I have hit the limit–or at least my limit.
Lately, in multiple areas of my life–in my environmental activism, in my closest relationships, and in my internal state–I have run up against this limit.
It’s the limit of my ability to reason through a problem.
Talking about it no longer helps. It actually makes it worse.
Even thinking about it often makes it worse.
I have been struggling with depression and anxiety for almost two years now. This was compounded by relationship struggles (and the relationship struggles were compounded by the depression). It got really bad for a while, and I seriously contemplated suicide, more than I ever had before. I even used non-suicidal self harm to cope.
I can (at least tentatively) report that I’ve broken through. I think it took going that far down to finally push my way through to the other side. I will no doubt continue to struggle. But I think the worst of it is over.
Along the way, I have learned something about the limits of my mind.
For my whole life, I was confident in my ability to reason my way through any problem, or talk my way through any relationship issue. Problems seemed to be a function of a lack of clarity. And thinking and talking always brought clarity.
But for the last couple of years, thinking and talking have just dug me deeper and deeper into the pit. Instead of a ladder and rope, my trusty tools turned into a pick axe and shovel. I felt powerless, bereft of resources.
But I’m discovering new tools. I’m learning to feel my way through things more now. It’s awkward and embarrassing. Like feeling my way through a dark room, stumbling a lot. But somehow it feels more real, more human. It reminds me of a Mary Oliver poem:
… though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on …
In feeling my way around like this, I have found new touchstones:
I am alive.
The earth is here.
I have love.
There is beauty.
This is what is saving me right now.
And I’m discovering new tools. Or re-discovering old ones. When it got really bad, I did something that I haven’t done for a long time.
Not a wordy prayer. Just a barely articulate “Please help me.”
I wasn’t even praying to anyone in particular. Just sending my plea out there. (Anne Lamott says that the three basic prayers are “Wow!”, “Thanks,” and “Help.”*)
And you know what?
Some strength came. And all the knots seemed to loosen a little. Not suddenly or dramatically, but definitely something real. From inside me, I think. But, honestly, I don’t care where it came from. Because it is keeping me alive. It literally kept me from killing myself.
I’ve decided to resume some of my other spiritual practices, but to cut down on the usual wordiness. Just light the candle. Pour the water. Raise my hands. Breathe in. Breathe out.
And I’m going to keep praying too. Which is admittedly weird, because I’m an atheist. But it would be irrational (as well as potentially suicidal, in my case) not to acknowledge the limits of my left brain.
So I’m going to pray. Not to the “God of my understanding,” as they say in AA, but to the God of my not understanding. And I’m not going to worry about trying to understand it right now.
For a while, I had been coming to the conclusion that we are not primarily rational beings–which I think explains a lot about our relationship with the Earth. As deep ecologist Paul Kingsnorth has written,
“Our human relationship to the rest of nature is not akin to the analysis of bacteria in a petri dish; it is more like the complex, love-hate relationship we might have with lovers or parents or siblings. It is who we are, unspoken and felt and frustrating and inspiring and vital and impossible to peer-review. You can reach part of it with the analytical mind, but the rest will remain buried in the ancient woodland floor of human evolution and in the depths of our old ape brains, which see in pictures and think in stories. Civilization has always been a project of control, but you can’t win a war against the wild within yourself.”
Recent events have compelled me to recognize that this true, not just of humanity generally, but of myself specifically.
My mind. My rationality. It is a knife. I dissect the world with it. But I’ve been inadvertently cutting away at the ties that bind me to the people I love. And cutting myself to shreds in the process. I actually realized this several years ago, but still I kept slicing, kept hacking away at the world … and at myself.
I need to put the knife down.
These words from Paul Kingsnorth are really resonating me lately.
I am leaving on a pilgrimage to
find what I left behind in the
jungles and by the
cold campfires and in the
parts of my head and my heart that
I have been skirting around because
I have been busy fragmenting the
world in order to save it;
busy believing it is mine to save.
I am going to listen to the wind and
see what it tells me, or whether
it tells me anything at all.
You see, it turns out that
I have more time than I thought.
I will follow the songlines and
see what they sing to me and maybe,
one day, I might even come back.
And if I am very lucky I might
bring with me a harvest of
fresh tales which I can scatter like
apple seeds across this
tired and angry continent.
— Paul Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”
I wonder what will happen when I stop trying to “fragment the world in order to save it.” I’m already started to do this in my closest relationships a little. I am hoping my writing here will reflect it too.
I feel like I’m preparing for a kind of “pilgrimage” myself. I hope to do less talking, and a lot more listening–to other people, to my deep self, and to the world around me. I am sure I will still circle back here frequently. But when I do, I hope my writing will be a little more from my heart, a little less from my head. I’m still me, of course. Heady. Analytical. INTJ/INTP personality type. But I hope to make some space for another voice, other parts of me to speak.
Or maybe just to pray.
*From Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow (2012):
“I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.
“Help. Thanks. Wow.
“You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word ‘prayer.’ … It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or if that is too triggering or ludicrous a concept for you, … the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with … what lies within us, beyond … our values, positions, convictions, and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s.
“Nothing could matter less than what we call this force. …
“Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to. Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery …. to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in; to something unimaginably big, and not us. … Or for convenience we could just say ‘God.’ …
“Sometimes the first time we pray, we cry out in the deepest desperation, ‘God help me.’ This is a great prayer, as we are then at our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and are thus possibly teachable.”
Right on, brother.
We’ve got you.
I’m deeply moved by this essay, John. I’ve struggled for literally my entire conscious life with depression, anxiety, and PTSD (very early trauma.) You are correct, sometimes we have to listen to our hearts first.
Thanks Anne! I appreciate your support and I hope you’re doing well too.
As an INTP, it was definitely a challenge (and remains so) to integrate feelings into my decision making process, but the thing is – feelings are an ancient tool for mankind. One we can hurt ourselves with when we don’t know what we’re doing, but something that can ultimately bring good things and positive change when handled with care. Good luck integrating this change in thinking / feeling!
I also was moved by your post. I’ve been there. I found the works of Peter Kingsley [i.e. Reality & The Dark Places of Wisdom] very helpful for me. He also has been there. Many blessings to you on your journey to Heart. btw: Steve Posch is doing his Grand Sabbat again this year at SweetWood, Aug 8th-12th.
Thank you! He’s been on my reading list, but I’m going to move him to he top now. I really want to go to Sweetwood next week, but I’m probably not going to make it. If you’re going, give my love to everyone. Thanks again!
Blessings from an ENFP, John. This is a very exciting and Socratic moment.
Excellent, John. We ached with you and worried about you. You found it. (Not that it gets easy.)
Prayer works; we can only guess how and why, and thus, ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
Thank you! Yes, I agree.
I’ve been there. Well no actually I haven’t. But you’ve taken me there with your writing. You are very gifted! Be well, and know you have many fans out here in the world who support your healing. The process is never pretty. Listen to the wind, my friend.
I wasn’t aware of this until now. In any case, let me know if I can help in any way. Any disagreements we’ve had are irrelevant, as are any differences we may still have. You are a dear friend who deserves nothing but the best in life. As an ENTJ, I know how lonely it can be as an NT. -JCH
Thank you Jon! I really appreciate that.
Love and light to you at Samhain. Wishing you every blessing and every protection. May depression fly away from you like a dead leaf in the wind.