Philosopher Of Kindness

I went today to my local mental health facility for a shot in my psyche. It’s like a shot in the arm, but there’s no vaccine for melancholy—the best you can hope for is a (self-esteem) booster.

A client stood at the check-in desk in front of me. He wore brown pants with black shoes and a gray jacket. He kept his knit hat on inside the building. Nothing about his appearance begged attention. I figured he’d gone about his life with little fanfare, a common man with simple tastes. The sun shined on him like everyone else. He’d get wet in the rain like any poor soul, but the weather didn’t concern him.

My initial impressions changed within seconds. He’d been to the center many times, it was clear. Staff members greeted him left and right. Another client walked by and smiled hello. He entertained the front desk ladies with a story about his dog. It must have been funny, but I didn’t hear the joke. I was more interested in his parting remarks, his signature goodbye.

“Thank you, Judy,” he said. “I will pray for you and your family. I love you, Judy.”

A minute later, to a therapist in a cast, navigating a knee scooter:

“I’m glad the surgery went well, Mary. I will pray for you and your family. I love you, Mary.”

He thanked a nurse. “I’ll pray for you and your family, Terrie. I love you, Terrie.”

Nobody batted an eye. Nothing felt inappropriate. At least here he felt safe, dealing with his struggles—whatever his condition or official diagnosis—on his own terms.

He’s praying for everyone and everyone’s family. He thanks you and he loves you. He’s refreshingly odd and disarmingly friendly—a poet of the everyday, a philosopher of kindness. Someone thinking of others beyond their awareness of him.

If Sartre Married A Kardashian

Way back in the twentieth century Sartre famously declared: “Existence precedes essence.” You exist first, Sartre said, then you build a life. You are nothing more—or less—than the choices you make. As a condemned-to-be-free consumer in the Digital Age, I’ve discovered new ways of applying Sartre’s catchphrase.

Facebook precedes friendship

I’m not friends with someone unless we’re on the same page: Facebook. Before Mark Zuckerberg stole from those dopey twins and set the social media world on fire, people connected on a personal level. Facebook eliminates the need for genuine communication. And yet we’re socializing more than ever. Without accepting my friend request you’re just another stranger. Even if we’re twins.

Google precedes memory

Don’t know what I mean? Here let me Google that for you. Eons ago when elders passed down stories via word of mouth, memory played a vital role. Today our myths assume database form, milliseconds from our fingertips. It’s a far cry from oral history. But if you’re at work don’t Google anything with “oral” in it.

Twitter precedes mourning

People used to die in peace, away from cameras and smartphones—and smartphone cameras. Die today as a celebrity and the world will tweet its condolences. There are no private ceremonies anymore. Everyone’s an eloquent eulogist exalting your character in one-hundred-and-forty characters or less.

Instagram precedes eating

Enjoy your chicken enchiladas after capturing the essence of the dish in a shot creatively captioned: “Best lunch ever!”

Pen Pals

I feel like I’ve known Chris Truman my whole life. We’ve never met in person, but I’m sure he’d recognize me in a crowd.

We write each other often. The old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. He fancies himself a poet. Graduated near the top of his class (which gets a man nowhere in this world) from Pinehurst College, better known as PC. The Department of English thought he’d go far.

He knows all too well about the Sadness and suffers from a terrible case of the Nerves. By all accounts, though, he’s a nice guy.

I’m sketching an outline of the circumstances surrounding his life. Perhaps I’ll post an update soon. If it’s to his liking, Truman might share it on his blog. He appreciates the attention.

First Love

When you’re depressed, forming relationships is a challenge. If you’re uncomfortable with who you are, it’s hard to love someone else. And it’s not like love puts an end to depression. Love helps but there is no ultimate cure.

In many ways, I’m still an awkward 14-year-old boy following a cute girl down a high school hallway, unaware how much she’ll mean to me for years to come. My illness isn’t clear to me yet either. I don’t know that shortly after finding her I’ll become a stranger to myself.

How can I picture a hospital hallway ten years later, when she visits me at my lowest and holds my hand? Or ten years after that, to today, learning that she’d found someone else?

Sometimes I need to remind that 14-year-old kid that everything will be OK. Even though we both know that’s not always true.

The Power Of Suggestion

I don’t shy away from discussing the realities of my depression. This blog is a fine example of my candor. I find writing about my struggles to be a major part of the healing process.

I often tell people I care about (not long after I realize I care about them) that I suffer from depression. Sometimes I use it as a test. If they’re still standing near me instead of running away, they’re meant to be in my life.

My friend Dzmitry, whom I’ve known for about eight months now, had a test for me recently. He challenged me with a seemingly simple thought. “Maybe someone told you a long time ago you were depressed and you still believe it,” he said, urging me to see myself from a different perspective.

Dzmitry doesn’t notice my depression. In talking with me early on, nothing seemed amiss, even though I sensed my illness lurking in the background, hell-bent on fracturing a friendship before it could form.

What if I saw myself as a person with depression rather than a depressed person? What did I feel so powerfully that Dzmitry didn’t see in our meetings?

Of course, I can’t deny the physiological effects of my illness. Someone did indeed label me depressed a long time ago and I believed him because of the pain I felt and the discomfort I displayed. It’s one thing, though, to admit that I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life, and another to assume I’ll always be miserable. But this is how depression affects me: in feeling like shit, I often tell myself that feeling shitty is my destiny.

The power of Dzmitry’s suggestion—that a diagnosis of depression might become a self-fulfilling prophecy—helped me reevaluate my illness. In the process I found comfort in Dzmitry’s friendship, in his being there next to me. And I was glad that this time I didn’t run away.

Really Messy

I just completed my second semester as a volunteer literacy tutor at my local high school for adult students for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language. This term I tutored a factory worker from Belarus named Dzmitry. It sounds cliche but over the last ten weeks I learned a lot more than I taught.

It was clear from the start that Dzmitry likes to ask questions. He craves knowledge, wants to know why, desires the bigger picture. But he often meets resistance.

“People don’t like me asking questions,” he said, half-amused, half-resigned. “And I have many questions.”

After hearing this, I took it upon myself to let Dzmitry ask away. We never rushed through assignments but instead picked apart paragraphs and sentences, words and syllables. He wanted to overcome his accent. I told him it is part of him, that it’s nothing to hide. Above all, I gave him the freedom to inquire, to seek both the trees and the forest.

I was thrilled to find someone comfortable with uncertainty. Life is really messy and there’s a lot of shit to dig through, but it’s great when someone offers you a shovel and you take it.