Sunday, November 28, 2010

In The Long Run

The sun gives ground to a long cold night,
And you screw up your courage for another fight,
But you know in your heart it’ll be all right in the long run.
--Redgum, Long Run

I’ve blogged before about the power that music has to transport us out of ourselves, if only for a few moments. For me there are many bands, artists, and types of music that can do that. One of them is definitely Redgum, an Australian folk-rock band of the late 70s and early 80s. They are unknown overseas, and in Australia they are remembered mainly as a one-hit wonder for the song I was only 19, addressing the experience of Vietnam war vets. But they had a lot of other great songs that have been sadly forgotten, one of them being the song Long Run.

Some have seen this song as a criticism of the stereotypical Australian “She’ll be right mate, don’t worry about it” attitude. But I interpret it differently. Gradually as time passes I am coming to believe that things will be all right in the long run. But not because of destiny or any natural fairness in the world. They will be all right in the long run if we make them be all right.

Looking back over the last few centuries at all the improvements that have been made in Australia and other countries, progress has come from struggle. People struggled for the right to vote, for the right to have decent working conditions, for the right to equal treatment under the law regardless of sex, race, creed or sexual preference. None of these battles are ever entirely won. But where progress has been made, it is not because of any immutable law of progress or divine gift. It has been made because many people paid with, to quote old Winston Churchill: blood, toil, tears and sweat.

I think the same principles apply in our personal life. For those of us who struggle with depression or another mental illness life is a challenge. Some people find consolation in religions of various types, a belief in destiny or a cosmic plan, or in self-help books like “The Secret” that say we just have to think positive and everything will work out magically. I don’t find any of these to be convincing. I’ve been an atheist for a long time, and I have never found that many results come from prayers or wishful thinking. In my experience, results come from work.

I think that everyone wants their life to be better, and that we all do the best we can at any given time. There is still a long road ahead of me to where I want to be as a person. But I am making steps down that road. I’ve taken many hits along the way, but I am strong enough to have withstood them, and I am gradually learning to accept myself and be satisfied with the progress I am making. And for the first time in my life, I am slowly beginning to believe that things will indeed be all right in the long run.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

If I Ever Leave This World Alive

Recently I heard the song "If I ever leave this world alive" by the punk-folk group Flogging Molly. I hadn't listened to it for a while, and it took me back to 2005, when I first heard it. I remember originally hearing it on an episode of The Shield, and being entranced by it. I remember going on a two day road trip with a couple of friends before leaving Australia, pestering one of them to download it for me so I could play it later on the iPod as we drove along the coast. And I remember annoyingly singing bits and pieces of the song throughout the long car trip. But mostly, I remember the friends.

Originally four of us were to go on the road trip; myself, an engineer and a musician (two old friends from high school), and a friend from Korea. Unfortunately the Korean friend wound up having to work on that weekend, so he only spent Friday night with us before we headed off on Saturday morning. But it was a good Friday night. The musician turned up on Saturday morning (having brought only the clothes on his back plus a pair of sunglasses), my Korean friend headed back to work, and the three of us headed out along the coast.

The engineer, had just come back from 18 months or so living in the UK, and was just settling back into Australian life. I was about to up stakes and fly off to Japan to an unknown future. The musician was already starting to get itchy feet and thinking about heading over to South America, which he later did. Australia is very far from the rest of the world and culturally confused, with a physical geography that places us near Asia, but a mental geography that places us somewhere between the US and the UK. This combination of distance and confusion, plus all the usual reasons people travel, has sent generations of young Australians have heading off overseas for a week, a year, or a lifetime.

Not too long after that trip I headed off to Japan. My Korean friend was called back home by his company, and while he often came to Japan on business, schedules rarely aligned. We caught up a couple of times, and climbed Mt Fuji together back in 2008. I had promised to visit him in Korea at some stage, but still haven't done so.

A few weeks ago he told me that he'd be in Tokyo this past Thursday, and we had a chance to catch up. It had been a while and we didn't have a lot of time, but it was great to see him again. We reminisced about the old days in Australia, brought each other up to date with recent events, and talked about what was going on in our lives, good and bad. It was nice. It made me think back over many things I'd forgotten, or not thought about for a long time.

At various times over my three trips around the merry-go-round of depression I've called on these friends, and each of them has helped me at different times, to the best of their abilities to do so. With them, and with others as well, I have sometimes been angry and frustrated that they did not or could not do more to help me. I thought angrily to myself on many occasions that people should see how much I need help, should be there for me more, should check in more often. Couldn't they see how much pain I was in?

For the most part, I have moved past those feelings now. I think that we are all as good as we are capable of being at any given point in time. I said the same thing in last week's blog post, but I think it is worth repeating. Dealing with someone who has depression or another mental illness is tough, and it requires an amount of energy and skill that most people simply don't have.
This is far from ideal. But this is the way the world is. And denying reality doesn't help anyone.

I am far from where I would like to be in terms of my situation in life. But I think I am learning and getting stronger. And harsh as it may seem, we ultimately be able to stand or fall from our own efforts. Others can help, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many people who have helped me get through particularly rough patches. But at the end of the day we must stand on our own two feet. And I think I'm getting closer to being able to do that.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Letting go, and getting better

“Every man must look after his own soul; you can’t lay it down at another man’s door like a foundling, and expect him to take care of it."
--Anna Sewell, Black Beauty

I'm feeling better these days. I'm not jumping for joy or skipping down the street, but I am feeling gradually better. Life is manageable. It has plenty of challenges and ordeals to endure, and there are countless things I could probably complain at length about. But life is too short, and we only get one shot at it. And more than that, I really don't feel the need to complain as much as I used to.

I have spent a lot of my life, especially the last few years, being angry or depressed. Some say that depression is rage turned inwards, and I think that makes sense. I have raged against the world, against myself, against others. I have spent so much time finding reasons to look down on everyone around me, as well as myself. And then I've been angry that, surprisingly enough, people don't seem to want to spend much time around me meeting my emotional needs.

I am still a work in progress. But I think at the root of a lot of my frustration has been the fact that I've wanted to find other people to fill some gap, something missing inside myself. Humans are social creatures, and we crave human contact. And where the line between healthy need and unhealthy need is, I am not sure. But I have definitely spent a lot of time on the unhealthy side of the line. And what I needed, other people were not capable of giving. In hindsight, I think they recognized that, and moved away accordingly.

But I think there has been some shift within me. It has probably been caused by a number of different things. Part of it is probably diet and exercise, and forcing myself to get involved in more social activities. Part of it is writing this blog, and reading about the struggles of others who have been through similar things, especially Takashi. Mental illness is not something that one can openly talk about with a lot of people, and finding something of an online community of people who know what it is like helps.

And I am gradually moving closer to being okay with myself. I am caring a lot less about other people's opinions. I think I'm done walking on eggshells.

I am gradually feeling more confident in life, more accepting of my flaws and limitations. And I am able to see the flaws in others now, not as a reason to condemn them or look down on them, but just as part of their humanity. I think we are all as good as we are capable of being at any given time, getting by as best we can.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

Usually this blog is my thoughts, but for this post, I’d like to share something from a book I read at university that made a huge impact on me, Pale Blue Dot. It was written by astronomer, skeptic and science popularizer Carl Sagan, who also wrote the novel Contact and made the TV series Cosmos. In this passage, he is talking about the picture of earth to the left, taken by the Voyager spacecraft in 1990, now 20 years ago. The picture was taken from 6.1 billion kilometers away, and the Earth appears as a barely visible tiny dot.

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”