks that usually perk me up for hours (exercise, human interaction, good music physically enjoyed) now just serve to remove that weight for the duration?

Next week is Thanksgiving. I’m sure it will be lovely and I’ll feel fine. And after that I’ll adjust my diet and either tackle the tasks that make me anxious or give myself permission to let that go for the rest of the year and give myself some grace. As much as I don’t want to be in this place, I don’t want to have this perspective, I don’t want to feel like this, I am grateful. I do forget what it feels like to feel like this. While I’m sympathetic, I can find it hard to relate. How can others not see the beauty of life? the game of life? the joyful ridiculousness of life? the impossible connections we still manage to find among each other? The how doesn’t matter. The why only matters to the extent you can change the why. The isness is all there is when you’ve tripped on that hole, or fallen into it.

What remains? What wisdom can I carry from brightside Z to darkside Z? Just the impermanence and the not-knowing. I’ve done a bit of curling up and indulging in the surrounding darkness – I read Sabrina from start to finish on Tuesday night. But I am trying to stay open and let the cold sunshine in. I don’t know when this will end. I don’t know what will bust me out of it, or if it will just go missing some morning, but I am trying to stay open to the possibility that something might help. I go out. I volunteer. I watch sitcoms. I will do something very scary this morning that might do wonders or might leave me anxious, awkward, and alone. But I’m going to try it. Because something’s gotta give sometime. It always does.

later that day…

The scary thing was Dance Church: an unstructured, come as you are, leave when you want, pay what you can, DJ-accompanied space for people to move on a dance floor. Maybe it was that, maybe the philosopher I watched on YouTube, maybe reading part of Dr. King’s Strength to Love, maybe just the passing of time. Probably a combination of all those plus something unquantifiable. In any case, I’m out of the pit for now. And hopefully a bit more empathetic for it.

(Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash)

3/4 of a box step

3/4 of a box step

I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself lately.

My new volunteer gig is frightening and wondrous. The easiest and hardest volunteering ever: literally nothing I have to do [exhale] … except hang out with people I don’t know [gasp], and infinitely rewarding.

And I’ve developed a new superpower: CHANGE. As some of you may have read in The Fireworks Guy anecdote, I (yes, the writer you know and love) have the ability (it’s okay: you can touch the hem of my garment) to stop doing destructive shit! Not only have I stuck a wrench in the churning hatred of Fireworks Guys (so successfully that I don’t feel any anger even when surprised by one of the little bombs anymore, just … surprise), I also preemptively stopped myself from falling into passive-aggressive relationship patterns twice last week.

The magical source of this newfound talent? Dumb old meditation. The best explanation I can give is that I’ve grown accustomed to my thoughts, or to observing them. Instead of just reacting to a perceived offense thoughtlessly, my response sits in the center of my vision like a dog in need. I can get off my lazy metaphorical ass and try to figure out what the issue is, or I can ignore it, fester in my angry/grumpy/bitter automation, while it slinks off and waits for the next opportunity to bump me out of inertia. In both recent scenarios, instead of just thoughtlessly plodding along as I usually do, I had a brief debate with myself over my choices:

I’m gonna be withholding now.

But why?

Because I didn’t like that.

And will clamming up make you feel better?

… no

And will it make him feel better?

… no

And will it teach anybody anything?

… … … no

So?

Fine. Forget it.

And that was it. I just didn’t do the pointless, harmful thing. Twice. I was so excited about my new superpower that I had to share it with the Practice Check-In group at my local sangha on Tuesday. To be honest, I was feeling pretty fucking cool. Not braggy cool, just quietly proud cool.

And then today I felt like shit. Depressed. Surly. Trapped. Drained. I took a short nap. I worked out. I logged out of my work computer. I listened to some Lizzo, did some dishes, took a walk. Everything helped a little, but I still feel shitty. What is this need for control? For consistency? Why do I panic whenever I’m down? I suppose there is some fear of feeling the way I used to when I was younger, of struggling to get out of it. And I have a need for answers. I have a few – an unfulfilling job, some bad news about a project I’m working on, eating too much sugar this week. But those answers don’t help me right now. Just sitting with it is probably the best thing I can do. But part of me wants to be better than that. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of the “good” things (my superpower, for example) as a step forward and the bad things (depression, criticism) as a step back, and see it more as a dance, a sidestep, an expansion into more, rather than better.

Writing helps, too. Thanks, friends.

Blooming Through the Unbearable

No danger that we are facing today is greater than the deadening of our response.

Roshi Joan Halifax, 7/18/2022

These were some of the first words shared at a talk centered on the spiritual Deep Ecology work of Joanna Macy Sunday, and a beautifully expressed warning against meeting immense challenges with despair.

That includes global warming, which refuses to fade gently into the night. And it’s a doozy – the most overwhelming, global, human threat to date, or at least for tens of thousands of years. A friend saw Elizabeth Kolbert speak at a university a few years back and was appalled when she answered the inevitable audience question of “what can we do?” with something like, Nothing. There is nothing you can personally do that will stop the headlong tumble towards an unlivable human planet. Here is where she is literally right: our household recycling, our composting, even our electric cars and solar panels are not enough, individually, to make a difference. The only individual actions that could make a dent would be those of leading political figures or the CEOs of prominent polluting corporations.

Here is where she is wrong: there is no such thing as an individual, isolated action in a living, social species. Not only do we bike instead of driving, we normalize biking and spark interest in others. We get the attention of those who want to sell bikes, who create tempting advertising around biking, generating more participation. Politicians glom on to boost their cred with the voting bloc of cyclists. Communities organize and successfully advocate for safer and more accessible bike paths, and more fearful folks now join in the ~carbon-free fun. The press reports on the changes in city planning. Car companies produce more electric vehicles in attempt to lure climate-conscious riders back. No single action occurs in a vacuum, and all have unseen reverberations.

And here is where she is deadeningly wrong: we have no idea what will actually improve our chances on planet Earth. That Not Knowing isn’t just a Buddhist practice, it is as scientific as it gets. Every scientific “truth” is literally a Theory, even the ones we take as gospel. No one knows how high the temperature will get, what exactly that will mean for our viability, or what might deflect us from that path. We have good models and predictions and explanation that we use to guide our actions, but we do not know what awaits us. Some people find this frightening. Some cling to the best guesses and worst case scenarios and despair in the presumed inevitability of The End. But Not Knowing, as a practice, is ultimately liberating. If we don’t know the future, we are free to accurately assess and focus on the present: is this act loving, kind, compassionate, meaningful, wise? Is it done for its own sake and not to reward my ego? Am I using the terror of the future to justify cruel behavior in the present? Whether it all fell apart tomorrow, or humanity were saved with the sunrise, would this still be a Right Action?

And here’s the other spiritual bit, the bit that Roshi Joan alluded to at the top: If we close ourselves off to action, because we believe it won’t fix anything; to our own heartbreak, because it hurts; to the pain of others, because it’s hard and uncomfortable; to lapping up the beauty of our world, because it will go away; to laughter, because there are so many reasons to cry; to love, because of impermanence, why are we even here? We do the best we can because it’s the right thing to do, not for an anticipated payout. Better to fail to save humanity by using less and loving more than to succeed by brutally annihilating a third of the population, right? It’s not about the fix; it’s about nurture.

Impermanence is the (admittedly shaky) foundation on which the Four Noble Truths sit. Everything is impermanent, including us and our planet. From the Buddhist perspective, it shouldn’t matter whether Earth’s temperature rises by 4 degrees Celsius tomorrow or in 2500. The urgency may increase, but the mindful behavior would be more or less the same.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Certainly the ongoing Heat Death of living creatures and landscapes makes me ponder quitting my job and devoting myself to whatever beneficial behavior I can muster up, and the likelihood of that happening increases as record-breaking temperatures and other environmental events become more dire. But I (breathe) try to return to the center of kindness, empathy, joy, and love. I love being alive. I love this planet so much it hurts. And I’m working on loving the people who share it with me. If I let my fear control the narrative, that love turns to despair. And there is really no reason to despair, because we are here in this unbearably beautiful place, and every moment is an opportunity to help others see it. Sitting with one suffering person is lifechanging. Planting one hazelnut tree is lifechanging. Feeding water to one parched koala is lifechanging. Returning one starfish to the ocean is lifechanging. No single one of us can stop global warming, but the lives we live can contribute to a wave of carbon reduction, and every single one of us can contribute to the wellbeing of a living creature on this gorgeous Earth.

intimacy

intimacy

I still have my birth date listed on Facebook, so I got a smattering of Birthday wishes this week. Most were from people I have never known well, one or two from good friends (most text instead), some from once-friends. No doubt I would have dived into some good old self-pity if I hadn’t had at least that, but despite the appreciation some sadness rose to the surface anyway. Not on the day: my birthday was lovely, with decent weather, a nice little hike with my guy & my dog, a delicious dinner, and all that. But when I went on Facebook the next day to address (“like”) the various acknowledgements of my birth, I felt sad. I started to write a post about social media and the pitfalls of not engaging with it – that the algorithms render me invisible and methodically shrink my reach, so that very few people see anything I post – but that wasn’t quite it. Then I logged into a webinar with Tara Brach and Frank Ostaseski today, and through the talk of loss and grief and death and living, one word connected with my current state.

Intimacy.

Yes, I miss socializing. During the most locked down days of the pandemic I think I most missed just going places – coffee shops, bookstores – and having casual, brief, human interactions with the workers or other shoppers. I value those almost meaningless interchanges far more than I realized. But that’s not the problem these days. I miss being known, being seen. And this is from someone with a partner who does know and see me. So greedy. I want more. I want to be seen in different ways by different people. I want what they see reflected back at me so I can remember who I am.

Even within intimacy there is so much variation. When a friend from college moved into town – someone who wasn’t part of my inner circle back in the day, but who I liked and knew and saw 5 days a week, 9 months a year for 4 years for fuck’s sake – I was thrilled, because we shared an intimacy. I was able to have a deep conversation with him right off the bat because I wasn’t trying to prove anything, or to perform my personality (whatever that is) or anything like that. He knew me, I knew him. We trusted each other. Even though almost all the details of each other’s adult journeys were mostly unknown, there was something there that I don’t feel with most people I know in my city now, people I’ve seen with some regularity for nearly two decades.

I also feel an intimacy with my Socially Engaged Buddhist group – 5-20 people who met online monthly, more or less, while studying a variety of topics under a variety of teachers for a year through a Zen center. I feel a deep connection to them, due largely, I’m sure, to our mutual commitment to open ourselves up to self-awareness and empathy and honesty and change. Certainly ego and etc. pop up sometimes, but there too I feel known and free to just be. I think it’s almost the opposite of what I have with my college friend. Whereas I think he knows me at my core, with my Buddhist group there is no core. Whether we can practice it consistently or not, we are all more or less committed to the idea that The Self isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We share our spiritual and mundane struggles and strivings and return again and again to acceptance, love, and not knowing.

I have long-lived, deep friendships for which I am forever grateful, but they are mostly with people hours away by car or plane, and that distance is wearing on me. Since I can’t forge lifelong friendships overnight, I am attempting to make that other intimacy happen – the connection of spiritual commitment. As much as I love my online sangha, they are not HERE NOW, and I need an intimacy that is present and tangible, not just electronic. The weather is finally, way too slowly, changing, opening the world up again to my carless, afraid-of-the-frigid-cold self. I’ve enrolled in a 3-week, semi-intensive mindfulness course and plan to get to the nearby Meditation Center for talks and sits as much as possible. I’m hoping it will set me on the patch of feeling connected to a local sangha, but I won’t be disappointed in a better understanding of myself and the paths available to me right now.

None of that is bad. It just is. Wishing you all peace and moments of intimacy.

Purpose

Purpose

Anyone out there feeling strange feelings in response to Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine? I’m not talking about anger or fear or frustration or dread. Those are all media-friendly and acceptable in wartime. I’m talking about jealousy.

Part of me envies Ukrainian residents right now. I admit it. Hiding my feelings has never done me much good, so fuck it: I am jealous. This doesn’t mean I don’t fear for their safety or mourn their innocent (all innocent) dead. It doesn’t mean I minimize the agony and losses that will only accumulate as this continues. But, as Chris Hedges reluctantly argues in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, our pleasant or unpleasant daily existence cannot compare with the addictive urgency of fighting or running for your life. Former war correspondents and soldiers don’t suffer from depression just because of the horrors they’ve seen or done in combat, they are also depressed because they are not in combat. What could be more real, more present, more in the moment than constantly being on guard for your very life, and the lives of those you feel compelled to protect? It’s physically and emotionally unsustainable (ask a pandemic nurse, if you don’t know a soldier), but it’s hardly depressing.

There are convincing theories, too, that the more comfortable we become as humans, the more anxious and lost we are likely to be. Those of us who have benefited from capitalism, etc. are only forced to face our own mortality on rare occasions, whereas our ancestors were up against it daily, either via hunger, predators, or deadly illness. Look, safety is great. It paved the way for all the things that fill our existentialist lives now. Art and philosophy and love replaced running for our lives and making babies so our species doesn’t die out as ways to give our lives meaning, and I would never trade them for the adrenaline of war.

Not permanently.

Victor Frankl believed that a sense of purpose made the biggest difference between surviving and slowly dying in the concentration camps. Some speculate that the invasion on our Capital last year, the growth in QAnon conspiracy followers, the need to believe in the Big Lie comes largely out of boredom. That those folks have manufactured something that threatens their country, their children, their democracy in order to feel that rush of purpose. I’m not desperate enough to go that route, but I sympathize. I try to redirect my inherent need for meaning, if it does exist, into approaching the world with a relatively passive commitment to kindness and compassion. I try to resist the compulsion to find a villain and a position on which to hang my focus.

But, damn. Can the enemy, the goal, and the urgency be more clear than today in Ukraine? I know it’s never as simple as it seems, but what it seems is that a ruthless, murdering, amoral dictator is attempting to take over an independent, Democratic country in an attempt to restore a long-dead empire and increase his own power. His rhetoric attempts to erase the strong cultural identification of Ukrainians, and he flat out lies about the government and the people. I admire the civilians who are taking up arms to defend their cities, but I don’t find this surprising in the least. What greater purpose could you ask for? Not just protecting oneself or one’s family, but one’s cultural brothers and sisters, land, way of life, political freedom, language, heritage, etc. etc. I heard on the radio this morning that folks who had left the country when war started to look inevitable are now returning to fight. Volodymyr Zelensky adds more fuel to the righteous fire in his refusal to leave or be cowed by Putin. A great purpose and an honorable leader? I mean, come on!

So, yeah. I’m jealous. I don’t know if there are atheists in a foxhole, but I’ll bet there are no depressives. All the systems that our body employs to respond to a clear and present danger preempt depression. The floating anxiety that seems to crave a target, and which our systems seek to fill with abstract, random, manufactured worries transform in battle into real, tangible concerns, ones we can prepare for and fight against.

There are real devastating and apocalyptic things happening all around us in this century. The pandemic and global warming, to name a few. But climate change doesn’t present us with a clear way to stand up to it, not one that is inspiring and motivating, anyway. And the pandemic doesn’t present a way for most of us to contribute, other than by isolation and inactivity, which feel purposeless and depressing. Some do a good job of forcing urgency – chaining themselves to pipeline construction or even less extreme protests – and that can help both society and the individual involved, but when your community continues to roll along as if nothing is wrong, it’s very difficult to sustain motivation there, either. Medical professionals on the aptly named “front lines” of the pandemic have more than enough purpose, but it’s not just the excess that is wearing on them; it’s the disconnect between the war they face at work, and the obliviousness outside of the hospital. Some drone operators may suffer more psychologically than soldiers on the ground, because they likewise inhabit a world in which the battle they are fighting is invisible once they step off base. That is certainly not the situation in the Ukraine.

Look, I advocate for nonviolence, and my inclination is toward nonviolence, but it is not a ride or die position for me. And I can’t say for sure that it is the right answer for every person in every situation. I don’t know what I would do if I were a Ukrainian in the Ukraine right now. Most of those Russian soldiers probably don’t want to be there either, and could be the victims of reactive Ukrainian violence that is yet another element of the injustice seething from every pore of this attack. I am not minimizing the horror of this situation. But I don’t believe in binaries anymore. It is frightening and monstrous AND it would be really nice to feel, in my body, that I truly mattered to something greater than myself, that I could make a real, life-or-death difference in my community, that I could make a meaningful sacrifice.

Blessings to all those good people, regardless, as I sit here with the luxury to ponder, and critique, and analyze, and envy. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be safe.

Rethinking Anthropomorphism

https://www.npr.org/2021/10/09/1044619808/opinion-a-gorillas-life-and-death-in-2-viral-photos

In my too-recent somatic experience of really feeling like a part of a mutualistic, interdependent world of plants, animals, and the constant exchange of electrons, anthropomorphism has come to mean something quite different than it used to. I don’t know if it’s the wider acceptance of Buddhist and Indigenous philosophies or the climate crisis or something else, but I’m also seeing more blurred lines in recent non-fiction books, including pieces about how the brain works, ecology, health, and others.

Here’s my supersimple explanation, based on nothing but my own education, of the evolution of anthropomorphism in Western culture. In the Romantic era across Europe and elsewhere, there was a shift in the intellectual classes towards an appreciation of nature and the other living things in it (some of them, anyway). You see this all over the English and European poetry of that era (late 18th-early 19th century), and the influence on American, especially Transcendentalist, literature as well. In a culture of hierarchies and human supremacy, granting human thoughts and feelings to “lesser” animals seemed a conciliatory and respectful practice. More recently, the ascription of human characteristics to non-humans has been considered childish and aspirational – something fanciful that we do to pretend that animals are more like us and force affinity where there is none. It is this position that is showing some much needed deterioration.

Unfortunately, some of the most habitual line-drawers between humans and others have been scientists. Much of the non-Right in this country is very rah-rah about science these days, and with good reason. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the purported objectivity of science precludes the field from prejudicial framing and, thus, prejudicial conclusions (see Braiding Sweetgrass for more on all of this). Naturalists, biologists, and other scientists of the living world have often been the first to dismiss talk of plant intelligence or the attribution of “human” emotions to non-human things. I understand how highlighting shared traits could be perceived as anthropocentric, that we should let animals just be animals. However, we can only understand the world in a context we recognize, and we are not just observers of the natural world, but participants in it. In order to participate we have to connect. In order to connect, just as with humans, we find things in common. If every emotional or motivational or intellectual connection we discover is dismissed as projection, it makes it very difficult to feel an affinity with other life forms. We are a part of this world. And other things in this world think and feel and act in ways similar to us. Trees have elders who help out younger trees, elephants perform ritual goodbyes for dead community members. Many animals hug each other with affection, or for consolation or conflict resolution.

Scientists employ […] technical language to distance ourselves from the rest of the animals. They call ‘kissing’ in chimps ‘mouth-to-mouth contact’; they call ‘friends’ between primates ‘favorite affiliation partners’ [….] if an animal can beat us at a cognitive task […] they write it off as instinct, not intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal terms this ‘linguistic castration.

Why Fish Don’t Exist. Lulu Miller. pp 181-2

We’ve hung onto this hard line between human and non-human life as if Darwin and his ilk never existed, as if we still didn’t know that humans are just animals that evolved in a distinctive way. We have been so enamored of our “superior” intelligence that we couldn’t even acknowledge that intelligence is a characteristic shared with other living things, let alone that others might be more intelligent than us in any area. But we are finally starting to give non-human life the credit it deserves, finally starting to talk about the way trees send messages through forests to protect each other, the way octopuses and grouper work together to hunt, or a crow manipulates tools, as intelligence.

When we have acknowledged non-human intelligence, we have judged animals based on how well they can do what we have classified as “human” talents – recognizing themselves in a mirror, performing tricks, remembering where items are placed, etc. Anything that is not an area wherein humans excel is classified as instinct. This overused quotation is still sound:

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Or we will believe it is stupid. It’s even harder to get people to recognize the intelligence of non-animal life. How can something without eyes or what we call a brain think? Calling trees or fungi smart is almost embarrassing.

We have also held our species up as emotionally superior, capable of a wider range of feelings and sympathies than other animals, despite the at-least-equal amount of evidence that we are less compassionate, more cruel, and indubitably more destructive than any creature that ever lived. We see ourselves as more individually distinctive as well, less of a type and more of a solo creature, even though we are perhaps less able to independently care for ourselves than any other plant or animal, less able every year, it seems. Plus, anyone who’s had more than one dog knows that there is no such thing as a “dog personality”. Every dog I’ve had has been at least as distinct as each of my friends.

Indigenous cultures have had little trouble recognizing and respecting our species’ essential and interconnected place in the natural world, because to do otherwise would be to put your life and the health of your community at risk. The only way to live off the land is to live with the land, to recognize what was required of us and what could be expected of and negotiated with other species. The religions that emerged out of this life reflected that mutualism, just as European religions, placing the idle and intellectual above and apart from farmers and hunters and those who worked with the earth, created religions of hierarchy and separation. We have long dismissed indigenous knowledge as mythical and unscientific, because the science used was not recognized as legitimate. But it is science, based on generations of observation and experimentation, and with conclusions rationally drawn therein, just as with non-indigenous science.

Early “big e” Environmentalism believed that the best thing for humans to do with nature was leave it alone, as if we are not a product, part, and partaker of nature; as if we’ve become so far removed from the source of our very being that we cannot possibly be anything but a scourge to the living world. I’m not mocking. I get it. Certainly, keeping drilling out of the arctic and development off coastlines is understandable. This was a motivation behind our National Parks. Protecting nature from us is perhaps not as self-promoting as some other practices, but it’s just as isolating and unnatural. Seeing ourselves exclusively as a threat to the rest of the world is just as insane as seeing the world exclusively as a threat to us. It’s like labeling your liver as a threat – sure, it can do damage when things go wrong, but it’s also an essential part of the package, one the body can’t live without and one that cannot live without the body.

Why do we insist on drawing these lines? Does it make us feel special? Do we refuse to acknowledge our kinship with other living things for the same reason we refused to acknowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe? Is it some quieter but still extant idea that in order to have our Special Relationship With God, we must be different from everything else? Do we cling to the favoritism of a distant, immortal, esoteric being at the expense of forming meaningful relationships with our mortal kin all around us?

If we do tend this direction as a capitalist, Euro-centric culture, what good does it do us? Does separating ourselves from everything in the natural world improve our wellbeing in any way? If so, how? Because it allows us to destroy entire ecosystems, species, dramatically reduce the livability for most things on the planet, without compunction? Maybe the ease, comfort, and continual newness for which we sacrifice our world does make us happier, in a way. I certainly like central heat and Youtube Alan Watts lectures on demand, but they don’t make me any less lonely. The loneliness that emerged from deciding we were the only intelligent species on the planet may have created our obsession with the things and conveniences for which we sacrifice our only home in order to fill the lonely maw inside us. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that doesn’t seem very smart.

In the new edition to her gorgeous book, World as Lover, World as Self, Joanna Macy writes that our dependence on and concern for our othered neighbors may not be as alien as we are led to think, and the refusal to recognize our compassion for the world does not serve us.

Many therapists have difficulty crediting the notion that concerns for the general welfare of our planet might be acute enough to cause distress. Trained to assume that all our drives are ego-centered, they tend to treat expressions of this distress as manifestations of personal neurosis. […] “What might this concern represent that you are avoiding in your own life?” In such a way is our anguish for our world delegitimized,

and even mocked, especially when expressed by indigenous groups who have historically and spiritually cultivated and respected a connection to the world they interact with, and thus have felt the pain of detachment more deeply than most of the rest of us.

We are told that we could not possibly feel a true emotional connection to things that are not human, that the only legitimate loss is human loss (the loss of a pet is only considered significant if compared to a human, e.g. it’s a member of the family, it’s like a child). What does this denial cost us? How much less lonely would we be if we recognized our kinship with trees and squirrels and forests? It would likely place us more thoroughly in the world, which would benefit the rest of the planet as well as ourselves.

Going on a hike doesn’t just make us feel better because it “clears our head”. Nature itself makes us better in ways we do and don’t understand. MRIs have shown that

When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing

Having a view of the outdoors from a hospital room reduces recovery time and the need for painkillers after surgery. In psychiatric units, studies have found that “being in nature reduced feelings of isolation, promoted calm, and lifted mood among patients.” Just 20-30 minutes in a “natural” environment significantly reduces cortisol levels.Trees emit phytoncides to deter insects, which generate immune responses in humans, increasing and activating the white blood cells that kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.

Depression, anxiety, and drug overdoses are higher than ever recorded in the US. Where can we go for comfort? What if we could turn to a river or flock of geese for a sense of connection, endurance, shared struggle, and rest? We can, but we rarely view immersion in the world beyond the one humans have created as a real place of sanctuary, even though it is our collective ancestral home. Is the drama of the human condition the result of us putting our intellect above and apart from everything else?

Could the recognition of non-human cognition make our lives better? Could it make us better neighbors, better tenants? Could changing the language of anthropomorphism tear down the wall between us and the rest of the planet? I truly fail to see the harm in recognizing the humanity, for lack of a better word, in the vibrant & varied lives with which we share the Earth. Unless we are deliberately separating ourselves in order to keep guiltlessly extracting and destroying? Recognizing our kinship on a global scale would force a shift in worldview, one that might put a stop to our extractive and exploitative economy. I dunno. I think it would be worth it, for all of us earthlings.


Climate Concern or Clever Self-Loathing?

mr yuckI understand Climate Depression; I’ve definitely sunk into it a few times this year. (The More You Know!) But what haunts me far more frequently is Climate Anxiety. It manifests as a pair of equally insidious Mxs. (plural for Mx.) Yuck-type parasites that sit on my shoulders, choking off any organic action, shouting contradictory half-remembered rules before every eco-related decision I make, and squeezing out any space reserved for the mythical good angel, who would tells me that I am okay. Well, eco-decisions can’t happen more than a couple times a day, right? Oh ho ho, if only you were right. You see, the indomitable bond of too much climate knowledge and too much self-criticism is far more powerful than either one alone, hamfisting its way into my consciousness in countless ways. For example:

You should go work out so you don’t get depressed

  • but that just burns more calories, so you eat more food
  • and leave a bigger footprint
    • jesus, are you kidding? what good are you when you’re depressed?
    • what good am I when I’m not depressed?
    • well, for one thing, you’re less likely to eat chocolate picked by enslaved children in Africa and shipped half way around the world for your pleasure
      • you know, the world’s running out of chocolate: do you need the chocolate? doesn’t someone need that chocolate more than you?
    • fine, I’ll go to the gym
      • you’d better bike
      • I’m going to bike
        • yeah, but you were going to go to the hardware store later; maybe you should go to the gym on the way; it will save time so you can get more accomplished today
        • too bad you’re not a real environmentalist – then you’d find a way to haul that lawnmower home on your bike
          • *sigh*
          • fine, I’ll drive; but it’s only on the way if I go to the other hardware store
            • is that one farther? then you’re contributing more CO2
            • yeah, but doesn’t the closer one engage in more unethical practices?
          • Shut up! I’m biking!
            • good
            • yes
            • even though you’ll use the time it eats up as an excuse to get less done today
          • My bike bag’s filled with crap
            • careful what you do with it!
            • what kind of crap? recyclable? compostable?
              • some kind of plastic
                • recycle it! Wash it out first.
                • No, don’t! That wastes water.
                • you have to wash it so it’s not tainted
                • is this even recyclable anyway?
              • there’s food in it…
              • COMPOST IT!
              • damn, you waste a lot of food; you should be ashamed of that
                • I am
                • not enough to stop doing it
              • but what about the plastic? what’s the number on it?
              • can you even read it? your eyes are terrible. probably because of all the sugar you eat; sugar’s destroying the swamplands, you know
            • Fuck it. Just throw it all in the garbage. The world’s ending anyway.

… leaving the door open for climate depression.

So that’s about 5 minutes of my life. Not every day. No… every day, but not always that bad, or maybe it will only happen 5 times a day. But on days like yesterday and today, when (hormones? low iron? gray skies?) I am walking that fence between depression and functionality, there’s barely time to regroup between episodes. I can literally do no right, so it’s difficult to do anything without a looming sense of doom.

This is despite knowing that most of the things I agonize over have little impact on the climate. Little enough to be functionally zero. And that on the flipside, the incessant agonizing itself can be debilitating, preventing me from making any decision, let alone an ostensibly “good” one, and injecting a cloud of fear into everything I do, climate-related or not.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s not about climate. It’s about self-loathing. There’s a theory (which has worked for me) that a lot of back pain is psychosomatic – real pain created by your brain to distract you from difficult feelings. It manifests as back pain because your brain is an avid trend-follower, and knows that lots and lots of people have back pain, and the sources are often inscrutable and cures unsuccessful, so it creates back pain. My brain is doing something similar, and gadblessit, it’s trying sooo hard to protect me. Just as it used to do with my back pain. But instead of throwing a blanket of physical pain over me to distract me from anger and sadness, it’s trying to make me perfect so that I will be lovable. It’s not about the environment. Eco-morality is a convenient rubric by which to judge and critique and guide and advise me into becoming a good and worthwhile person.

I know this, too. But there’s knowing and there’s knowing, right? I’m going on vacation in a few days, and I was thinking of trying to take a vacation from Mxs. Yuck as well. To see if I might be happier, more productive, ultimately better if I refuse to indulge the voices that are trying to make me better. I’m thinking about it, but it’s hard because the Yucks are almost always right. What right have I, a middle class American White woman, to stop worrying about ethics for a week?

  • But, Z, you’re just making yourself miserable. What good does that do the world?
    • What good does abandoning morality do the world?
  • You couldn’t abandon morality if you tried.
    • But that’s because of Mr/s Yuck.
  • No, it’s not. You have to trust that it’s in you.

Trusting yourself. Another thing the Sloathed (for self-loathed: I’m trying to get this trending: hah? haah?) suck at.

What would it take for me to unplug the voices and let it all go for a week? Massive amounts of mind-altering substances? Positive reinforcement? Will the world survive if I stop yelling at myself? Of course it will, but I still feel nauseated just thinking about it.

 

 

 

Sitting in the Shit

headAnd sometimes you just have to accept that you’re in a bad place, and try not to spread it around. The compulsion is to try to justify it with the things you’ve failed at, the ways you feel you’re not supported by your partner or community, the demands of your job, the horrors of the government, your kids, climate change. It is all of that and none of it, but addressing any of it while in this state is downright dangerous. You can justify anything – any outburst, any insult, any rebellion – but that’s just because you’re clever, not because you’re right. And the outcome of any reactive interaction in this state will likely hurt you or someone else.

So maybe you bike it out, or drive around yelling with songs on the radio, or have a few drinks or some weed, or play video games for hours, or watch a pointless film, or ideally, just sit with it and meditate; but don’t blame it on anyone, including yourself. If you decide that anyone’s actions can significantly worsen your wellbeing, you’re reinforcing the idea that you have no choice in how you react to the world, and if you believe that, then why bother meditating, anyway? If you decide that, well, this one time it really was Joe’s fault, or Trump’s fault, or my fault, then you will also feel compelled to keep defending that position, which again reinforces the idea of your own passivity.

It is as much everyone’s fault as it is anyone’s fault, and as much no one’s fault as anyone’s. You are constantly touched by everything you interact with, but that touch doesn’t have to knock you down, and it doesn’t force you to push back. If you make up some excuse for the present state, it’s just going to prolong it. Accept the shit, try not to say too much, and know that, like everything, it will change. The less you attach to it, the easier it is, and the sooner you’ll move past it.

Now you’re going to publish this piece, have a shot of cucumber vodka, and quietly watch Game of Thrones with the partner and the dog. Then sleep. And see where you are tomorrow.

Prescription: The End of the World

elephants climateThere’s a theory that one of the reasons humans are so depressed and anxious is because life is too easy. We are animals, and animal subconscious is primarily consumed with 3 duties:

  1. keep from getting killed
  2. keep from starving to death
  3. keep your species alive

Evolution and our awesome brains, whatever other neat directions they may have pushed our species, haven’t moved us beyond these primary concerns. Nowadays most of us (let’s make this “us” middle class white people; whites are also the biggest US consumers of anti-depressants) don’t have to worry about 1 & 2 on a daily basis. (3 will have to be its own blog post.) The theory is that we are hard wired to be on the alert for threats and scarcity, so when they doesn’t exist, our brains help us create them with anxiety and depression. Similarly, allergies are your body reacting to a threat that doesn’t exist in a way that hurts you (making a poison out of a peanut), and also rarely happen in countries where bodily threats like malaria and intestinal worms are real and the immune system is kept occupied.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the harmful tendencies of the brain and how to negotiate with them. I formulated this particular negotiation because I’ve been tasked with creating some Climate Change content for a State Fair exhibit. Here’s a question:

What if we really, truly internalized the threat of climate change?

What if we woke up every day and calculated how every action we took increased or decreased our risk of decimating humanity? What if we did that every moment? What if our every action was a conscious meditation on fossil fuel reduction or carbon capture or community education? What if we lived our lives on a scalding planet the way Robert Redford does on a sinking ship in All is Lost? Have you seen it? I’m not the only person who had this experience: after watching the film, for a too short period of time, every physical thing I did felt deliberate and important; every dish washed, every door opened, every piece of clothing placed in the laundry felt glutted with meaning.

What if we could live every day like that? Would it give our restless brains something to do? Could we stop being anxious and depressed about nothing in particular and focus that energy on the survival of the species? Do you think this Anti-Depressant Marketing idea might get people to give a shit? CLIMATE COMPULSION FOR MENTAL HEALTH!

I have my doubts about getting this past the MN State Fair committee.

How Winter Kills*

winterWoman & Guy go out for dinner & a movie at the art museum. Pleasant conversation follows – good film, bad audience; good food, bad waiter – as they join the line of cars waiting to exit the parking lot. Woman, sitting in the passenger seat due to her low tolerance for alcohol, looks at her sideview mirror and remembers she got the car – finally, right?! – washed today. Did the mirror get moved? She asks the man if he can see out of her mirror. He doesn’t answer. She waits. She calls his name. He responds with mild defensiveness. She sighs, “it’s just … exhausting!” She presses her palms against her face, hard, and wills herself not to cry.

And just like that – winter depression makes its grand entrance! Continue reading “How Winter Kills*”