There are no more beautiful and moving stories of healing than those told by Rachel Naomi Remen. Kitchen Table Wisdom is one of those books I come back to again and again. Each of its brief stories renders a moment of discovery that reveals a life’s meaning to someone lost in pain or rigid routine. As moving as these stories are, I had never thought much about the relevance of such experiences to my own life. It didn’t seem possible that the sudden revelation of meaning – and the strength it provides – could possibly result from my own severe depression. Not making the connection probably means that I glossed over such thoughts as these:
The best stories have many meanings; their meaning changes as our capacity to understand and appreciate meaning grows. Revisiting such stories over the years, one wonders how one could not have seen their present meaning all along. … .
Knowing your own story requires having a personal response to life, an inner experience of life. It is possible to live a life without experiencing it.
She tells many stories that capture the awareness of purpose through such re-readings.
- A young athlete, embittered by the loss of a leg, emerges from depression when he finds he can help other young people going through the same kind of pain that he has suffered. His loss and depression themselves became the means by which he could help heal others, rather than the pure loss he had felt them to be.
- An emergency physician, after delivering hundreds of babies, stares into the face of one newborn as she opens her eyes for the first time, and he suddenly understands the meaning of the work he had done more as a technician than a human being. This time “he felt his heart go out to her in welcome from all people everywhere, and tears came to his eyes.”
- An elderly man overcomes his fear of a risky cancer operation by recalling in a daydream his bonds of love with his wife, his best friend, his brother. They all appeared to him, their eyes expressing the love they felt for him in return – and more came. “[I]n the end there were more than fifty or sixty of them, crowding into the living room and even into the hall. In this way he had known that his life has been of value to many others and found that it was of value still.”
But how could such revelations come out of the depression I had experienced for decades? For a long time, I could only look back in anger, bitterness or grief at having lost so much of my life to this illness. It all seemed like such a waste. All I could think of was what I had not done, what I had missed doing, never believing that there was any other side to that story.
Somehow all that changed, as I realized that I had shifted at a fundamental level of belief. I was able to look back at depression as a long period of desperate searching to understand what it meant to be human. Of course, everyone doesn’t need to go through prolonged suffering of this sort to find meaning in their lives. But in my case, the only way to stop feeling less than human was to understand what it meant to be fully alive and to believe that I was capable of a “real” life. Depression continually presented one side of that coin. All I really had to do was turn it over.
But for a long time I put tight boundaries around the search for a way out of depression. I kept running rings around my inner self, trying to revive the belief that I could do so much more and escape the paralysis of will. How is it possible, I thought, to keep plodding through this cycle from brief energy to long depression to energy to depression over and over again, like the endless succession of seasons through the years?
I was always trying to heal so that I could write from my deepest self, be happy with my family, feel alive with hope about mastering whatever might come my way. It was mostly about becoming the star of the Me Show, and I was looking at the world as an audience. I could never get free of depression to find that sort of fulfillment.
In another re-reading, I found a passage in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that complemented Remen’s stories.
…[T]he true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. … [B]eing human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is … . In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
Stepping away from the circular pursuit of my inner self was hard to do consciously, but it seemed to happen on its own. I gradually realized, for example, that the purpose of this blog was not limited to my initial idea: self-discovery and, to be honest, praise and recognition – the applause of an audience for an actor. It was also a reaching out to people with stories that might be helpful to them. There was a very different sense of fulfillment in that.
Frankl refers to transcendence of self, but that’s such an ethereal word. I can’t live transcendence, but I can respond to the calls for help I hear so often in the world of blogging – and I can learn much more from others’ stories than I can from journaling my thoughts in solitude. In that exchange of depression’s stories I’ve found meaning I had never grasped before. I’m still at work catching up with Rachel Naomi Remen’s idea of learning what such stories have really been about all along:
We carry with us every story we have ever heard and every story we have ever lived, filed away at some deep place in our memory. We carry most of those stories unread, as it were, until we have grown the capacity or the readiness to read them. When that happens they may come back to us filled with a previously unsuspected meaning. It is almost as if we have been collecting pieces of a greater wisdom, sometimes over many years without knowing.