Well, today I was going to share some thoughts about peeing in the woods, but I am not quite finished with the conversation about positivity and negativity. I’ve read a lot of thoughts on that discussion in the various places I share my writing, and have messaged it to death this week with several people I respect. But today a post at Bedlam Farm clarified some of my own thinking on the matter. Jon talks about Plato’s teaching to “see the good”, the “great aspiration of an awakened being.”
In the year 2000, after series of distressing events that reflected some of the emotional ghosts pounding away in my cellar, I slipped into a deep depression, a deep state of hopelessness and sadness. It was a much deeper thing that the more subtle depressive states I would find myself in at other points of my life, and a friend of mine finally talked me into trying anti-depressants. And thank goodness she did, because eventually, they brought my brain function to the place where I could work on the underlying issues. But for awhile, in the early days of feeling better (and I’ve heard others say they’ve had the same experience with this particular med) all I could feel was the good. And as the initial relief-from-depression phase passed, I found myself consciously avoiding any thought or other stimulus that might make me feel bad. I had no interest in the dark, because I’d spent too much time on that side of the fence, and I quickly dispatched anything I thought might drag me back. The pendulum had swung, as sometimes they do.
But that’s the thing — I was still out of balance, because I was not wrestling with some deep losses.
“You can look at a dog and see the wonderful companion nature has offered human beings, or you can see a sad creature in need of rescue. You can mourn the cat who died years ago, or you can celebrate the one lying at your feet today. You can pine for what you have lost, or rejoice in what you have. You can look at a horse in Central Park and see a contented and fulfilled animal sharing work with human beings, or you can see a pathetic creature, cruelly treated and abuse, desperately in need of saving.
For me, one is the path to enlightenment, the other to anger, hate, disconnection and the shrinking of the mind and soul. Self-pity and self-righteousness, like nostalgia, are bottomless pits without reward.”
(First let me say that there’s a fun irony here for me, in that I’m not sure I would ever have had the audacity to publicly talk back to Plato — or perhaps even to Jon — without Jon’s influence on my life. Or perhaps I would have, I don’t know. But it sounds an awful lot like the things he’s been urging me to do with my life.)
Where Jon and I diverge is in our views of the effects of making the choices he offers in the first paragraph. I kept thinking during that paragraph that I can — and do — both. I can feel a little pang for my first departed soul dog in the same two minutes that I engage with the deep joy of the dog who is still next to me. I can feel longing for my infant son in the same breath that I relish the young man he’s becoming. I can even — I admit it now — still be a touch haunted by how my first marriage ended while reveling in the much deeper relationship I have now. I cannot stop those dips into pain, and I’m not going to try, because they are a part of me, and because they are a good in themselves — as Jon noted, they shine a light on the staggering gifts of today. (And of yesterday, actually.)
What matters the most to me is not whether we choose to see the good more than that bad, it’s what we do with what we see. I would like to be able to see all of it — and I think that’s more than simply not being blind to the darkness in the world, but rather, to see it affirmatively, to bear witness to it, and yet not let it drag us there to live. There is a courage in doing that, and I’m not sure I much of it, but I have a nagging suspicion that it’s part of my work. It would be a great deal easier for me to skip it by merrily announcing that I would only focus on the wonderful things in my life.
In her book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron writes:
Inspiration and wretchedness are inseparable. We always want to get rid of misery rather than see how it works together with joy. The point isn’t to cultivate one thing as opposed to another, but to relate properly to where we are. Inspiration and wretchedness complement each other. With only inspiration, we become arrogant. With only wretchedness, we lose our vision. Feeling inspired cheers us up, makes us realize how vast and wonderful our world is. Feeling wretched humbles us. The gloriousness of our inspiration connects us with the sacredness of the world. But when the tables are turned and we feel wretched, that softens us up. It ripens our hearts. It becomes the ground for understanding others. Both the inspiration and the wretchedness can be celebrated. We can be both big and small at the same time.
Wretchedness should be celebrated? Not tolerated — celebrated? Yes! This, I realize, is why I feel the need to cheer on the underdog of darkness: Because, related to properly, it can soften us up, make our vision more expansive, our hearts more open, our arms more embracing.
I say, let’s see it all. But let’s take damn good care with how it works on us.