Sunday, April 24, 2011

City limits

FROM:   Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals

"Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or "ultimate concerns")--death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?"
Freedom, isolation, death, meaninglessness.
Ignore "gifted individuals" in the title. The author is discussing children in this blogpost, and everyone gifted or not, has to pass through the gate of childhood to reach adulthood. Everyone. No one can stay a child forever, except maybe my mother, whose emotional age seems to always hover around two and a half, or three. That sunny disposition she carries around like a flag in the wind has never varied other than to become cranky and snappy at times. 

I don't agree that only gifted individuals experience existential depression - my personal experience is of being spectacularly ungifted, yet saddled with more awareness than I knew what to do with, most of the time. 
Scene: driving along a prairie highway, age 9 or 10, in the backseat of the car, parents in front seat, no seat belts in those days, brother and sister in the back with me, age 6-ish and 3-ish.  Some sort of conversation transpiring, details of which I can't remember, but I am grumpy about something, maybe not wanting to go to whatever boring event we were traveling to. I announce to my parents "I never asked to be born". Their shocked silence pierces me as I register that my dad has taken quite a bit of offense; my mother is simply too stunned to find anything pleasant or trivial to segue to, for several minutes.

If life were a town, all the jolly communal cultural and life-passage celebration stuff in the center, those four aspects would be its city limits, its edges. Everyone has to grapple with awareness of those four frontiers of the human primate troop - death, lack of or too much freedom, isolation, meaninglessness. Don't we? They? 

The majority seem to get through life simply ignoring the edges, choosing to focus in the middle, through whatever rose-colored glasses ordinary people carefully make and carefully keep taped together to focus on beauty, love, distractions and daily pleasures however fleeting, the busywork, the stuff they prefer to talk about, look at, share. Celebrate. I can remember checking out those human things, those culturally dusted and polished pride items displayed proudly in the center of this cage called human existence. They are nice, but something in me has always found them profoundly saddening, under that magpie-attracting glint. Sad that people try so hard and are doomed anyway;  brave but foolish, because don't they know it's all for naught? Then, another side of me says, no, they do it all because they like it and want to. It gives them joy. Give them a break. They know what they're doing. Stop judging. 

So, whatever sizzles their steak, I guess. But, no joy in any of that for me. Nothing lasting after the novelty has worn off, ever. I know this, because if I just sit and wait, it wears off rather soon. Whew. I would never have wanted to have my life become trapped in the middle of this hypothetical town. Too oppressive (expectations), too mechanical (culturally imposed behaviours), not enough psychological space (I need every bit of that I can find. Just to breathe in, and then out, and keep my body, my own unit of life, comfortable.)

The edges, even though there never seemed to be much I could do about them, even though they seem bleak, attracted me. At first it seemed I was there all alone. Little by little I have seen that the edges of human existence are quite busy, with activity, investigation, expansion into the unknown. It's not all bad, just not what ordinary 'happies' are attracted to thinking or talking about. Nothing to celebrate or organize a parade for, or a party, not an excuse to buy a new dress or shoes or a cake or invite people over.
I also don't agree that meaningless is off in a space by itself: to me, death, isolation and meaningless seem to belong together, in a bucket, labelled "Topics to avoid at the dinner table".  Freedom seems odd, not equivalent to the other three. I totally get that transitioning from freedom of childhood to having to create adult, freedom-hampering structure, is stressful, and difficult, and angst-ridden - been there, felt it, became aware of how depressed I really could get. But structuring a life is the only way to deal with the other three edges. In my experience. It's a good edge to start from. Or, rather, structure is a good thing that can give you an edge. Most of the time. Managing freedom through structure. Not a bad idea at all. Using freedom to fashion a cage for yourself, then be in it a lot. Decorate it the way you want. Be able to wear it like a hoop skirt. Leave yourself free to move around if you want. Make sure you never forget how to take it off. Structure does not have to restrict you from exploring the other edges of town, or visiting the center of downtown to look at shiny human constructions - if you want. 

If these four aspects were four directions, freedom would be east, I think. Free to start a new day.

In this small community where I've been for close to two years (although it feels like only 5 minutes) most of the people I know (including my 87-year-old, three-year-old mother) are independently-living,  over 80, see at least 4 or 5 of their own peer group die every year. If they aren't going to a funeral they are laughing and playing cards and eating each others' birthday cakes. They deliberately and carefully keep the social veneer very, very well-polished. They choose to enjoy each other and laugh about little things that aren't even funny, just tedious. According to me. But I don't say anything. 

They have to be aware of death, maybe even look forward to it, don't seem afraid of it, but still, don't like to talk about it, or explore it, or share how they've come to terms with it. Not to me at least. My mother did remark she wanted to be cremated, and I know she has her paperwork, will, etc. all organized and in a safety deposit box, to which I have a key, kept by itself in a special drawer along with power of attorney, when the inevitable day arrives. She's more organized about Death than I am. I'm more ruminative about it, probably. 

In my inner human town of human existential discomfort, death is the south edge of town, buried by distraction and busy-ness of keeping life full of action. Where I live these days, the town dump is on the south edge, just over a low hill. To me death is not scary or depressing - death just is. It's just entropy. That's all. Everything is entropy. It takes a lot of energy to be alive, for life to form itself, maintain itself - then it gets tired and can't. Bam, you're dead. That's it. I'm in no hurry to get there, but I will likely not care that much when I get to that point. My bits will disintegrate and become food for something microbial, or whatever... one idea I had was to donate myself to an anatomy lab to keep funeral costs non-existent.

Isolation is a rather edgeless notion, I find. I grew up on a prairie farm with no playmates and a circular horizon that was always there, no matter how far you tried to walk or drive. A couple parents who I guess must have interacted with me, although they seemed awfully preoccupied keeping a farm going. A couple siblings who seemed like they were from another planet, so little did I feel sympatico with them, deep on the inside of myself. Scratch that - more it was like I was from the other planet, landed in a world completely foreign and alien - to me. Whatever, we get by. 

I lived in a big city with lots of people flowing around me. I connected to a few of them, to groups of them, but attachments were purposeful and inevitably, fleeting. I tried to be porous, let people in, let them know me. But it was painful, awkward, never smooth, never growthful. Too hard. Too sad. The closer I would get, the more they seemed to recede, just like the prairie horizon. The closer they would get to me, the more I would feel invaded. All that effort with nothing to show for it. Just further away from whoever it was that I was. So I gave up trying to connect or be connected with. I stuck to my work. Related to people through the bars of my work cage instead. The structure I had built. That sufficed for human contact. 

I let myself fall in love with a cat, finally, just under a year old. I brought her home from the SPCA; the adoption fee included spaying.
Kitty Scissorpaws. She clawed everything to death, including me, until our boundaries sorted themselves out and she had me trained. She was like me. She didn't let people get very close except on her own terms. She was just a tiny scrap of a cat, 6 pounds, but she could be all fury - could chase away cats twice her size, lacked cat manners of any sort. Next door lived a large female English bull terrier with weak eyes and a gibbly hip, named "Bill", who she befriended, and would visit every day, walking underneath and wrapping her long tail around and beside and over. Bill loved Kitty. Kitty would walk away from Bill, and Bill would hobble along to catch back up to her, trying to get close, trying to see her more clearly, but that big nose/forehead would just bump her instead. The cat had all kinds of patience for this dog. I could not fathom their friendship. Whatever the meaning of what went on between them, it was sweet to see.  

Bill eventually died. And we moved, Kitty and I, about halfway into our relationship; I got new furniture, had the cat's front claws removed. She became an indoor cat after that. We had a long relationship, 15 years. She became ill and I did what I had to do, put her down. It's been 7 years, and I still miss her. I can still feel a cat-shaped, 6-pound hole in my chest, when I check, although it doesn't intrude into whatever I happen to be doing anymore the way it did at first. 

I can't imagine what bonding to, then losing a person through death, must feel like, deep inside. Even my dad, who I did manage to bond to, a bit, when I was a baby, and who died a decade ago, didn't leave as huge a hole as my cat did, my cat who I freely chose and who I thought at the time chose me. My father was a parent, not someone I freely chose. Although I'm not even sure I know what I mean by that. I think I mean that losing a parent whose existence you had nothing to do with starting must feel a lot different from losing a child, whose existence you are entirely responsible for starting. All that work. Or a spouse who you chose from all those who exist alongside you, someone you click with and decide to love wholeheartedly, have kids with. I've avoided finding out what that feels like. I always knew I'd never in a million years be able to handle taking all that on, all that potential pain, because of being too aware of potential pain.

A woman I have known for most of my life lost both parents when she was barely into puberty. I met her when we were very young adults. We were close friends, went camping in Quebec, traveled a bit in California. She fell while mountain climbing and fractured her spine, both ankles, but survived and was able to walk after. She married. On the way home from her wedding, her brother, his wife, and her aunt were all killed in a bad car accident. The two children sleeping in the back seat lived, and other than some fractures, were fine. She became their new mother, a week after her own wedding. They were age 6 and 9 at the time. She had two more of her own after that. She never really got over the pain of all of it and has had chronic physical pain as well, ever since her injury. She exists between two pains. Two panes. Like a butterfly trapped inside a window.  Then she developed cancer. Finally it was successfully treated, as far as I know. She and I haven't had much contact in the last 3 or 4 years. She didn't want to talk to me anymore, it seemed. Sometimes things just change, all by themselves. I never knew how to help her anyway; I knew no way I could evolve that would refresh or continue the relationship. I have to keep doing whatever it is I need to do. It might be that she feels better without me, wants me and my particular depressing ways out of her life. I don't know. Just don't know. I have to wait and see. I'll never not consider her a friend, no matter how isolated/isolating I am. 

'Alone' was scary when I was a child, lonely when I was an adolescent, and gradually became peaceful contentment as an adult. 'Alone', and the lovely silence that swirls endlessly all round it, is now the companion preferred before all others.

Isolation is the west edge of town where the sun goes down and light dims and edges disappear and distances or closenesses can not even be seen, let alone judged.

This one is so hard. Of any, this one gives me the saddest feeling. (Maybe the author's right after all - maybe this one does deserve a bucket all its own.)
Meaningless is the side of town that no matter where I go or where I stay or where I face, there I am, always managing to be stuck on the wrong side of the emotional tracks. This is the one that prompted me to announce to my parents in the car at age 9 or 10 that I had never asked to be born. I fear, somewhere deep in my bones, that the only meaning there is is that it's all meaningless. I suspect, deep in my gut, that this is what drives people crazy and sends them all into religiosity. Which to me is even more meaningless than regular, generic, no name, existential meaninglessness.  
The north edge. 
The further north you go the less there is to compare, make meaning from.

We've made our way all around the edge of town, explored its sides, and now we're back to structure. Structure is the only way I've ever found to deal with meaninglessness. I won't say it's been successful. But at least I've not ever despaired to the point of cutting my own flesh or taking my own life or anything. I've never felt that bad. What might have happened: Very early in life, Meaningless appeared and creeped the absolute beheebus out of me - so much so that I could hardly wait to build myself my own little cage of structure to hide out in, like a turtle shell, until such time as I wouldn't need such a thing anymore. Deliberately constructed Meaning. From the article:

"A particular way of breaking through the sense of isolation is through touch. In the same way that infants need to be held and touched, so do persons who are experiencing existential aloneness. Touch seems to be a fundamental and instinctual aspect of existence, as evidenced by mother-infant bonding or "failure to thrive" syndrome."

I would concur. In fact, I might have instinctively realized that even as a child, even as I fled away from freedom and toward creating structure, toward developing a life as a human primate social groomer. It seems to me that life is bad enough to have to get through without doing whatever you can to help out when and where you see a way to do so. 

Some where along the way I learned how to make myself a bit useful, I think, treating pain in other people, in a structured manner, but not in the center of the town where societal human structures glint in the sun. Over here, on the edge of town, at the intersection of Meaninglessness Avenue and Structure Street. Is there anything on the planet more meaningless than persisting pain?

A modest dream, but one that eventually developed itself into a (relatively) comfortable life. One I've carefully shepherded in order to avoid piling unnecessary angst in on top of all the angst that to me, seems unavoidable. One that was self-reliant and rarely disappointed. One that by learning how to touch in a way that was useful, helpful, helped me too, by providing me with endless novel physical contact. Win win. The only gift I was ever born with may have been the gift of spotting, then avoiding, any unnecessary angst, and choosing, in the privacy of my own existence, to never fully connect with other humans, except through the structure I had built, and never to disguise ordinary (unavoidable, existential) angst with the usual human primate kinds of window dressing or distraction, including marriage, children, religion. I feel like a monk. Kind of a zen monk. Not wise, not gifted, not steeped in any sort of tradition. Just a self-styled cobbled-together zen monk. Someone who didn't strive very hard to get there, was sort of lazy, didn't really see the point of doing anything too hard or difficult or emotionally tiring, just sort of ended up never taking my eyes off the edges of human existence in order to gaze at or be dazzled by its center where all the emotional action is usually found. 

Again, from the blogpost: 


Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams.
For if dreams go,
Life is a barren field
Covered with snow.

- Langston Hughes
I would argue that Life IS a broken-winged bird, Life is ALREADY a barren field covered in snow, AND that dreams are nice, that life is but a dream, so row your boat down the stream, and it doesn't have to be 'merrily' if merrily does not feel congruent or honest or authentic. Be who you are. That's all there is - and you STILL have the right (as a humanantigravitysuit) to dream whatever you want - the only meaning of freedom accessible by everyone, anywhere in town, any time of day or night. Deeply deeply democratic.

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