‘I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything!’ says Tchaikovsky in one of his letters which I read here, in an article written by the impeccable Maria Popova. Tchaikovsky had lapses of stinking depression, too. Maria notes that what was ‘most remarkable yet quintessentially human about his disposition was the ability to assure his loved ones of the very things he was unable to internalize himself.’
This is so true: how easy it is to comfort others but be ruthless towards ourselves. What a relief it is to give a rousing speech to a friend about how to ‘fix’ their life, while coldly ignoring our own needs. It soothes our existential wounds, helping others, diving deep into their problems while callously ignoring our own. We can do this with singular self-destructiveness, stubbornly deflecting the glare of our own troubles, rushing to the aid of everyone else. Listen, I know that’s nice for everybody else but if we do this we risk getting stuck in a brutal living hell; there’s an underlying, inescapable pulse in people who do this, a horror of facing their feelings, a bone-tired disinclination to come to their own rescue. Whole lives can go by and people can die without recognizing this.
Everybody deserves to be happy – trite but true, and we must assimilate this information as adults, if we haven’t done so as children. It’s our responsibility to make ourselves happy (yes, I know: newsflash! I have only recently discovered this.) Of course, making others happy is the one of the genuine great joys (and arguably ultimate purpose) of life but your cells will only recognize, and so be nourished by, that joy if you are doing it from a stable base of your own contentment.
You can help and help – giving parts of you away that you haven’t ever dared to give yourself – until you are so tired you suddenly don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. And it’s not physical fatigue, it’s the sort of tiredness spurred by the recognition and subsequent quashing of a small voice inside you that says: What about me? Is it it ok to help me, too?
Well, it’s not just ok to help yourself, it is essential to the evolution of the self, to the growth of your family, to the circle of people around you, and the city or town or country in which you live. And actually, all your descendants too, because all sorts of pain is sleepily passed down through generations, and you can stop it.
Here’s the story of Hercules and The Wagoner to clumsily hammer the point home. A farmer is stuck on a muddy road in the pissing rain, the wheel of his wagon wedged into the mud. He sits and swears and curses the mud and the wheel, shaking his fist at heaven. Come on Hercules, do me a solid here! Do fucking something! Eventually Hercules comes down, no doubt rolling his eyes, and says ‘Put your shoulder to the wheel, urge on your horses… I won’t help you unless you make some effort to help yourself.’ The wagoner gets it, stops giving out, starts to at least try to push the wheel and coax his horses on. Hercules readily helps. Everything shifts; everything changes.
Caveat: If you are so profoundly depressed that you can barely move or think or speak, and someone quotes Hercules and The Wagoner to you, tell them to fuck off.