It’s 4am here in Hawaii and I can’t sleep. Plagued by a series of questions I’ve yet to answer for myself, but tonight the one that I can’t seem to shake is simple. Why are we depressed?
I’m not talking about the kind of depression where there’s something clinically wrong with your brain function that throws you into a maelstrom of uncontrollable agony, but the kind of existential, lingering, dull ache that just sits in the chest and only goes away for brief moments in time. If you’ve got a clinical problem with your body and it’s screwing things up, I’m sorry to hear you’re going through that, and I dearly hope one day you will find a way out of your current situation and be able to breathe freely again. If you’re the type of person who’s got all your shit sorted out, that’s fucking awesome, and here’s a picture of a funny cat meme.
This is for the rest of us. The ones who have no real reason why it hurts just to live every day, just a little bit.
This seems like a peculiar topic for a photography website, but it is something that has impacted my career greatly. It’s been on my brain since I heard someone say that kids are more depressed in modern times than before. I don’t actually know what the statistics are or even how one would begin to really measure it, but it started my mind pondering that simple question, based on reflections of my own life. Why?
The last two years have arguably been the happiest years of my life. I’ve set lofty goals and achieved many of them, which is an experience that has eluded me for over a decade. I’ve traveled more than I ever thought imaginable, I have people I care deeply about all over the world, and so far my rent has been paid mostly on time from a career in the arts. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, and I could not be more grateful for the challenge. However there’s been a flip side to this existence, a lesson that I didn’t see coming. See, every day there’s this dull ache in my chest. It just kind of hangs on there like this heavy necklace of unanswered grief to an existence that seemingly has no large scale value. I don’t solve world hunger. I don’t create new breakthroughs in theoretical physics. I don’t even make music that can be there to help someone through the hardships in their lives, like so many others have for me. My voice comes through in pixels, creating ideological themes that don’t exist, and at the end of the day seems very small and insignificant.
I just make images.
It used to be quite funny to me how we wake up each day just to hurry to make it to sunset and to bed again. Like it’s some kind of race towards a decaying corpse sitting in a hospital bed waiting for the last breath to leave us. Who can get there the fastest with the most worn out bio-mechanical suit wins. It’s some kind of cruel joke played on humanity, a cheap video game with an extremely disappointing and poorly written end. We spend our entire lives growing up just so we can die so quickly. Something is broken, and it took me getting to the point I’m at now to start to see that.
I used to tell myself “When I get my bike fixed, I’ll be happy” which then turned into “When I quit this dead-end job, I’ll be happy” which turned in to “When I learn to walk again, I’ll be happy” and when that came and went, I said “When I start travelling more, I’ll be happy”, and it became “When I get enough sleep, I’ll be happy”. All those things happened, and are now a part of my modern situation, and I so frequently found myself pondering that heaviness in my chest that just wouldn’t fuck off. By all the standards of a North American society, I was living “the dream” and I should perpetually be on cloud nine, and even though I was mostly happy, this little bit of darkness just hung on, dragging me down. I realized I’d been looking at things all wrong.
I heard it a lot from people, millionaires, who had achieved their wildest dreams yet were still unhappy. I listened to their stories and attempted to change myself before I found myself in that same bottomless pit, 20 years too late. Screaming in silent rage at the unfairness of the world and how it had somehow let me down, even though I’d done all the things I was supposed to do. Only once I had found myself achieving the tiny, fractured pieces of success did my late night musings really become clear. True happiness is not in the external world, and it’s not even in positive thinking.
The conscious effort towards a new mind began two years ago for me. I realized the gravity of the inevitable – that my dream career would not bring an end to what I carried every day. Even though it would solve a great deal of other problems, it would also create just as many new ones. I had to learn that it’s ok. It’s ok to have hardship and it would be virtually impossible to not have it, especially when self employed. We all experience pain and some form of suffering, and it is a very individual experience. From a creative standpoint, some of the best art comes from those dark and gloomy crevices buried deep inside. Being happy to me doesn’t mean those parts of the mind don’t exist anymore. I’ve learned to enjoy the cycle of pleasure and pain. In knowing that each state is temporary, and as things go up, they go down again, and back up again, if I allow them.
That’s the key, I have to allow it. I cannot control my exterior world, where I only have whispers of influence, but my mind is my own. It’s my own little ferris wheel, a playground of experiences and interpretations. Each day I try to take some time to clear my thoughts and quiet my mind. Whether it’s in the bath, on a train, or laying in bed just as I begin to wake up or fall asleep. I allow the churn in my brain to quiet for a few minutes and let the chaotic storm inside settle to a gentle breeze. I focus on my breathing and inevitably even that drifts away and I am aware of nothing. I have no worries of clients, paperwork, emails, what time it is, how my body still hurts, my failing computer, the dust on my camera sensor that drives me crazy, or the stress of possibly not catching a flight, and so on. In these moments, even that dull ache floats blissfully away, and for a time, I am truly free, and all I needed was my mind to do it.
Since beginning this habit, the expectations of the external world to heal something inside are gone, and I am learning that the external world does not have to impact my soft, sensitive interior as severely. My biggest competitor is myself, the person I was yesterday, my biggest inspiration is the person I could possibly become tomorrow.
I’ve found the dull ache has released its grip, but the hurt still lingers and I’ve learned to enjoy it just a little bit. Finding peace in my life has not meant an abolishment of darkness, but simply an understanding of the delicate dance between the dark and light inside. In that awareness I’ve found the tension is gone.
It’s not perfect, and in the exploration of gentle mindfulness I’m just taking my first unsteady steps. Perhaps my perspective will change as I grow, in fact it likely will. For the moment, I feel as though I’m only now learning what it means to really walk on my own, but I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences because I suspect I’m not the only person out there who feels the same way. If you are out there, and you have this hurt strung around your neck like a dent in a beautiful machine, I’ll give you a couple of thoughts that have helped me:
Let go of the illusions of control of your external world.
Stop looking outside to fix what’s inside.
Be gentle with the words you say to yourself.
I can’t promise it will fix everything, but it’s a good place to start. Your career won’t bring you a lasting happiness if you don’t have your insides in order, and you don’t want to be that person at the top of the mountain wondering why you’re still just as empty as you were when you started.
Be mindful, be gentle, and learn to dance with the light and dark inside. Perhaps in 5 years you can look back at your old self and be proud of where you’ve come.