No Use to the World Broken

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.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to No Use to the World Broken

  1. This is an immensely beautiful piece of writing and self disclosure. Dave your courage is inspiring. Thank-you! My capacity to love is now larger.

  2. Rayne says:

    Oh dear. My intuition tells me you are thinking too hard…and yet I’m going to ask you to think some more, but differently. We are all organisms, complex systems; we have individual settings, and some of us are very finely tuned. In your case, you have a very tight setting when it comes to some kinds of risk. It’s a protective setting which keeps humans from doing rash and potentially fatal things, but for some folks it’s wound just a bit too tight. Meeting with these new people in a new environment might have seemed okay initially, but that’s your intellectual software processing it, not your wet ware and on-board operating system. Those lower level systems want you to have more data, take more time in assessment and analysis before exposing yourself to risk. It’s not a spiritual or mental thing as much as it’s just your innate protective mechanism.

    You may be making the experience worse for yourself by feeling guilty for having what are uncontrollable urges which are really part of that protective system. Role-play mentally for a moment what it must be like to have no protective system at all, detect no risk, have no sense of unease in the world; these are people who end up badly injured or worse, in a physical and often mental sense. The task before you is trying to ask your intellectual software to overcome the on-board system, not so much that you are completely defenseless, but that you have some control over the protective system.

    Perhaps a shorter event — maybe one or two days in length — would have been more manageable, followed by longer and longer events as you reset your protective system. As for beating yourself up about the “lack of empathy” or judgmental attitude you felt, I think if you assessed this from the perspective of risk management you’d see that your on-board system felt certain people were very risky. In other words, it was less of a higher-level value judgment than a gut-level sense of risk.

    I’ve had this same conversation with a dear friend who suffers from a combination of panic disorder, OCD and depression; he’s come a very long way once he learned what it was that triggered his panic and what the roots of his panic are (very sensitive flight-or-fight mechanism). Depression has been managed with better diet, more exercise and fresh air, sunshine (he’s sensitive to levels of daylight) and seasonal adjustment of anti-anxiety medications when they are necessary. He’ll never be doing things like public speaking, but he’s now doing things he enjoys and is happier now that he’s figured out what his personal triggers are.

  3. Michael says:

    A massive thank you.

    There are lots of us like you, but not as wonderfully articulate.

  4. Dave,
    Every so often you write something of such elegance and grace that it brings me to my knees with my own grief and lack of veils and defenses. This was one of those pieces. The work that you strive to do with such intensity and heart, to save the world, is being done, as you write this. Breaking down our individual buttresses so that we can be prepared to be on the front wave of the collapse–we are the first responders, if you please.

    Thank you, my friend. You are far braver than you know.

  5. Steve says:

    Funny! I was going through the same feelings – of being in axiety too much of the time, feeling I had taken on the role of world changer when I wasn’t particuarly good at being a solid teammember, communicator or even partner. And I had EXACTLY the same reaction… to withdraw. And let the world unwind as I watch instead of react. Thanks for sharing I would never have the courage (or eloquence) to do that.

  6. Duffy says:

    Thank you for sharing Dave. That kind of candor is profound and awe-inspiring; it gave me freedom to view my world a little differently.

  7. Ria Baeck says:

    Please Dave, would you change the title of your post. It is not respectful for your self!
    I could make a comment here as long as your blogpost is, but I will keep it short. Just to tell you that I have a lot to say – and to help if you would like to – to all the experiences that you are describing. Just a few points…
    You don’t need to crack your heart open! It is way too open, and you need to learn how to keep or build a semi-permeable membrane around it, that you can manage yourself in all circumstances. This is different than to shut yourself.
    This is not a disease, this is a early childhood trauma that can be healed! It has all to do with being helpless – as babies and children are. So don’t judge or blame your inner child for it, it can’t help it.
    If more people would be so sensitive as you are, the world would be a much better place!
    More could be said and offered here, but you can reach me through my email if you would like to know/hear more.
    Be gentle and mild for yourself, please…

  8. Anonymous says:

    toughen up princess

  9. Luria Black says:


    I greatly appreciate:
    – Your insight into self and world
    – Your compassion for the brokenness within and without
    – Your passion for healing the world
    – Your relentless honesty
    – The knowledge you gather and share on how to move through our transitional times

    I have no doubt that the tremendous set of gifts that you offer the world are the gifts the world most needs from you. Whether it’s gathering with the broken multitude or creating the art that heals and transforms from a distance, it’s profoundly good work.

  10. Thank you, Dave. I deeply appreciate your honesty and I recognize the truth in what you say.

    I think we are ALL broken by this civilization. We’ve have millennia of post traumatic stress handed down from generation to generation until it is all concentrated in people living now. I disagree with Ria Baeck – it’s isn’t just personal stuff, it’s cultural stuff, it’s the inheritance of a soulless, predatory culture that has traumatized, fragmented and maimed the souls of all living beings -not just the souls of people but of animals and the Earth herself.

    To acknowledge and feel the horror and sorrow of what has become of the world gives our souls a little breathing room. To acknowledge that there are people we can’t help because they are too damaged, that there are species we can’t save because the predator culture has created too much damage in their habitats and ecosystems, that we cannot save the world – this acknowledgment creates a ground of truth for healing ourselves of the inflated expectations of ourselves that we have inherited from this sick, delusional culture. First we have to deal with the reality of our state of mind, then we have to deal with the reality of the world, then maybe, if we live long enough, we can contribute some sanity for the well being of other sentient beings. Sanity, I think, is the best and only hope for humanity as our civilization unravels.

    You’re doing your part already, Dave. Thanks.

  11. Carla says:

    Dear Dave, I really love to ‘read’ you. Thank you. Thank you.
    Many hugs form Lisbon!


  12. my18stripes says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful article.
    I do not have the words to write how important it is to me.

  13. Jason Schindler says:

    Thank you for such a heart-exposed telling of your experiences. You capture patterns of self-loathing and depression myself and plenty of others included struggle through with eloquence. Though it may only be our perception of ourselves as broken, that feeling is so mighty to shake at times. All our paths can be helped by this honesty.

  14. Mushin says:

    A deep self-disclosure. Thank you, brother. And what you say, and the way you ay it, makes it easily accessible. Some of us are built so very close to the water – is what I heard about this years ago.
    I don’t get that depressed anymore; watching the TV news I just cry when I see what seems like suffering to me…

    But mainly, I’ve come to understand that my – sometimes heavy – emotional responses are connected with deep convictions and perspectives; which, contrary to some of my convictions, are not necessarily true. For instance, I recently discovered that the world doesn’t need to be saved. Actually, we couldn’t begin to understand what the world needs; it would be similar to a flee trying to understand what the dog he’s inhabiting is all about.

    I do sympathize very much with your perspectives, but I’m sure – which has become one of my basic perspectives – it’s not correct on many, many counts. Nevertheless it has given you a way to hit bottom and climb back out of the hole. So your way, even if full of suffering, has kept you alive – I bow to that wisdom.

    You could try to penetrate the darkness with the light of consciousness; that procedure can help. You can trust your innate healing powers to, outside consciousness, correct your course. And, among others, you might start to understand our fallibility, imperfection and woundedness and even ignorance as the ‘normal’ state of self-reflective beings that, faced with the enormous mystery of being, continually look for and sometimes find tricks to phase out that at best we can create a clearing in the endless dark forest of being alife…

    Sending you love, my brother.

  15. Nathan says:

    I won’t be offering advice, because I am similarly clueless about what to do with my own form of depression. At one point I had thought that it was just a realisation of certain things that made me feel out of place in the world and at work, but now I think it is some background “drag” that stops me from shrugging it off. Despite the fact that what I do for a living may become extremely irrelevant at some point (software development), I still have to support a family. About all I can do is find a way to make the life of my wife, children and family better and keep going from there.

    There is no reason why I can’t carry on treading the wheel for the time being while knowing that this current form of civilisation is doomed. This ought to be considered a good thing.

    Well, it seems you accept your depressive episodes, and to be realistic you probably have to avoid situations that exacerbate the problem. I identify with what you have said about anxiety in social situations, and I’d have wanted to run away too most likely, as I do feel most comfortable in my own company. I am also comfortable with people I know well. Unfortunately I have the urge to try and make meaningful connections with people if possible, but I don’t really know how to do it.

    Seems an odd characteristic though, for someone like you who used to make a living as a kind of independent consultant (is that right? My memory is a bit off about that as it years since you wrote about it)…

Comments are closed.