Seeking My Best Self

trying to make sense of my life – and lose some weight

Dark Equals Deep – and other Writing Myths

Tragic and comic masksYears ago, I had a work colleague with a PhD in Philosophy. John loved to wax philosophic (who knew, right?) which drove many of our fellow managers CRAZY. Time equals money, and he was not quick in unfolding his thoughts. But I’d learned that if you were patient and listened carefully to his rambling tales, every twist and turn was pertinent.

My work day often began with some arcane observation from John. One day, as we were hanging up our coats, he turned to me and said, “It’s a myth that negativity equals depth. There have been studies, you know. Yet we persist in thinking that one who is pessimistic is somehow wiser than one who is optimistic. Don’t be fooled.”

It was a typical John comment. It also matched my observations. In my experience, negative people tend to be more narrow-visioned than positive people, which is why they succumb to a pessimistic viewpoint. They are LESS deep, not more.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, because the same myth pervades the writing world, especially the short story genre. It seems that unless the tale is filled with sex, drugs, death, and unless it ends in woe, it isn’t considered worthy. Why does this perspective permeate literature? How did negativity become the standard of depth?

I’ve been told that this dour perspective represents REAL life.

Really? Whose life? Certainly not mine. Not the lives of the people around me. Have our lives held their fair share of tragedy and sorrow? Have we made poor choices? Traveled through depression, alcoholism, drug-dependency, suffered the results of poor decisions? Of course. That’s the fare for climbing on the earth bus.

But I’ve never considered ever-increasing anguish to be the natural course of things. When I’m depressed, I don’t dwell on the despair of Diane Arbus, Kurt Cobain, and Mark Rothko. Instead, I look at the lives of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin and Loretta King, Cesar Chavez – all of whom suffered at the hands of others, all of whom suffered from their own inadequacies, and ALL of whom chose to rise above their circumstances and strive for positive change.

When I get caught in the trap of negativity, I draw inspiration from the Peace Pilgrim and from the songs of Joan Baez, John Lennon and Mishka. Do I contemplate my circumstances? Of course. Do I spend too much time whining and worrying? Yep, yep. Do I write about these things? Well, you’ve been reading my blog thus far.

But I firmly believe that negativity isn’t the natural end of the story – of ANY story. I believe that hidden in the worst circumstance lies the seeds of heroism. That’s the reality I see. That’s the truth I strive to reveal, both in my written work and in my life.

PS: I came across an interesting comparison of the cognitive psychology of tragedy vs. comedy: Characteristics of Tragedy vs. Comedy. It supports my perspective. Which is why I offer it, of course. ūüôā

Leave a comment »

Death Comes When We Do Not Struggle Against It

struggle“I’m sorry but I can’t take any more. My apologies to the world for being the awful person I am. I’m of no value to anyone any more. Even God doesn’t want me. Please make sure my dog goes to someone who will love him as much as I do.”

A friend, who I’ll call Rick, posted this message on Facebook yesterday at 11:30 am. I found it about 45 minutes later. By then, others had seen it and called the police. Friends called one another in dismay and fright. “Have you seen him? Have they found him?” The answer was no.

I spent most of the afternoon scouring parks near his house, because when I told Bryan about the post, he responded, “Rick has his dog with him. Muscle memory will kick in, and he’ll walk the dog in a familiar place. Let’s go search. Perhaps we can find him.” ¬†It was as good a plan as any. It gave me something to do besides just sit and wait – because, to be honest, sitting and waiting was leading to crying and shaking.

Some of you know that I’ve been through this before. One terrible morning eleven years ago, I too called the police. They coaxed me away from my home, away from my despondent husband and his gun. They led me to a neighbor’s house where I waited…and waited…and waited through the long afternoon, until an officer knelt by my chair and gave me the news ¬†no one ever wants to hear.

So yesterday we hiked in the rain and the cold. We searched three rustic parks and covered acres of ground. We didn’t find Rick, but someone else did. He’s alive and safe, and for that we’re overjoyed.

Why would an upbeat, intelligent, well-loved person try to take his life? It’s a question people are asking about Rick today. It’s a question many asked after my husband died.

I researched and wrote about suicide during my MFA studies. We read much about teen suicide, and many believe it’s a malaise of the young. But I found that, contrary to popular belief, young adults aren’t the largest population of suicides. They attempt in large numbers, but they do not succeed as often as the middle-aged. Suicide frequency actually reaches its peak between ages fifty-five and sixty-five.

Regardless of age, research shows that people don’t want to die. What they want is for pain to end. Suicide – death – is the final barricade between them and unbearable emotional agony.¬†What triggers a suicide attempt? For instance, was the torment stronger yesterday for Rick? Did it press in on my late husband more cloyingly on October 3, 2002?¬†Maybe, but maybe not. This sounds trite, but I what I found was that suicide results when a human fails to strive to remain living. Life continues because we work at it; death results when we do not. Whether we refuse food or wade into a river with rocks in our pockets, death comes when we do not struggle against it.

There’s a tired platitude that says God never gives us more than we can handle. Bullshit. I disagree. There have been many days when I’ve collapsed under the burden of worry, of grief, of all the stresses and strains that come with living in this human container. (By the by: I don’t believe God bestows pain and suffering upon us. She/He does not loom over us with a scoop, dumping burdens into our life like wrapped caramels into a plastic bag, watching us stretch and distort, seeing how much we can hold before we totally give way.) We are all sometimes pushed by life beyond the breaking point. We are all blown-out bags.

What makes the difference between those who continue to work at living and those who don’t? Two things: others and ourselves.

Over 150 people posted messages on Rick’s Facebook page yesterday. One-hundred-and-fifty people who were ready to drop everything and rush to his side. One-hundred-and-fifty friends, family, clients and even strangers who prayed and worried and loved. At my husband’s funeral, over five-hundred people attended. Five-hundred people, any one of whom would have dived head-first into the sludge pond by the Rickreall dairy to save Lee from drowning in his despair.

One of my favorite books is¬†The Curse of Chalion by Margaret McMaster Bujold. In it Cazaril, the protagonist, asks a local saint why he was tapped on the shoulder to save the day. Why was Cazaril¬†chosen by the gods? The local saint replies that Cazaril was not the only one chosen; a hundred may have been sent, but Cazaril was the only one who listened, who acted, who arrived. When I first read this passage, I thought, “Let me be one who arrives.” I determined then and there to be more deliberate about being open to nudges that cause us to act on behalf of another.

This passage came to mind as we searched for Rick yesterday. You see, he reached out to me via email more than a month ago. He didn’t tell me what was causing him pain, but he did tell me he was discouraged, and he asked for a word of encouragement. I was happy to talk, ¬†happy that he had asked for help. After a few email exchanges, he indicated he was doing better. I checked in with him a couple more times. He didn’t seem despondent, but he didn’t seem like his usual self, either. Our last exchange was two weeks ago.

I failed him. I should have seen the signs. I should have pushed a little more and insisted on a face-to-face meeting. I should have kept more consistent correspondence, whether he responded or not. I, of all people, should have known better than to believe the social face of a person who’s admitted he’s in pain.

This was my self-talk, expressed tearfully to Bryan. “No. Just, no.” he said. “You reached out. You were a good friend. You are not responsible for another person’s actions. We cannot control what another person does.”

And that is the second thing that makes the difference between life and death: ourselves. We have to choose to shout out when our boat is being swamped. We have to choose grab the saving hand, to be drawn up from the depths. Sometimes, we have to choose to let others breathe for us when our lungs are still.

Bryan is right. I did reach out, both to my husband and to Rick. So did many others. My late husband did not choose to accept this help. Rick, thank goodness, did.

Struggle, my friend, struggle. May we all continue to struggle. May we all be blessed with one-hundred Cazaril’s, who listen and arrive.

1 Comment »


Happy New Year!

Do you create New Year’s resolutions? I used to, but I would be depressed by February, because I rarely kept the resolutions for more than a week or two. A few years ago, I came across an idea that I expanded and refined. I call it the Focus List. It’s been a life-changer. Read all about it: Ariyawen Focus List.

Give it a try! It’s harder (and more fun) than you’d expect. Allow an hour or more to finish. I’ll wait here until you’re done.


Now that you’ve created the list, what do you do with it?

Look at it. Read it through, daily if possible. That’s all. Don’t stress about it. Don’t ‘focus’ on it. Just read it. As the year progresses, you’ll find that you naturally make time for these items. These are the things that you’re most excited about, after all.

It’s also a good reference for those times when other things try to crowd in. The list creates accountability to the important, making it easier to boot the urgent. It’s not selfish to do this. We are here to accomplish the things we are uniquely gifted to do. We can’t do that if we allow other things to usurp our time and energy.

But, but… what about all those OTHER things that are important? What about the next seven? And the next?

Save ’em for next year. We¬†can’t do everything at once.¬†We really can’t. I don’t know about you, but I got tired of doing a poor job of many things. That only INCREASED my stress.

So I decided to FOCUS. 

focus 2014


Here’s my list ———————->


Leave a comment »

%d bloggers like this: