Even Negative Results Are Useful

I’ve hesitated to publish this post, as I don’t want readers to get the wrong idea. I don’t want you feel sorry for me, and I’m not ‘brave’ for writing it (see Kelly Sundberg’s blog post for some of the hidden connotations of being called brave). I don’t need some kind of intervention: I have two excellent doctors looking after me, good friends who know what’s going on, and—most importantly—the unwavering support of my partner.

So why post it at all?

Because I think public dialogue generally avoids discussion of the dark side of our personal lives, of the aspects that we can’t spin as positive. I know I’ve gotten in the habit of writing blog posts with a positive—if thoughtful—bent. But I think it’s important that we share stories of negative experiences as well, as they reflect the reality of our human existence and can provide solace or guidance to others who find themselves in the same boat.

It’s similar to what’s happened in science. Recent analyses find that scientific journal articles are biased towards positive results. We rarely publish negative or neutral results, as most journals won’t accept them. But without them, we’re missing an important building block for scientific thought. We’re limiting our ability to push science forward because we have incomplete information.

On a personal level, then, we limit our ability to understand others and determine how to make our way in the world if the only stories we rely on are positive.

Yesterday I came across a quote in Kathleen Dean Moore’s Holdfast that resonated with me:

“We must love life before loving its meaning…[but] if love of life disappears, no meaning can console us.” –Fyodor Dostoevsky

I have to admit: lately I’ve been finding it a struggle to love life.

The past few weeks have been decidedly non-coastal. The cold weather and snow that arrived at the beginning of December was followed by weeks of cool temperatures and additional snowfalls. Our yard is still snow-covered, though parts of it are more ice than snow.

I’ve enjoyed the sunshine and clear nights this weather has brought. The birds seem to be enjoying it as well, singing their hearts out every morning in the sun. At night the stars glitter sharply in the crystal clear sky, under which the dogs play their chase games.

While I love the weather, the dogs’ joy in playing in the snow, the crisp air and sunshine, somehow it’s not enough. The days march by at a snail’s pace, with nothing to show for themselves but a line through each box on the calendar.

As Olivia Lang writes in The Lonely City,

“…we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings—depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage—are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time…in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.”

I suspect Laing is right about our tendency to avoid difficult feelings. Even writing this blog post is anathema to what society expects, which is that we deal with those negative thoughts quickly, in any way possible, to be rid of them and not bother other people.

However, I think it’s important sometimes that we sit with those feelings. Poke them to see how substantial they are. Trace their outlines, and try to divine their origin. See how they change our perception of the world.

I can’t avoid these feelings when they arise, as they represent the down phase of my illness. There is no miracle treatment that will immediately do away with them. Rather, I must ride them out and remember that they, too, will pass. While this fact can be tough to accept emotionally, it’s borne out by my past experience and the advice of my doctors.

What becomes important, then, is not so much how we’re feeling as what we do about it. This is the point of connection with others, where we can share our coping mechanisms and learning new ones from others. As May Sarton wrote in her memoir Journal of a Solitude:

“The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.”

To handle this low, I’ve tried my usual tricks: knitting, photography, writing, and limiting my online time. I’ve added new tools to my arsenal: riding my bike on the indoor trainer, training the dogs, reading more purposefully.

Right now nothing seems to stick. Some tasks provide a temporary boost in mood (which is fantastic), but I feel I’m living what I wrote in my last blog post: going through the motions, with nothing helping (yet) to provide the solid footing I need to climb out of this hole.

Despite the challenges, I’m doing my best to love life and find meaning in even the smallest of things. Things like our boy Cosmo, concentrating hard and giving it his all when we’re training, or capturing an image of a single maple leaf trapped in the ice at Butchart Gardens’ Japanese garden. By finding one good thing in each day, I know the days will add up to something more than just a series of lines on the calendar, building a structure that reveals the meaning in life.

Even writing this post has helped.

Instead of hiding that I don’t feel well as though it’s some shameful secret, I can shine a light on it and talk rationally about not feeling well and ways to address it. Perhaps my struggles are helpful to others who are struggling also. Or perhaps someone has some advice for me.

Whatever the outcome, it’s a small step forward to incorporating both the positive and negative of life into our public discourse.

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