Hello darkness, my old friend

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Yesterday brought the very sad and shocking news that Sushant Singh Rajput, so young and full of promise, had ended his life. In the hours since then the media and social media have been awash with the story. In the social media comments, while deep sorrow is the most common emotion expressed, I have also come across some judgement and criticism. But overwhelmingly, I hear the question, “Why did he do it?” It is a question that can have no comprehensive and meaningful answer and yet we feel compelled to keep asking.

Having lived with depression and oftentimes struggled with it for 35 years, I know only too well that abject despair and hopelessness are very real. And these feelings can happen in the very midst of what everyone else sees as a perfect life. And so often, behind the despair is another “why” question – “Why can’t I seem to find meaning?”

Although in recent years there is more and more conversation and writing about depression and mental health, society as a whole grapples to come to a real understanding about it. Its symptoms are so imperceptible from the outside that it is extremely difficult to tell who is suffering and who is not. And yet what goes on inside is acute and unmistakable. William Styron in his 1990 memoir ‘Darkness Visible’ captures it with penetrating precision:

The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

We look for meaning outside ourselves only to realise that everything is transitory and impermanent. And that realisation brings with it fear and shakiness. I am beginning to see that I have to stay with that fear without disowning it. Clarity can only come from becoming intimate with fear rather than treating it as a problem to be solved. The American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron teaches us that in befriending our fears, we befriend life. She simply and eloquently says:

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

When darkness visits me these days, I try to just sit with it, neither judging myself nor resisting my feelings. And in staying with it rather than seeking relief from it, I open myself to the possibilities of remaining in the here and now. Allowing myself to relax with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment is the only way to see that light is contained in darkness.