The Odyssey of Returning Home to Self
As I sit here in the airport, waiting to board my flight to SE Asia, I find myself leaving my old life behind. I ll be honest, having to leave my sons in South Africa has been the most difficult decision I have ever had to make. This alone has broken my heart. But there’s no choice (Read my piece: 6 Years of Depression to know why).
I feel somewhat like Odysseus, in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. As the poem recounts, after fighting in the ten-year Trojan War, it takes Odysseus another ten years to reach Ithaca, his home (a journey that should have only taken weeks). Along the way, he as epic adventures, trials and tribulations.
I am just coming out of my own war.
I have spent years battling chronic depression.
My Trojan Horse, was my own hubris in believing I could win the battle against a hidden enemy: depression, masquerading as the securely protected Western bastion of accepted stress and pressures of success.
Depression is the Trojan Horse. It lures you in, making you believe all is well by leaving the shores for a moment, only to then return again as the hidden enemy within.
Having fought the good fight against my depression, my internal war has turned into a journey of return to myself. If you are lucky, and you suffer from depression, you may have found ways to cope with it. It’s taken sometime, but I am finally beginning to see triggers that encourage my depression to manifest. Along with a combination of mindfulness practice, medication, and therapy — it has allowed me to see myself as I haven’t been able to for a very long time, for years in fact.
I am reminded here by the words of Seneca, Letters From a Stoic:
‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’ This remark of Epicurus’ is to me a very good one. For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform. Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure? So—to the best of your ability—demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself. Play the first part of prosecutor, then of judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times.
The key in what Seneca writes, is self-awareness with a willingness to be brutally honest with oneself. That’s not something we typically like to do, especially if we are the reason things got messed up to begin with. Our ego, while necessary, also has a tendency to try protect us at all costs, even when it shouldn’t. This is what Seneca is pointing out, when he suggests, “Be harsh with yourself at times.” These times are when you know you are at fault, and having the courage to acknowledge to yourself that you are.
Here, I don’t believe Seneca is suggesting that you embroil yourself in deep despair over past transgressions. Rather, it’s acknowledging those errors, while dispassionately taking a step back from the emotional baggage that comes along with it. It’s about seeing what has gone wrong clearly, and then in that moment of acknowledgement, you are able to temper yourself against it happening again. In other words, honest self-reflection means you know better the next time around.
KNOW THY TRIGGERS
In this sense, I have acknowledged the missteps I took during my years of depression. I know that heavy stress and pressure brings my depression to the forefront. Knowing this, I need to be brave enough to say, I am taking a step back right now. I am no use to anyone if I am mentally not able to cope.
If there’s one important lesson I have learned about depression, it is to know what triggers it for you. Be honest about it, and in those moments, do only what is good for you.
I never did this.
I pushed myself even harder, or at least I tried too, even when I was feeling depressed. Luckily I am learning to ‘feel’ when depression is rearing it’s ugly head and I now do something about it. Sometimes it’s purposively removing myself from the environment I find myself in, at other times, its about stopping what I am doing (regardless of how important it is) and head off instead to do something completely different.
I am quite fond of Seneca’s pragmatic view on living. Some may see it as dark, but in fact his lessons are grounded in what we know about the game of life — as impermanent — yet many are unwilling to accept. It is in this inability to accept life as impermanent that causes much of our suffering.
Instead, Seneca suggests:
Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.
Epictetus another Stoic Philosopher and a former slave during the Roman period, highlights that difficulty itself is needed to find the best in oneself:
Difficulty shows what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. Why? So that you may become an Olympic conqueror, but it is not accomplished without sweat.
As hard as my life circumstances are right now, I have two choices. I can either fall victim to despair and give up, or I can look clearly at the situation and ask calmly and dispassionately (and these two attributes are crucially important), “What is to be learned here?” and “how do I use this to grow?” I know Epictetus would approve!
The truth is, we all tend to do our best work in our worst of times. Of course, this is only possible when we view our worst of times as teaching moments to become that: ‘Olympic conqueror’ as Epictetus suggests. Epictetus would say that we are as individuals, responsible for our own actions, which can be examined and controlled through rigorous self-discipline.
CONTROL WHAT CAN BE CONTROLLED
I am here right now. Time will move on, and I will be there. All along that journey there will be obstacles. Life is, well, never a straight line. Every moment on the curved road of life is a moment to learn or to despair — each of which are personal choices.
As Epictetus reminds us, “We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?”
What is in our control?
According to Epictetus:
That alone is in our power, which is our own work; and in this class are our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. What, on the contrary, is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul.
And as Fyodor Dostoevsky reminds us:
When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in error and idleness, lacking the knowledge I needed to live; when I think of how I sinned against my heart and my soul, then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness … Every minute could have been an eternity of happiness! If youth only knew. Now my life will change, now I will be reborn.
Fyodor’s quote above is now my daily meditation!