My mind has a lot of bits floating around in it. This is not a bad thing. It’s just hard to write about. I’ll try to pass on some of the bits.
I’ve taken some comfort in things I have read recently—working at the “why” of the process turned out to be worthwhile. Probably necessary. Without it, I don’t think I could have managed the intensity of the wish for death I keep coming up against as a part of the memories.
I was reading an article about Viktor Frankl and it made a lot of sense to me. The idea that life expects something from me resonated very deeply. I do not know what life has to offer me, but I have something to offer to others. It may not be anything particularly wonderful, but each of us is unique. While I may do more or less what other people might do, my way of doing it is my own and no one else can do it in quite that way. I can be a teacher, just as other people can. They might even be better at it, but they cannot do it precisely like I do. It is my responsibility to do it, to be myself, to live out the life only I can live.
I think having close experiences with death gives this perspective. Life—not just being alive and breathing, but the full experience of living—is always entirely unique and irreplaceable. I may not be any great shakes, but I am irreplaceable, and there is that perspective to it: my life is not an entitlement, but a gift. I ought to take care of it.
I think without that perspective, I would not have anything compelling enough to sustain me through the pain of working through the memories. I am working through the memories not because there is some kind of chunk of gold at the end—there very well may not be—but because I have this responsibility to be my best self. And my best self is not a person trying with all of my strength to keep my experience of life in a box. It cannot be.
The article points out that happiness is fleeting. Indeed, it is. All the things that give you happiness—hobbies, accomplishments, indulgences—don’t last very long. The feelings about those things don’t last. Which isn’t to say one shouldn’t have them, or that I shouldn’t have them, but in my case they are not enough. I cannot get through this in the hopes of being happy. Happiness is not good enough. It can only be the other way around: happiness sustains me through the suffering so that I can have a life of meaning, which could still involve continued suffering. I cannot tolerate the suffering in hopes of finding happiness later. The suffering is simply too great. Happiness must be the cups of water getting me through to the end of the marathon, not the prize at the end of it. If it’s the prize at the end, I will never run it.
I think happiness might be enough for someone whose life is easier: I am not saying it’s a bad goal to have. Just that it won’t work for me. There is no happiness great enough to counterbalance the suffering of working through my memories of the past. But I can imagine living a life of meaning—even if I don’t know what that looks like yet—as something being worth suffering for.
It’s hard to shift this mindset though. The pursuit of happiness, as the article points out, leads to “selfish” (or at least self-focused) behaviour. This is okay, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone, but as I said it won’t work for me.
The problem is that I grew up with people who only sought happiness. They were deeply and entirely selfish—some of them obviously so and some of them less so. Even if they were deluded into thinking they were living lives of self-denial as 2x2s, they were completed oriented towards temporary bits of ego-stroking (feeling good about themselves for all the things they hadn’t indulged in). Which feels good for a while, but never lasts. Which might be why they kept having to do it, to do more of it, to deny themselves more things. Why they had to have attitudes that involved more and more self-flagellation, more and more guilt, more and more ways they were “denying the self” and getting closer to God. The reward was always only in feeling what great people they were, and that kind of reward doesn’t last. If you are in pain, and they were in pain, it won’t be enough.
But thinking, “I am unique. There is something only I can do. There is a way only I can do it in. What is that thing?” That is lasting, I think.
I’ll give an example. It was easier, in a way, to forget the past and to forget the girls I grew up with. It involved less suffering, and yet it precluded providing any memorial to them. It underscored their worthlessness to humanity, because I had also declared them unworthy of being remembered. If I remember them, I suffer. I cannot help but suffer. The memories I have of them, the trauma and the grief, they involve facing tremendous pain. I cannot remember them without hurting. And yet if I do remember them, if I can tolerate the pain of grieving for them and declaring that they are worth grieving for, I can do something only I can do. I can make that unique contribution to life, and there is something about this that is deeply rewarding. It creates an insistence on the preciousness of life: the precious of their lives and of my own life. It argues against their use as a kind of living paper plate, disposable, without feeling or internal existence. I don’t want to suffer. I would prefer not to suffer. But their memory is worth suffering for.
If I can think of it I that way, I can do it. I can survive the pain and the grief. There starts to seem like a reason for it, instead of this terrible, pointless torture. Tolerating the pain will ultimately make it easier for me to function. My mental health will improve. I may not be happier, but I will be healthier.
As I said, it’s hard to do this. Maybe it just what I have been filtering through my sociopathically-brought-up mental constructs. Maybe it is the whole basis of Western culture. I am not sure. However, so many messages I have in my head are contrary to this: look out for yourself, you deserve it, you need to feel good about yourself…
Let me be clear: I am not talking about surrendering yourself to someone who does not care for you, or subordinating your needs to someone else’s. I am not talking about sacrifice as a goal in itself. I am talking about pursuing goals that have particular meaning for you, because you are a unique individual. I am talking about valuing life itself, including one’s own life, which means thinking about what is irreplaceable about oneself. What about you needs to be nurtured and protected? What needs to be developed and cultivated and allowed to expand and grow? What about you will contribute to the world in a positive way, even if it is only a small one? I am talking about that as an attitude that allows you to be resilient and to survive the kinds of things I must survive in order to heal.
Happiness is not enough. Not for me.