Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
— TS Eliot, Burnt Norton
. . . . .
I don’t handle stress well. When I get anxious I start to feel overwhelmed, and then I just kind of lose it, become incapable of coping, functioning. I get angry, frustrated, desperate. I shut down. And then I spiral into a dark, deep depression. I go crazy with grief and self-recrimination. I feel as if I’m falling, endlessly, out of control, and smashing into rocks on the way down. The knowledge that it is a crazy overreaction, irrational, that I am being completely irrational, just makes it worse. I become helpless, racked with agony and self-loathing. And then I hit bottom, and I just want it to be over. I want to die. If I had a pill that would end my life painlessly and immediately then, I would take it, no hesitation.
The depression can last a few hours or a few months. I become incapable of doing anything reliably. I sleep as much as 18 hours a day. I feel utterly exhausted, broken. I lose all track of time.
And then, finally, the fever breaks. The noonday demon begins to lose its paralyzing hold on me, and I claw my way back. I begin to feel again, a rush of emotion that often shows up first in wilderness walks, while listening to music, at night under lamplight or moonlight, or in play with animals or children. This is when I cry.
I learned early in life how to handle this myself. No one ever told me how to cope with this madness, or what caused it, or what it was. It was always my own burden, my own secret disease to be concealed from view. I learned to feign wellness and productive work amazingly well in front of others when inside I was roiling in an impossible hell. It was a long way down, and I made the journey alone. I needed no one else.
Finally, I learned the best way to avoid these episodes, these demonic attacks, was to reduce the stress in my life, to eliminate anxiety. In recent years I have had few attacks of depression, and most of them were mild and short-lived. My life today is comfortable, safe, and largely stress-free. I am as self-sufficient, emotionally, as anyone I know.
But this stability has come at a price. I have built a protective shell around myself that cannot be penetrated until and unless I choose to open myself, and I do that rarely, only when I’m sure I can handle it. This has made me insensitive to much of the world’s pain and suffering, misanthropic, uncourageous, shut off from the grief that lurks beneath the knowledge of that awful suffering, and awareness of the state of this terrible world. I do this to survive, because I know what I can handle, and what I cannot.
I suspect I am far from alone in this. I sometimes see the whole world as a hospital and a prison, with a trillion trillion creatures struggling to cope, to protect themselves and those they love, to heal themselves, to find support and solace and a trace of security, to steal a few moments of illusory freedom, and simply to survive. We are all civilization’s unwitting and well-intentioned victims, I think, hiding, or screaming out our pain, our innocence. Lurching from moment to moment, living for another day. There is no cure, no pardon, no end, and no escape from our sentence here. We do what we must. We carry as much of the weight of the world as we can bear, and we turn away from the rest.
Or maybe I’m just projecting. Maybe it’s just me. No matter.
I’ve written in these pages recently that I think I’m ready to let go, to let my heart be broken, to stop hiding and become fully aware of gaia’s suffering, of what is really happening in the world, to throw away the shell and be nobody-but-myself, raw.
I think I was wrong. I don’t think I’m ready.
Last month I went to a nine-day alternative/new culture event, at a remote outdoor retreat, with my beloved Tree and a hundred people I didn’t know. The event had a series of personal growth/self-improvement and emotional healing workshops, and provided time and space to explore relationships with people committed to being utterly honest, open and supportive of each other.
I was anxious from the moment I heard of this event, but I thought it would be a great learning experience, a test of my capacity to let go and to suspend judgement and expectation, and an opportunity to temper my cynicism and misanthropy. I thought I was ready.
I was not. My anxiety level soared as soon as we arrived, then eased off for a couple of days, and then built fiercely, accelerating day after day, reaching a crescendo on the seventh day. The time I spent with Tree gave me a temporary, joyful respite, but then the anxiety returned, relentless and stronger than ever. I came unglued. I freaked. I lashed out, angry and lost and devastated. I crashed into depression. I wanted to flee but I felt trapped, paralyzed, ashamed, helpless, furious with myself, exhausted. I ran for miles but it did not help. I went into my well-rehearsed survival mode and prepared to hit bottom. I had been through this before. I could handle it again. I didn’t need anyone. But I was terrified. In my crazed mind I “knew” that this retreat, this failure, this demonstration of weakness and unreliability and anti-social behaviour, would cost me my relationship with Tree, and that thought filled me with misery. I knew from bitter experience the cost of this disease. It would not, I told myself glumly, be the first time it had stolen love from me.
I hunkered down, in the awful darkness, the rage, the grief so intense I knew I would do anything to be rid of it.
And then Tree caught me.
She saw the terror in my face and asked me if I was OK. And I could not lie to her, so I shook my head. She set aside everything she didn’t absolutely have to do, and for the next two days she nursed me back to health. She held me. She talked with me in the language of someone who knows anguish and sorrow and loneliness and irrational, hopeless fear, and though she did not fully understand what I was going through she worked with me, giving, listening, empathizing, just holding open the space that was crushing me, pushing back the pain, protecting me. She was my safety net, my sanctuary, yielding, soft, gentle, resilient, wise. And for the first time in my life I did not hit bottom.
I was, of course, astonished, and grateful, and overwhelmed. The guy who had learned he did not need anyone suddenly discovered that if he was willing to be caught, willing to need, the world could be much safer, lighter.
But I was also full of dread. Tree trusted me to be strong, to be self-sufficient, to be there when she needed me, to be able to come close and to pull away and to let go as necessary. I love her like crazy, but I know that what she needs more than my love and attention, in addition to my love and attention, is the space and time to find her own place, alone and independent, in the town that she loves, and to find someone her own age who lives in that town who can fill the empty places in her that I cannot fill (and, if I were to be honest, probably don’t want the responsibility to fill). I know that when she finds this independence, and this local loving partner, then my role in her life will become occasional, more remote, diminished, and I will have to let go, to let her be who she is meant to be. She has done so much for me I want to do that for her, gracefully.
But how could she trust me to be that strong, when I had shown myself to be so weak, so helpless, so irrational, so dependent on her? And what if I were to come to “need” her every time I was consumed with anxiety and depression? What if she was not there?
I have said before that when you love someone, that’s mostly about you, not them. When you love someone, they have given you a gift, not the other way around. The true measure of love is not what you feel for the object of your affection, not what you say you feel for them, but what you do for them. True love is unselfish, generous. And one of my intentions in life (one I am a million miles from realizing) is to learn to be half as generous as Tree is, to everyone. She gives without a thought, without hesitation, without reserve, without limit. Fearlessly. Not like me.
I can only be generous, only do things for those I love, only be of use to the world, if I am safe, sheltered, self-sufficient. I cannot afford to be needy, to be fully open, to let my heart be broken. I am no use to the world broken.
So, I’ve decided, at least for now, I will not take that risk again, will not let myself be that exposed, that vulnerable to the demon who sleeps still inside me. That means I will probably stay insensitive, misanthropic, unwilling to open myself and unable to face, fearlessly, my unbearable grief for gaia, the staggering enormity of the endless, monstrous suffering in the world. So I will be something less than everything I might be, something less than nobody-but-myself. Tree is sad about this — for my sake, her sake, and the world’s, she wanted me to learn to be empathetic. Maybe one day, but not now.
In the meantime, I’m trying to understand. What was it about this innocuous new-age get-together that triggered so much unbearable anxiety in me? A large group of people I didn’t know, who I was kinda ‘stuck’ with for an extended period. Considerable social pressure to be open, authentic, experimental. My own acknowledged lack of empathy for most of the people there. What was going on? At first I thought it might be my ‘British’ reserve and shyness about showing my feelings to ‘strangers’, about being challenged too persistently. No question that the exercises that called on me to “pair up” with someone for a discussion, or an impromptu dance, and the need to find people among all the strangers to sit with at breaks and mealtimes, or sit beside or team up with at workshops, cranked up my anxiety hugely, especially when I constantly felt myself, as a newbie, the “odd man out.” It was like being the last one picked back in junior high school, all over again. I can’t bear this awkward helpless feeling, and abhor the social situations that (at least for me) always bring it on.
Beneath my arrogant exterior I harbour a lot of fears: of being unpopular, or ridiculed, or treated unfairly, or considered stupid or incompetent or a “loser”, of being hurt, or lost, or robbed, or threatened, or poor, or helpless, or of failing, and of course of the terror of getting depressed, which feeds on itself and is self-fulfilling. And I’m afraid of all these things happening to the people I love as well, which makes me, mostly, afraid to love. Lots to get anxious about, and lots to avoid. I was fearless until I started school, and that exposed me, so raw and naive, to all these things I now fear. Anxiety attacks and depression followed, and they’ve followed me all my life. For me, at least for now, fearless is reckless.
But I think what was happening to me just as importantly was self-disappointment, the same old feeling of “letting people down”, my inability to accept, to adapt, to love unextraordinary people, to just let go. It wasn’t their expectations of me that were too much to handle, it was my expectations of myself, and my inability to live up to them. I just couldn’t handle a crowd of people, open as they were, with all their human habits and struggles and scars and wounds and self-preoccupations. I couldn’t just let go and accept them. I couldn’t stop judging them. Worse, I couldn’t stop loathing some of them, those who were (in my irrepressible judgements) most damaged, wounded, or marginally psychopathic. Did I recognize in them something of the pathetic me that used to be, that was perhaps still there behind the mask, where the demon was waiting to expose it? Whatever the reason, I just couldn’t let them into my heart. I just couldn’t care. I was frightened, and angry at myself for that and for my lack of empathy. Why couldn’t I care for these people, love them, the way that I love Tree?
I think that living with this authentic group was, for me, like working with abandoned and mistreated animals, or visiting the Alberta tar sands to protest them and seeing the ghastly damage the mines have done first hand, or visiting and documenting the atrocities of factory farms. Or watching people in the streets, or in rehab, or in half-way houses and old age homes shut away from the rest of the world. Or the shy kids cowering in the schoolyard. I just can’t bear that much reality, to witness that much suffering.
I have researched Joanna Macy’s program The Work That Reconnects and had intended, as part of my own program of reconnection, to let my heart be broken. Last fall I wrote:
Richard Bruce Anderson describes the process of working through this disconnection: “At the heart of the modern age is a core of grief. At some level, we’re aware that something terrible is happening, that we humans are laying waste to our natural inheritance. A great sorrow arises as we witness the changes in the atmosphere, the waste of resources and the consequent pollution, the ongoing deforestation and destruction of fisheries, the rapidly spreading deserts and the mass extinction of species. All these changes signal a turning point in human history, and the outlook is not particularly bright. The anger, irritability, frustration and intolerance that increasingly pervade our common life are symptoms associated with grief… Grief is a natural reaction to calamity, and the stages of grief are visible in our reaction to the rapid decline of the natural world. There are a number of steps that people go through in the grief process. The first stage is often denial: ‘This can’t really be happening,’ a feeling common among millions of Americans… We know the facts, but we’re ignoring them in the interests of emotional survival.” When we acknowledge this pain we can begin to move forward through the remaining stages of grief — anger, despair, and finally “a peaceful accommodation of reality.”
Nick Smith explains: “Here’s an alternative to [endless] effort and struggle: Instead of living in hope of a better life or anyone coming to make it feel better, we can elect to allow everything to be exactly as it is… and then welcome whatever angst or despair or other form of fear appears, so that we can really face it. Instead of following the mind’s need to move, we can choose to sit still in the middle of it all and allow it, consume it, regardless of the consequences. This can feel like death itself, but by letting our heart be broken like this, what we discover in the rubble can never be lost. What flows free from an heart that’s been broken open is an unimaginable love that could never be put back, and which envelops everything.”
Joanna Macy explains that the pain we feel for the world (what I have described as “our unbearable grief for Gaia”) is universal; we all sense it, and that this pain is unprecedented; never since the start of our civilization have we faced the possibility of the end of our society and a massive life extinction event. We tend to block or repress this pain, for fear it will deeply depress or paralyze us (or be socially unacceptable to express); the consequence is that we end up suppressing our instinct for the preservation of life. We need to reframe the “silent scream” of these emotions as our deep capacity to hear within ourselves the sound of the Earth crying, and hence as a feeling of deep, instinctive compassion in which we “suffer with” all-life-on-Earth. When we let our hearts be broken, she explains, the grief and sorrow we feel for the world is transformed into love, the fear and dread is transformed into courage and trust, the anger and outrage finds expression as passion for justice, and the feelings of ignorance and helplessness yield to glimpses of opportunity.
Richard, Nick and Joanna may well be right, but I know that for now I am not strong enough for this journey. My gift to the world will have to come from some safer place.
In one of the exercises at the retreat, I was challenged to visualize my role in bringing about positive change in the world five years from now. Instead of seeing myself as a community model-builder, an activist, a mentor and facilitator, I now see myself in a much humbler role. I picture myself in five years as an artist, living and working mostly alone, writing, composing music and film and other media that reflect the world as it really is and which imagine a post-civilization future full of joy, wonder, creativity, diversity and community. It’s safer for me that way, and less exhausting — less need to fight the endless fight to stay calm, to keep the noonday demon at bay.
I write this in the hope that others, constantly taking themselves to task for not living up to their own (or others’) expectations, struggling with their own only-partially-understood demons, mad at themselves for not doing more to make the world a better place, or for their self-acknowledged failures, the actions and inaction they blame themselves for, as perpetrators or as victims — will recognize something of themselves in my story, and give themselves — give yourself — a break. It’s OK to be scared, to be exhausted, to give yourself time and space. To take the safe route because you’re no use to the world broken either.
The only risk I will take will be to keep falling in love. In love and unbroken, I can help with the hard work ahead, through the long emergency, the dreadful cascading crises and ultimate collapse. I guess that’s what I’m meant to do, and who I’m meant to be. It’ll have to be enough.