June 15, 2018 by Julia
Like many people, my husband and I were stunned by Anthony Bourdain’s suicide last week. We’ve been watching his shows since we were first married and felt like we knew him. He had that kind of dry, sarcastic but confessional personality that says, “what you see is what you get – this is the real me.” It seared right through the TV screen. And right next to our sadness about him was that sense of discouragement over more depressing news, especially coming just a few days after Kate Spade’s suicide.
The suicide epidemic is part of the national conversation now, and we are all trying to figure out what is going on.
Of course, most of us don’t know what the brilliantly smart and successful Bourdain and Spade were going through personally, but we are pretty good at projecting our own fears and struggles onto them. When I hear of a celebrity suicide, my first assumption/projection is this: They couldn’t deal with getting everything they wanted. They were so disillusioned they couldn’t see past their disappointment. It’s facing the reality that even if all our dreams come true, these dreams do not guarantee happiness, or even peace.
But that’s my own fear, of course. I fear depression, disappointment, and discouragement and disillusionment. The Four Ds of Despair. (I just now made that up. Feel free to use it in casual conversation.) I have two main tools in combating despair: one is talking (even when I don’t feel like talking), and the other is faith. Faith in goals, in making things better, in personal growth and hard work and love. Faith in these things does us good, and the world good, no matter what.
The danger lies in the corresponding belief that if I do everything right, my reward will be happiness. Slowly, I’ve had to admit that this isn’t always the case. Sometimes Christmas sucks even if you started your gift shopping back in March and got the decorations just right this year. Sometimes being alone is just depressing, even if you are an introvert who craves peaceful alone time. This doesn’t mean that I can’t love Christmas, or that I will never enjoy the holidays, or solitude, again. It also doesn’t mean that I should do away with making an effort for the holidays or remember to give myself downtime between social events. It just means that even though my happiness is never guaranteed, aiming for it is still worth the work. Because happiness often lies in the aiming, in the striving, in the faith itself.
Celebrity suicides can shake us to the core because we start to lose faith. Celebrities often represent things we are working toward, ourselves. When the famous people who’ve “made it” want to die, it makes us question our own life goals. We don’t want to hear about how much the top of the mountain can suck, too. We’re down here trying to make it up the first few hundred feet. If someone yells back down to us that it’s not worth the climb, how are we supposed to keep going? Do we give up on the mountain and try to be satisfied with our little camp down here?
I want to be a great writer, but some of the best, most critically acclaimed writers of all time have killed themselves. Thinking about this sends me down an endless quandary about the connection between mental illness and writing. I start to wonder if brilliant writing can only be done by those who FULLY understand all the ways that human nature and life sucks. Brilliance sounds horrible! My choices are: cheesy half-truths, a la Chicken Soup for the Soul, or miserable brilliance!
That’s a false, silly choice. I know. I know because deep down I do have faith, and that matters more to me than the desired brilliance, or the dreaded cheesiness. I just have to remind myself to draw up from that well of faith, deep inside. My faith says it’s possible to love my family well, be happy, and write well. All I can do is keep confronting my own fears with this faith.
But I have survived it, along with those other frightening Ds of Despair, and you know what? I still got my faith, in this very moment.
Disillusionment is possibly the hardest part of growing up, and one of my greatest fears. But it is teaching me how to be a resilient adult who can roll with the punches. Eventually we must face the truth that no feelings are guaranteed; that our most cherished dreams might disappoint us, once they become reality. There is no “making it.” There is no plateau of happiness, or success, that lasts beyond the initial flush of joy when we meet a hard-earned goal. We can’t always predict what new problems might appear, or how we will actually feel, once we cross that hurdle. The things we longed for the most might turn out to be fool’s gold.
All of this is true – thanks, disillusionment for bringing me back to reality. Now it’s time for faith to remind me that things can go up when we expect down, too. Sometimes what we most dread turns out to be our greatest liberation. Often, we are surprised by happiness after the darkest of days.
The question is, can I be happy in the struggle of life? Can I keep my faith that the good continues to exist alongside the bad, and it is worth reaching for? Can I be content with my desire to always be growing, rather than living for the moment when I am “grown”?
Yes. Yes, I can.
Because the reality is, this striving is something we would miss if it were gone, like most aspects of life. Being in the thick of it is where it’s at. Happiness is more likely to be found in the complex, unpredictable pursuit of happiness than it is in the actual attainment of our desires. There are no guarantees of happiness, even if I do my best, but in the pursuit of happiness I will find something rich, challenging, and interesting, alongside that happiness.
Things don’t often get better, exactly. They just get different. We trade our old problems for new ones, and hopefully get a little wiser and more compassionate each time. Being okay with the complexity of life, accepting that difficulty and ease, joy and despair will usually be within arm’s reach as we walk along, is an essential part of being happy.
As Rainer Maria Rilke says, in one of my favorite quotations, “Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Another favorite, by Churchill, that I hold dear during dark times: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Both men say it plainly: keep going. Just keep existing, and you will be surprised by what life has in store for you. Keep trying, and your faith will be restored.