The time a really depressing book helped me get through depression
It was like boredom, but on a larger-than-life level. My sixteen-year-old self didn’t know it at the time, but it was depression.
I started to get bored with living such a suburban life. I lived in one of San Diego’s most residential areas, where all the homes are cookie cutter homes, and where everything closes at seven. Our family’s home looked exactly like the one to the right and the one to the left. Since we were too far away from the more fun parts of town, all there was to do was hang out in shopping centers and go to the movies. I lived really close to the largest movie theatre in the city, so I saw a lot of movies. It helped that it was close to a Barnes & Nobles where I passed a lot of time. What irritated me was how the suburbs lacked the feel of a community, and was quite antisocial. The vague traces of a social life felt very artificially imposed, and it lacked what I felt was the heart of community. The majority of this area was upper class, and it attracted a lot of career minded people who didn’t have the time to socialize. I felt all the nausea of suburban teenage angst. It was heavier than that, though.
This time period in my life felt like forever. If you wake up everyday realizing that you’re surviving, but unsure of what it is you’re surviving for, time tends to move painfully slow. I remember watching a lot of movies and TV, observing what characters did to see what exactly a source of true enjoyment looked like, true pleasure that didn’t actually consist of making a part of your life more inconvenient for the sake of distracting yourself from the pointlessness of it all.
People had jobs and went to school. That’s where they spend most of their time, I guess. But people go to school so they can get jobs, and people get jobs so they can get food and afford a place to sleep. They’re still more of the same- simply ways to survive, not reasons to. Eliminating sleeping, eating, work, and school, automatically eliminated 80% of a normal person’s daily schedule.
So maybe it was time to look in the remaining 20%. People spend a lot of time in traffic, usually to get to school to get a job to afford food and a house to survive. People watch a lot of TV, read a lot of books, and rent a lot of movies. But that’s just watching fictional people overcome challenges in their life in order to survive. Sports and games? All I saw were people finding ways to make simple tasks more difficult. Put the ball through the hoop but there’s time pressure, and these five guys are going to try and stop you. Is seeing a ball pass through a hoop really that grand? All fun was, was a distraction, to make us forget that all we were doing was surviving, nothing more, and for no reason.
So what was the point of it all? Everything that people did was just stuff for the purpose of survival. What was so great about surviving? All I saw was a big how to survive, and absolutely no why to survive. Even that was a losing battle. In a hundred years, pretty much everybody would be dead. Add another hundred years, and just about everyone would be dead and forgotten, and all the things you did in your life would seem like the don’t matter. Whether you were a broke drug addict or a super philanthropist seemed to land you in the same place two hundred years from now. The only exception would be a select few newspaper-worthy people. The thing is, the newspaper won’t even survive the next two hundred years.
Thinking that way took the joy out of everything. I would play a video game and think, “well here I am, and making a simple task difficult for myself to fool myself into thinking I’m having fun.”
Perhaps the best sign that God existed at that time in my life was the fact that I survived it. I had lost a purpose to life. I had lost an ability to enjoy life. I lost a reason to live. It’s amazing I didn’t connect the dots then and just end it. Perhaps the best sign that God existed was that he kept me numb to the possibility of ending things there. Although I never planned to, the thought wasn’t so far away.I really wanted to find what that thing was. I made lists for myself of things people could do for fun.
Draw and paint and stuff.
My list grew a little bit longer. Still, all these things were falling short of being things that could actually satisfy my need for something that I could consider pure enjoyment. I decided that the one thing that might be able to break through this barrier would be sex. Sex is physically pleasant, it doesn’t exactly fit into the category of making easy things harder just to distract us from their pointlessness, and something about the enjoyment of it just seemed very authentic. Like it pretty much existed for the purpose of enjoyment.
Of course sex wouldn’t end up the place where I ended up anchoring my life. For starters, whether it was because of my religious upbringings or just some strain of shyness, I wasn’t comfortable with the sound of that. Even if I was totally fine with that, it wasn’t actually so feasible. I barely did anything with girls. I was usually afraid to pursue them, and wound up just trying to impress them with unfunny jokes.
The other problem with this idea was that sex also produces babies. It creates the next generation of life and the human race continues to survive. Survive. I couldn’t even completely disassociate sex from mere survival.
I continued my routine of pretty much sticking to my lifestyle diet of schoolwork, sitcoms, and baseball games. I would go to school in the day and try to impress people. I would come back home and find whatever ways to make the time go faster. I would have dinner with my parents then pass some more time. Some nights I would read some of the Bible before I slept. Even though my faith was practically dormant, it had been a habit I’d had for most of my life. In order for me to sleep well, I would have to pick up the book, open it to where I last had it open, and let my eyes sweep across the pages. It was a chore; one I wasn’t getting a lot out of, and one that was basically my way of sidestepping guilt. I opened somewhere at a part called Ecclesiastes.
One night, I was feeling especially apathetic towards everything, and wanted to go to sleep early. It’s how you can tell I’ve lost my drive. Typically, I struggle to squeeze everything I want to do into one day. When I’ve lost my will to live, however, sleep becomes an escape plan. I figure sleep is the closest thing I can do to time travel towards a part of life that might be easier to bear. One particular night, I figured I might as well get in bed and make myself comfortable. As usual, I picked up my Bible and turned to where I last had it open. Ecclesiastes is an incredible book that I would recommend to anyone. It completely changed my perspective on the Bible. Before it did that, even, it changed my perspective on my life.
I started reading the book. It started out with a teacher shouting the words “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” It caught me a little bit off guard. It continued, “What good is all the work that man does? People come and go, and the earth goes on, and on, and on…” The rest of the first part talked about how wisdom was meaningless.
This was strange. Usually, when you asked a Christian the meaning of life, I figured you would get some long-winded answer with something cliché about God tacked on to the end. Suddenly, here’s the Bible telling me that everything was meaningless. My curiosity was piqued. I was no longer scanning the page, but I genuinely wondered how the Bible could say that. I knew why I felt that way, but to see that in the pages of the Bible was completely different.
The book continued, and suddenly it was talking about how pleasures were completely pointless. The second chapter began, “I thought in my heart, I’m going to test you with pleasure to find out what’s good, but that turned out to be meaningless. Laughter is foolish. What does pleasure accomplish? I wanted to see what was worthwhile for people to do during the very few days of their lives.” I immediately thought of my list. Finding out what was worthwhile for people to do. The things this book was saying matched my train of thought almost word for word. In fact, it put into words things that I felt, but wasn’t even sure how to describe. For maybe the first time, I was actually fully engaged in reading the Bible. Trying to devour word after word, and at the same time let them linger to make sure it really said what I thought it said.
None of this was good news, actually. In fact, the whole idea that the Bible itself was kind of backing my idea that life was pretty much pointless didn’t provide much hope then and there. But what it did provide was the relief that I wasn’t the first person who felt this way. I was so amazed by the fact that it actually understood what I was trying to say that I continued to read. Parts of the book mentioned how wise people and stupid people basically both die and wind up forgotten about, so being wise seems meaningless. There was this one part that said “Who knows if man’s spirit rises upward?” Weird. I didn’t know you were allowed to be unsure about Heaven like that.
The teacher continued to talk about friendlessness, something else I could kind of relate to, and how things in life often turned out to be unfair, something I was starting to discover for myself. Before I knew it, I was nearing the end of this portion of the Bible, completely surprised by it. I still wasn’t sure what was more surprising, the fact that it was so relevant to what I was feeling, or the fact that it was strangely depressing and hopeless for being in the Bible.
The last couple chapters, though. Those hit the hardest. I started reading the conclusion of this mostly depressing book. It wrapped itself up in an interesting way. The teacher, who had been going on this major diatribe, trying to figure out the meaning of life only to discover meaninglessness ultimately admits his failure and acknowledges that he can’t possibly understand everything. Then he starts giving really simple bits of advice. “Fear God.” “Remember your Creator.” The bit that really got to me though, was “Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.” He then told me to “banish anxiety from my heart and cast off the troubles from my body.”
The Bible telling me to be happy helped, after all, it was a novelty. I was raised thinking that God was the commissioner of the fun police. It took some time to work this into my actual life. I still had all of my doubts about God, but I started to think of life as a gift from above. At least it was a gift from somewhere. Whichever way I ended up being born and alive, I had beat the incredibly unlikely odds and I was a living, breathing person, living out a fairly comfortable life. If life was a gift from God, then I basically was failing at it by failing to enjoy it. It was at this point where my outlook on what fun and happiness are started to change. They aren’t something that exciting movies and Phillies games are supposed to give to me, they’re things I always have the ability to feel, I just needed to approach things with the right perspective. I started to learn how to take joy in the most random, small details in life.
I started to learn that happiness isn’t really a reaction in the way that drunkenness is a reaction to too much alcohol. At all times we have the opportunity to be happy, and it’s all a matter of how we see things. It’s the reason why people who have such great lives on paper can feel so miserable quite often and it’s the reason why you can see smiles on the faces of children in the slums of Cambodia and Paraguay. If you look for ugliness in the world, you’re guaranteed to find it. But if you look for beauty, you’re also guaranteed to find that. It’s both there. You decide what you want to notice and what you want to affect you. It’s why I love photography. The constant search for the right subject mimics the constant search for the best things to focus on. Sometimes, a supposedly ugly subject, can still make a fantastic photo, if framed and shot the right way. Tears for Fears wrote a song that I love called Mad World. Louis Armstrong sang another song that I also love called What a Wonderful World. The funny thing is that they were talking about the same world. It’s all a matter of how we look at it.
Ecclesiastes was a sudden injection of hope. It acknowledged the fact that my faith had gone dark, but continued to encourage me to follow God and to enjoy life in the tension of all my doubts and questions. I realized life was a gift, and understood this simply. I felt free to doubt, free to question, but also free to still seek God and to enjoy life.
The way I felt right after that, I imagine, was like how a released prisoner of war would feel. After being tortured and kept in miserable conditions, you suddenly appreciate every little detail of things you once took for granted. I imagine a released prisoner, suddenly taking joy in things like the freshness of the air in places with a lot of nature, or in the oddly soothing sound of traffic at a busy intersection. I started making a conscious effort to try and appreciate everything from the context of gratitude. It worked. Everything, everywhere, seemed to have a new life to it. This was the genesis of my Second Chance.
My Ecclesiastic encounter helped me out of a depressive state. However, it didn’t quite resolve all these remaining intellectual barriers I had with the concept- or concepts- of God. If anything, it made it more confusing. Why would God endorse the ‘Life is meaningless’ mantra by putting that in the Bible if He created life? What I mostly got out of Ecclesiastes was that I shouldn’t be so mopey and that I should be thankful to be alive. It also pointed at God, saying that’s whom I should be thankful to. But the thing was, I still had a lot of unanswered questions about God. Ecclesiastes raised about as many questions as it answered. I drew two conclusions from rediscovering happiness as a result of one of the Bible’s most depressing books. One was that God was very confusing and that a lot of what I had thought about him might be wrong. The other was that God, or at least the Bible, actually had stuff in there that I could relate to. Actually, it felt like it related to me, and I really appreciated that. I decided to take the book more seriously. I found it all the more confusing, and parts of it very unlikely, but I never forgot what it was like to read Ecclesiastes, and continued to dig through it.
At this point, all the things I actually knew were that there’s a chance that God created everything, and that this life is a gift of sorts- either a gift given by God or a series of very highly unlikely chance occurrences, which are so unlikely, that they’d still be a reason to celebrate if they were the means of my existence.
I prayed some time after finishing the book. I don’t remember exactly what I said anymore, but it was something along the lines of saying, ‘thank you just for the gift of allowing me to be alive.’ I thought of as many things as I could that were good and beautiful and came up with a lot. I realized that it was so great to be alive to enjoy them. I apologized for not enjoying them earlier and for being ungrateful. I also thanked God for seemingly communicating with me. My entire life, the communication had mostly been one way- although my prayers weren’t very sincere either. I still had my doubts, but I told God I thought that since I got so much out of Ecclesiastes, the rest of the Bible was worth exploring and that I would do so with an open mind. I also told him I would continue to pray.
Around this same time, Rob started spending a lot of time with an elderly man in our neighborhood named Ranken Swann. The Swanns were probably everybody’s favorite neighbors. In our less-than-social neighborhood, somehow they managed to get to know everybody. The Swanns went on walks through the park just about every day, and were in amazing shape to do so, considering their ages. I suppose they did stop enough times during the walks to stop and talk in their heavy Irish accents to whomever would pass by. One day I showed them a short story I wrote, and they raved over my writing ever since and once even gifted me with a very executive looking pen. Later on, Mrs. Swann would constantly try to match me up with one of her granddaughters.
Rob and Mr. Swann had developed a close friendship, so he was one of the first people to find out the day he passed away.
That weekend, I walked with my parents to the next cul-de-sac and into the Swanns’ house, for his memorial service. I remember meeting most of their other family, people I knew about from all of Ranken and Margaret’s stories, but whom I had never actually seen in person. It was like seeing a storybook come to life. I was there. Kay the mailwoman was there. Random neighbors I’d seen in passing were there. It was a full house.
The one thing that always stuck with me from this memorial service is that everyone would say a similar thing about Ranken. That he enjoyed life. That he didn’t take it for granted, took things slow, and just often soaked in the beauty of it all. I don’t know if it was ever said as a part of an anecdote, or if it was just my imagination, but I had a mental image of Ranken walking down a nature trail in the fall, with leaves falling and sunlight seeping through, just smiling. Looking out and smiling. The beautiful thing about that image wasn’t the majesty of the scenery as much as it was Ranken’s smile. He understood the appreciation of life. He was well traveled, but had just as much fondness for the domestic life. His sons provided plenty of stories of Michigan winters, and how a lot of times, his life just seemed like a game he was playing, because of how much joy he took out of it.
It was a helpful glimpse at what it meant to be joyful, since I was coming off of a pretty joyless stretch.