“In order for you to live an authentic, meaningful life, which is the principal remedy for the depression creative people experience, you must feel that the plan of your life is meaningful, the work you do is meaningful, and the way you spend your time is meaningful.”
– Eric Maisel – The Van Gogh Blues: The creative person’s path through depression
We’ve all seen war movies with (usually hot) fighter jet pilots (I choose to select Josh Hartnett from Pearl Harbour here, but feel free to insert your own choice). How often do you see them glancing down at a photo of their girlfriend, wife, or children from back home – usually just before they do something incredibly brave that could take their life? It’s as if holding onto that love, that meaning for existence, makes anything else seem possible.
Viktor Frankl shared the same thoughts and experiences in his classic, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” As a prisoner in Auschwitz he noticed that some people caved into the harsh conditions and it was as if the light in their eyes went out. Others, in the same conditions, had fight left in them. They kept going no matter what happened.
During his research he found that for some it was the belief they would one day be free again and return home to their loved ones. Others found meaning in helping others who were struggling. For Viktor himself, the image of his wife kept him alive through horrendous winters and immeasurable suffering.
He later developed a form of psychotherapy around his research, called logotherapy. This is essentially the art of helping a client find his/her purpose in life in order to alleviate their current suffering. If we have something meaningful to hold onto, something we love so much that it fills our soul with longing to live the next day – that is when we can get through absolutely anything.
Frankl discovered that depression is not just the result of the conditions of ones life, but also from the freedom of choice you always have even in severe distress. As he learned in Auschwitz: If a prisoner has hope in his future he can live through suffering. If he loses that hope, he is doomed.
In the prison of depression, the reality is exactly the same. If we can find a way to latch onto a purpose, some form of meaning, a way to hold onto hope – then we can find the strength to be brave enough to fight our way to the next day.
We need to pin those pictures of hope – our own unique soul lights – to our days.
I think there is a difference between something we absolutely enjoy and something that lights up our soul.
For example, I truly love books. In fact, it’s an obsession. For me there is no greater pursuit on a Sunday afternoon than to hunt through second hand book shops for…more books. I have built my career around publishing and revolved much of my life and time around books. I enjoy every second. You will catch me smiling while I’m reading in the corner of a coffee shop, when an author reads from her work at a launch, or when I spot a title I have wanted for so long at a sale. This would be the same kind of smile I would have when I step into the yoga studio, walk along the beach, or sit down with a magazine and my cup of tea.
But I also have a different kind of smile. The oh-my-god-my-soul-just-lit-up smile. As an adult my first memory of this level of sheer joy was during my first swim with wild dolphins. I couldn’t contain the level of emotion. I went from wide grinning to giggling to tears. It was the same every time I returned to the ocean. I touched this feeling again and again when I worked with the seals and penguins at the aquarium. Then many more times when I truly fell in love and the man I adored walked into a room, held my hand, told me he loved me or held me in his arms. It’s the same smile I have when I see a tiny kitten, a gorgeous dog, a beautiful horse. For me, animals and the people I love with all my heart light up my soul. I know that if I had kids they would easily fill the happy balls of light in my eyes too.
Knowing this, I gravitated back to working with animals for just a few hours a week. I do marketing and writing for a local animal shelter and love every second. Sitting with my laptop in a room full of kittens, or next to a rehomed pig, or one of the many shelter dogs, I have found my bliss. Part of my work is to get the word out about the very special souls we take care of in the hopes of finding them a new, happy home and family.
My first assignment was Jefferson. The full of spunk guy with a go-getter attitude and naughty eyes. He reminded me of a biker boy with a big heart. Rough around the edges but always eager to give a massive hug. My idea was to record a video of him on the beach. Although the dogs at the shelter are walked almost every day, going to the beach is an absolute treat and not one that happens often. I knew Jefferson’s eyes would glow bright and he would be giving me that oh-my-god-my-soul-just-lit-up smile. And he did. He played in the waves, chased sea gulls, dug in seaweed, made hundreds of paw prints along the sand. On the way back to the shelter he lay at the back of the car, tongue lolling out, his expression one of pure joy. He had a really happy day.
The next morning Jefferson collapsed.
A few hours later he died.
After doing an autopsy the vet discovered that the poor boy had pancreatic cancer. When I had taken him for his last walk he had only a few hours left to live and we didn’t even know.
I’m so glad I did. Instead of spending his last day in a kennel, my Jefferson ran free on the beach. I was incredibly sad that he had passed away, but there was something else filling my heart too: meaning. I had made a difference. Because I was there, he got to have a fantastic final walk. Once again I felt that soul-expanding emotion give way to tears. The work I do matters. My contribution makes a difference. When I let myself feel that truth it was impossible for depression to fill the same space.
I feel like giving Viktor Frankl a high five. I finally get it.
Depression creeps in when we have allowed too many days…weeks…months…years….to pass before letting ourselves feel one of those oh-my-god-my-soul-just-lit-up moments. Perhaps it’s from too many late nights at the office and we miss seeing our children grow up – we no longer experience those cute moments that always gave us a goofy smile. Maybe, like me, you have neglected to bring the happy in – I knew that being around animals made me giddy with joy – but instead of volunteering at a shelter on the weekends I pulled the duvet over my head instead.
Maybe we have completely forgotten what makes us smile from the inside out. We have no idea what lights up our lives in the first place.
I think we all need to do 2 things:
- Find the things that absolutely light you up. Not simply things you enjoy and make you happy. LIGHT YOU UP.
- Devote more time to those sparkling lights. Even if it’s half an hour extra with your baby every day, or perhaps a visit to an orphanage, or maybe simply a walk with your dog.
You see, in those moments, it’s impossible to feel depressed. Your soul cannot be beaming with joy and feeling hopeless at the same time.
The reality is that we cannot have these joy pockets all day, every day. That’s what makes them so damn special. We still need to work, do the chores, live life. But we must find a way to carve out time to come face to face with the things that make us come alive. That’s when depression is forced to step aside. And sometimes, that’s all we need to keep going and be brave – just like fighter jet Josh in Pearl Harbour.
Do what matters.