Choosing to live

Today is spring equinox which marks the balancing of equal light and darkness.

In the early 20th century, the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre claimed that we only had one authentic choice: to choose to live, or to kill ourselves. He argued, rather bleakly, that suicide was the true expression of man’s free will: one that distiguished us from all other animals.

According to the National Office of Suicide Prevention here in Ireland:

  • A lifetime history of suicide related thoughts in certain general population groups can be as high as 49% 
  • Registered deaths from suicide in 2009 reached a record figure of 527, a 24% increase on the previous year. The first two quarters of 2010 show a small increase in numbers.
  • We have 11,000 episodes of deliberate selfharm presenting at hospital A&E departments each year. 
  • And levels of depression run at 16% in Ireland, similar to the USA, UK, Australia and Canada. 
Multiply that up… how many thousands of suicides, and millions upon millions of depressed people is that in the world?

In our modern, wealthy western world people who seemingly have everything to live for, are choosing NOT to live, whether by alcoholism, drug addiction, addiction to gambling or video games, eating disorders, through depression, hypochondria and suicide. Of course material wealth is not everything. But when you have everything you need for human life: health, food, a home, family and friends, why are so many in our culture turning to death?

I have been there myself. For short periods, but I have. So I have some personal understanding. But I also understand the frustration of dealing with a depressed person whose dark thoughts dominate not only their lives, but those of their loved ones, spewing blackness everywhere, removing joy, direction, hope and draining energy, resources, sympathy into a seemingly bottomless black hole of need, despair and stultifying inertia. I have one immediate family member in this place right now consumed by depression, suicidal thoughts and anger. Another two have been there in the past couple of years. A friend from my past killed herself a month ago. As have other people in my local area.

Why? Why do people in the prime of life, in the most privileged time in history, in comfortable circumstances find themselves so discontent that the only answer is not to live?

The Buddha taught that life is suffering, and yet we seem believe that we should be happy all the time and that if we’re not then we’ve been cheated and we’re not playing anymore. “It’s not fair,” “I deserve more,” “I just can’t carry on,” it’s all too hard, too much,” “everyone else is alright and only I am struggling,” our mind tells us. We feel alone, angry, isolated.

Depression is a very self-centred illness: it muffles everything else except the voice in our heads. In depression the mind turns against itself, just as in auto-immune disease (also hugely prevalent in our culture now) the physical body turns against itself. 

As a culture we seem to be on self destruct. We have become a cerebral civilisation: a fact which has benefits, and dark costs it seems. Our culture is very good at creating dark “soul food”: horror films, fantasy war games, a lack of meaningful interpersonal interactions, incessant bad news, readily available drugs and alcohol, a lack of time in the natural environment, unnourishing food, a lack of work with purpose and meaning…If each is seen as a “poison” it is little wonder so many cannot “see the light”, they are consuming darkness, and you are what you eat.

But also we do not teach people about the dark side of the soul. We insist on happiness or nothing, perfection or bust, achieve, achieve, more, more. We do not mention the other side. We do not educate our school children in how to recognise and navigate the dark waters of the soul – we instead label and medicate. The darkness is not perceived as normal or natural: it is a disease, a mental illness, something aberrant, for which the “sufferer” bears little or no responsibility: they are cast as the patient, the victim.

I was watching Comic Relief (a UK charity telethon) on Friday night and I saw the power of the human mind to survive, the will to live despite horrific circumstances: a 16 year old African boy who had lost his parents through murder and was in charge of his household of 4 younger siblings, living in a one room shack next to the slum latrine; a new mother with TB and AIDS who was watching her baby die in front of her because she had no milk to give him and no money; a woman who had lost 7 of her children: a cancer sufferer in England; a girl who is the main carer for her mother. These people are, despite enormous physical and emotional hardship, despite loss, trauma and  poverty, choosing to live…

And it is a choice.

Whatever our circumstances it is a choice to live or to die. For some it might be taken on a minute by minute basis. But if we choose what Sartre refers to as “good faith”, we choose to live. And once we make that choice (and it is one we can only make for ourselves, the ultimate act of personal responsibility) why not make it a life well-lived, as full as we can make it of love and gratitude, not negativity, anger and suffering? We each have a choice every moment what to focus our minds on: is it the pain in our heads or the beautiful tree swaying in the wind outside our window? We choose. Now, in this moment. What are you choosing, right now? And now? You can choose again. And again. However if you choose death you can never choose again.

The problem with depression is that we see that life is suffering, and we see nothing else. Life is suffering, but it is also sunshine and flowers, and warm food in our bellies and kisses from loved ones. But depression numbs us to all this to make it invisible to us.

We are both light and dark and need to experience and explore both sides. Existential crises are parts of life as we break out of one ingrained way of being and into another. “I cannot carry on like this” is an important place to get to… but then we must move on, not feed the negative voices in our heads.

Eckhart Tolle in his superbly insightful book A New Earth has a concept he describes as the pain body  

This accumulated pain is a negative energy field that occupies your body and mind. If you look on it as an invisible entity in its own right, you are getting quite close to the truth. It’s the emotional pain body. It has two modes of being: dormant and active.

The pain body wants to survive, just like every other entity in existence, and it can only survive if it gets you to unconsciously identify with it. It can then rise up, take you over, “become you,” and live through you. It needs to get its “food” through you. It will feed on any experience that resonates with its own kind of energy, anything that creates further pain in whatever form: anger, destructiveness, hatred, grief, emotional drama, violence, and even illness.

Once the pain body has taken you over, you want more pain. You become a victim or a perpetrator. You want to inflict pain, or you want to suffer pain, or both. There isn’t really much difference between the two. You are not conscious of this, of course, and will vehemently claim that you do not want pain. But look closely and you will that your thinking and behavior are designed to keep the pain going, for yourself and others.”

I find this an extremely useful way of understanding our suffering and how it develops. Unfortunately becuase it is part of the ego, it is deeply wrapped up with a person’s identity and is therefore defended to the hilt.  Trying to tell someone who is suffering from darkness that they are helping to contribute to it and can help to get themselves out of it never makes you popular! For this seems to blame the sufferer for their affliction, which is not the done thing. 

But if we can understand this for ourselves it makes it easier to be aware of how we navigate the darkness, and feed it. If we think of the dark “soul foods” and light “soul foods” that we are absorbing each day. If we can be aware of the pain body and how it works. If we can allow our minds not to run the show, especially when they are  dark – if we can get ourselves out of our heads through connecting with others, with meaningful work, with being outside, with physical activity, with creative expression and with a sense of perspective then we can help to shift the darkness in ourselves. And that means a little less darkness in the world. And a little more light to shine for others. 

“Life is not what it’s supposed to be. Its what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.”
~Virginia Satir

For more read my post: You are not a victim
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  1. Anonymous

    Amen. Thank you for talking about things that others avoid. Once again I am reading something of yours that is very timely, a friend of mine’s brother is in a suicidal dramatic and violent depression which is extremely painful for everyone around him. We don’t really do yin and yang very well in the west do we? Instead it becomes bipolar disorder…..

    Positive mental health is very low down on the governments list of educational outcomes….especially beyond the primary curriculum. Therapy/self help and philosophy could really dramatically transform our young people in school, although I have to say that happier people spend less ( because they feel more secure in their identity so can’t be sold a liftime of image- improving products) so this would be bad for the economy….. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feature in secondary/upper school education and all mental health issues must be dealt with remedially, by which time the damage has already been done?

  2. Dreamingaloudnet

    My godmother just posted me this on FB in response to my piece: Did you hear Bill Clinton’s speech of last week in which he alluded to suicide and begged Irish people to be heartened by what they had (landscape,beauty,music, poetry, friends) and not what they had lost (wealth)–118069709.html

  3. laangel

    I have so many feelings about depression. It is very much a black cloak, which settles not only over the person suffering but those around them. My dp has suffered with chronic depression for decades. He is only just coming to terms with it and learning to ‘choose’ life. As you said it is a choice and one he was unable to make until I forced his hand. I’m so glad I did and stuck with him, he said to me yesterday ‘You know I used to want to die, but now I really, really want to live :-)’ How great to hear. I would also just like to recommend thie resource to others, Anne Shepherd wrote a good book about ‘depression fallout’. There is also a great support forum linked to it for people who live with loved ones with depression. I found it invaluable. thanks for this post Lucy x

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