Quiet Desperation

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Wise words from Henry David Thoreau.

I’ve never lived this quote as much as I have been this year. ‘Quiet desperation’ is such a poignant expression summarizing my struggle (and I’m sure the struggle of the mass of men around me as well). We go through each day trapped in a routine we know as everyday life, putting up a facade to show everyone that we’re okay. Yet as the days go by the routine feels ever more robotic, and it becomes more challenging to refuse that we are indeed not okay. I’m trapped, and I feel alone.

Quiet desperation.

People keep asking me what I want to do when I am set free from my current commitment. I still don’t quite know what the future holds, but I know it’s not a purposeless life. I don’t understand people who work for money. I don’t understand people who work for fame. My quiet desperation is a struggle against worldly expectations, be it wealth, popularity or conformity. I want to, one day, be able to earn the air I breath and the resources I use. My quiet desperation is me not doing enough for the planet. On some days, it gets to be too much.

One of the tragedies of our time is that we carry these weights around with us everywhere, but we feel like we cannot talk about them. Perhaps we have to remember that there is a mass of men around us who feel the exact same way.

Both our civilization, as well as many of us individually, are entering a transition in our sense of self and world. For simplicity, I call it a transition from the story of Separation to the story of Interbeing. As this shift gathers momentum, the old answers to questions like, “Who am I?” “What is important?” “What is normal?” “How should one live life?”  “How does the world work?” “What is a human being?” “What is real?” are becoming obsolete.

For example, on the collective level, we no longer believe so firmly in old paradigms like the conquest of nature, endless growth, or better living through chemistry. The converging crises of our time make them impossible to hold onto.As they unravel, so do the systems built atop them.

For many of us, something similar is happening, or has happened already, on a personal level. This online course is for people who want to learn about the space between stories, and work with it on any level, from the personal to the interpersonal to the political.

— Charles Eisenstein, www.spacebetweenstories.net

Every time I see quotes like this one, I am always reminded that I have a duty here on this planet. It’s not to make money; rather, it’s to help inspire others find their peace and purpose too. I am stuck in the transition from the old story to the new story, and I am desperate to get out. Once I can, you can bet I will be there to help guide others along their journeys. In the meantime, I’ll allow myself to pray for the strength to weather the storm of quiet desperation in the next four years.

This is my story. I’m sure you have yours. So let’s talk. Let’s amplify our quiet desperation.

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0320 – Dedicated to all the weary environmentalists out there

The New York Times had a fascinating piece on the toll of environmental activism on the people in the movement. The title? “It’s the End of the World as We Know It… And He Feels Fine.”

Do take a minute to at least skim it. It really is fascinating, and I know firsthand that it heartrendingly strikes many of our tender and overused chords.

The article follows the life of Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of a new movement called The Dark Mountain Project. The movement is said to be difficult to define even by its members, so I shall not attempt it. In general terms, the movement is said to be about “mourning, grief and despair.” While this seems just godawful and depressing at first (in fact, the whole article is kinda depressing), there really is a point to all this–an invigorating one for me at least. The main gist:

“On the surface, it can indeed seem as if Kingsnorth is giving up. Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future. Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. “Why do I do this,” he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, “when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do.” [emphasis mine]”

Most, if not all, of us environmentalists experience multiple depressive episodes in our lives. Look, knowing what we know from science and seeing firsthand how powerless we can be when fighting big companies or encouraging behavior change, it’s hard for us not to feel hopeless. In fact, I personally have kind of given up. I just don’t care enough, because I feel like I’m not making any impact. My main rewards are mockery and arguments. Because of this, I sometimes feel ashamed to even label myself an environmentalist, but allow me to do so for the purpose of this article.

We care so much, but change so little. The science just sucks. At this point, we arguably are already doomed. And at some point, I think we need to accept this. BUT this doesn’t mean the movement is designed to be nihilistic or depressing. Instead, I found this to be incredibly inspiring:

“They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’ ”

I have a feeling that I’m not very wrong when I say that environmentalists find a lack of community to grapple the extent of our environmentalism-induced funks. But this piece validates what we have been feeling. This piece makes us believe it’s real–and it’s okay.  We have to be realistic. We have to face the possibilities. We have to deal with the probabilities.

What does this mean for me? Above all else, I hope this helps people to understand. We are misunderstood. We’re not crazy. We’re not just trying to annoy you. We’re not just hippies. We’re just crazy passionate. And also crazy frustrated. I hope this helps people understand that being a part of this movement is very very hard because of our passion. As the list of bad news grow and good news diminish, we will continue to feel more grief. So allow us to acknowledge what we feel. Allow us to grief. Allow us to mourn. Allow us to cry. Allow us to ask “Why, God?” and not get an answer. Give us understanding. Give us your shoulder. Give us your ears. Give us your empathy.

So, to all the environmentalists out there, it’s okay. I hear you. WE hear each other. There’s no need to be ashamed if you’ve stopped caring. Even though we couldn’t save the world no more, we still have a reason to fight. For the joy when we the small pockets of life that we yearn for.

Happy Earth Day!

0318 – Depressed in Spirit: Existential Depression

I recently came across this article on my Facebook feed, which introduced me to a new concept: Existential Depression.

And I have an official name to call what happened to me my entire life in the last few years of my life.

After I found the article, I immediately went online to find out more about existential depression. That led me to this page, entitled “Being Depressed in Spirit: Deeper than Psychological Depression.” Huh. Intriguing.

In short, there is such a thing called spiritual or existential depression, which is distinguishable from psychological depression. There are many differences between the two, but one that caught my eyes is  the fact that existential depression cannot be directly traced to a cause. This quote captures how terrible it (existential depression) felt:

“Spiritual or existential depression is a helpless feeling of being drained and depleted, dying, decaying, going away.

One common image is the hole.
We seem to be falling or sinking into a bottomless blackness.
The goo into which we sink presses on us from all sides,
but it gives no support from below.

We stand hip-deep in a hole in the ground. We can see the world around us, but we cannot relate to it. We want to crawl all the way down into the hole and cry. When we are alone, we don’t have to keep up a happy front. We don’t have to submit to being ‘cheered up’ by well-meaning people.”

Boy I don’t know how many times I’ve used the words “abyss” and “bottomless” to describe my feelings.

Another fact: Existential depression is “permanent–always present in our selves, altho [sic] repressed [emphasis mine].”

As a passionate supporter of positive psychology and well-being indicators as tools for public policy, I like reading, learning and talking about happiness. I like feeling happiness too–all of us I’m sure. But I echo the words I heard from Dr. Chris Peterson, one of the forefathers of positive psychology: that positive psychology is never meant to replace or displace conventional psychology. Rather, it should work together. Previously, nobody was studying how to get from “ok” to “well,” but we will always need to get from “unwell” to “ok.” My point is that depression is. a. big. deal. There is no discounting the excruciating pain of depression, including–if I can say so from my own experience–the pain of existential depression.

So I know that there is a chance some of you with existential depression may be doing a search for the phrase “existential depression” or “spiritual depression.” So this below is for us:

You We are not alone. We. Are. Not. Alone.

You may feel like many people don’t understand you. You can’t figure out what’s wrong with you. You feel like it’s dark all around. You’re sinking further into this bottomless abyss. And you don’t know why.

We’ve asked the same questions. We’ve wondered the same things. We know how awful meaninglessness feels. We’ve looked many places to find our passion, our meaning, our purpose, our goal. Goddamnit if only we can just find that spark.

“Just forget about it.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out someday.”
“You’re thinking too much.”

We’ve all heard them before. Well-intentioned words that are rendered stone cold as it travels through the shallow air of the abyss that is spiritual depression. Those don’t comfort us. We get even more frustrated hearing them.

But we’re not crazy.

And we’re not alone.

We care. Too much at times. But we care because we only get to live once. We care because we don’t own the planet and we want to make our lives worth the resources we’re taking. We care because there seems to be something so inexplicably and frustratingly incorrect about our society and that’s gotta change. Now.

I wish I can tell you the formula to feel better overnight. I mean… we’re not really about that, are we? Because sometimes “the journey is the treatment.” I’m still looking for my passion. I’m still looking for my dream job. I’m still fighting every damn day to not feel useless. And noone–I mean noone–can convince me otherwise. And I know you feel the same way.

I’m 23, and I’ve been in this for over six years. And I don’t think it’s gonna end soon.

I can’t offer you a solution, but I can offer you this: Have hope. Cling on to hope. Hope that the world will change. Hope that you will find someone who truly understands you. Hope that you will find your true you one day. Hope that it will be all right. Hope that we will make impact. Hope that we will find our meaning. Not because we will, because I can’t promise you that either. Hope, because along the journey you will grow and you will start to understand why things are the way they are and you will start to grip why you feel this way. And most importantly – because you will make an impact one day, even if it’s to one person or one area. I know you don’t believe me now. Because I didn’t believe myself. Here’s the catch: I’m speaking to myself as much as I’m speaking to you. But I’m hoping.

Let’s fight together. We can.

0294 – The Sound of Impatience

People honk like crazy around here. That drives me crazy. It’s the sound of impatience that drives up my frustration. Why do people need to honk? It’s supposedly the norm here, but is that necessary? Looks like I totally skipped over the honeymoon phase in this culture shock. Anxiety is in full effect.

But to say that’s the cause of my unhappiness is to mask a fundamental underlying problem: me. It’s really been quite a battle. Even as I work with The Happiness Initiative, even as I did an independent study on happiness and sustainability, even as I learn positive psychology, even as I try and try to be mindful of what makes me happy, happiness has eluded me. I would give myself a 2 out of a 10. And that’s terrible. I would like to take this moment to shout out to those who are battling depression right now. I cannot even imagine how hard it is. You are so strong. Keep fighting. Hang in there.

I’m probably not the only person who feels like he shouldn’t be sad because he’s so fortunate to be where he is today and have what he has right now. Yet, sorrow doesn’t vanish overnight.

As I plunge deeper into despair, instead of worrying about my health, I worry about my decreased productivity. Like a true workaholic.

Instead of taking the time off, I work some more. I still lack the courage to do what is best for me.

At some point in your life, you’ll get the feeling that you’re cornered with nowhere to go. You wish a door would just appear that would just take you on a path far away from this unpleasant place.

At 21 and entering my final year of college, I’m in the prime of my quarter-life crisis. Where do I go from here?

I think about my varied interests and how I see no direction. I always say that I now trust life enough that it will take me to the right places, but sometimes, I lose that trust. I’m vulnerable.

I wonder if I’m making an impact, and I tell myself that I am not. Sometimes, I look at the rockstar social entrepreneurs, the inspirational speakers, the thought leaders of our society, and those close to me who get recognition, and I wish I am one of those. Sometimes, I want to be popular. Sometimes, I wish I would just conform with the system and rise to the top in there. I betray myself.

I’m never here. Get me back here. Now. At this moment. At this place. In me. Around me. Beyond the human understanding of time and space.

I’m lost. I’m clueless. I don’t know what to do. I just want to be happy. I never listen to myself. Then I get frustrated at my purported regression.

But all this needs to end. And I will end it. I am in control. I am in charge. I know what I can do. I know what’s right for our world. I know I live not for myself, but for humanity and the planet. Even though the balance of life is and will always be difficult to find, I will continue to try. I will tell myself that I can be different. I will tell myself that I need to slow down. I will tell myself that all is not lost; it never will.

The door towards peace has to be built. And it will be built. I will make sure of that. I will get out of here. And you will too.

One day, the sound of impatience will become reminder of how we are not alone in this world. The sight of suffering will become a reminder of what a privilege our lives have been. And the touch of tenderness will remind us of love and compassion. May love and compassion fill the void of our world.