I have been told recently that a number of people have been following, and even looking forward, to this blog. While I often feel like I am here living a slow-moving and fairly uneventful life, knowing I have so many people supporting me and interested in my work brings me an unusual feeling of awe and appreciation, as well as serving as a reminder that my life here, as normal as it may feel most days, may not be so “normal” compared to the life I left behind. To be honest, knowing a lot of people are reading this makes me a little nervous, like I must prepare something of quality or on a deadline, and that I must be very particular about my choice of words. While that may be true, I also very much recognize the opportunity to have a platform to express thoughts and ideas that I may not have been able to before. So, having said that, I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to discuss something incredibly important to me, and whether or not you recognize it, to you as well. The month of May is “Mental Health Awareness Month” and it is something that deserves our attention.
Whenever I head into the city of Chimoio, I use the public transportation, “chapas” as they are called, which are essentially fifteen-passenger vans that rarely leave the station with fewer than 24 passengers aboard. Needless to say, it’s a tight squeeze, but luckily my ride is fairly short. For whatever reason, in those 25 minutes, I often feel like it’s where I do the most thinking. I look at all of the faces of the people surrounding me, seeing in their eyes all the feelings I have ever felt; there is pain, there is love, there is fear, there is anger. There is anticipation and hope, and of course the aches brought on by this rough ride. I want to know their story. I want to know what they have been through that ultimately brought us together in this moment. But mostly I wonder what is going on in their heads, right then and there. There are 24 of us riding silently together, but when I think about the number of thoughts I alone am experiencing, it makes me so aware and intrigued by the fact that there are 24 different dialogues going on at the exact same time in that tiny, shared space. We might be thinking about what happened yesterday or what we will do once we get off this chapa. We might be thinking longingly of the past, of regrets or of heartbreak. We might be thinking of the people we love or that we miss, or even that we fear. We might be anxious for tomorrow or next week or ten years from now, stressing about our own health or feeling grateful for the day we woke up to experience.
Our minds are limitless and our thoughts are constantly changing. I wouldn’t recommend going too deep into thinking about this, for it is a rabbit hole that is easy to get lost in. But the reality is, while we are all having the same shared experience for this brief moment in time, not a single one of us is interpreting it in the same way, and in regard to individuals, we interpret things differently at different times in our lives. Why is it that some days I ride the chapa and think about this incredible mystery of the human experience with awe and infinite gratitude, while others I can’t stop thinking about how annoyed I am, that my squished body is so uncomfortable, or that everyone seems like they have the same mission to bother me, and that they’re all achieving it? Why is it that sometimes I couldn’t be filled with a greater sense of joy and connection, while others I just want to burst out into tears for no apparent reason, feeling isolated and alone? Why is it that some days hearing the children’s chanting of “Margarida!” seem to melt my heart with a kind of love I didn’t even know existed, while others seem to just agonize me relentlessly to end? Why is it that some days I could not be more proud of my service, fully able to recognize the little, but hugely significant differences I am making in a least a few people’s lives, while others like I want to avoid everything and everyone, and I feel that my work here is meaningless? I think the explanation for this derives primarily from having been born and raised in one reality and living in one so different, which often has the tendency to pull me different directions. There are parts here that seem nothing short of magic, while others, not so much, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, I don’t think I am unique in this regard. But through astute observation of the inner-workings of my own mind and of the world around me, I have learned something so powerfully true that I hope I will carry with me for the rest of my days. It is not our circumstances that determine our life, but our relationship to them; it is our interpretation of the world around us that defines our experience.
I’m starting to think that whether a single “truth” exists may not actually so much matter. We are but humans, and every moment we experience is interpreted based on every single moment that happened before it, the chemistry of our matter that allows us to process this information, and the “channel” of emotion that we are currently set on. This is where I want to take a moment to talk about the importance of mental health. Have you, or someone close to you, ever experienced depression, anxiety, or any other mental condition? The answer is yes, whether you know it or not. While mental health conditions are hugely common, the reality is that they often go undiagnosed. When we have an unrelenting cough or break our arm, we don’t hesitate to see a professional, and we welcome “Get well soon” sentiments from our friends and family. But why is it, that when we suffer in our minds, we feel it’s our fault, or that it’s somehow too invasive to bring up? When a person is really suffering, a “you’ll be okay” or “just get over it” is just simply not enough. Depression, for example, is when our minds are set to some version of the “misery” channel, and the remote seems to have disappeared. A mental disorder can feel like we are stuck, weighted by heavy blanket, slowly suffocating with a desperate hope that someone else will come and lift it off. And yet, often we say nothing. We go quiet and suffer alone. We remain under the blanket feeling it get heavier and heavier until we can’t seem to take any more weight.
“Nobody can save you but yourself- and you’re worth saving. It’s a war not easily won but if anything is worth winning- this is it.” (Charles Bukowski). So we need to talk- about mental health in general, and about our own personal struggles in life. We need to learn to be more open, more empathetic, more compassionate and more vulnerable. We must learn how to listen to one another in a way that actually makes people feel heard, instead of always just waiting for our turn to respond. We must reassure others that their thoughts and feelings are valid, even, maybe even especially, when they contradict our own. And we must combat together the stigma associated with mental health issues, knowing well that the majority of us have, or will be, witness to their detrimental effects. We were all born with these incredibly powerful machines in our heads, the intricacies of which even the most advanced technology, which we have used them to build, could never even compare. And there is no manual. For this, we need to learn how to rely on one another a little more, and to be there for others so they may be there for us. We must learn when it’s time to reach out for help, and understand that the suffocation we might be feeling certainly does have a way out. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, ALWAYS, even if we are currently unable to see it.
I hope reading this will at least provoke some thought about the power of the mind and the responsibility we have as humans to the ones we love. We must learn to be more compassionate not only with others, but also with ourselves. We all have regrets, fears, and disappointments, but we cannot let these be the things that define us, and if they seem to be, please know, there is not only no shame in asking for help. In doing so, you may be saving yourself and many others from great deal of grief; we must always keep the conversation going.
Wow, I did it again. I sat down to write something quick and concise and got lost in the abundance of words. Maybe I have too much time to think, but this only goes to show how the “channel” of my mind is so important and relevant to the way I am living my life here. I have officially spent over one year in Mozambique, and I cannot express how much I owe that to the friends and family who have listened empathetically to my, I imagine, seemingly endless streams of consciousness and allowing me to unload. I have struggled, and I know I will continue to in ways, but I promise I will never, ever be afraid to ask for help if I need it. Thank you to all of those who are out there supporting me, and an ever-greater shoutout to anyone who actually still reading this. Your support means more to me than you know.
I actually started to write this not as a blog entry, but as a “quick” introduction to the original piece I wrote about mental health; I just seemed to be on a roll so I didn’t want to stop. It’s not super “bloggy” and may be a little heavy, but this is my space to be free, so I’m gonna write WHATEVER THE HELL I WANT. (Sorry, I just wanted to remind my future self of the fire I still had in me at 25). But anyways, here it is.
Wherever You Go, There You Are
Wherever you go, there you are. A profound truth that forces us to truly face the person we see in the mirror. An indomitable recognition that has both the capacity to move us farther beyond the boundaries we’ve ever imagined, and to destroy us entirely from the inside out. We are all looking for the thing that helps bring our potential to fruition. Yet as humans in this circus-world, we all feel the same inclination from time to time to surrender, to pass the steering wheel to someone else, or to somehow escape the person we have become to “start over.” I just need to change my job, divorce my wife, to move to Mozambique…and then everything will be okay. Then I will be free to be me.
It turns out, though, that while changing our circumstances can bring energy and a new sense of vigor, these ventures are but a quick-fix whose remedies quickly reveal themselves to be a bandaid we have placed upon a gaping wound. When the newness begins to fade and we grow accustomed to our circumstances, the efficacy of our supposed solution uncovers itself to be but a mirage, an illusion we have allowed ourselves to take for truth, putting all faith in its hands. We have attempted to pass the wheel to the world around us. We have surrendered ourselves so as to say “fix me” to someone that appears not to have been listening. And there we are once again, on a canoe in the middle of the ocean, waves crashing and sharks circling, with the warmth of the sun and the brute chill of the night remaining our only perceived company. We are left with the only thing that has been with us the whole time, the only thing that could ever possibly get us back to shore. We are left with ourselves. We are left with our own will. We may give way to the treachery of the reality that we are in, surmising that our inadequacy will not allow us to move, or we may remember the that the canoe has paddles, the ocean has food, the sun gives life and the stars may guide back to the safety we seek. Our circumstances do not determine our reality, but rather, our relationship to them is what holds the weight. We must be for ourselves a guide, for only we are the only ones who truly know the path we’ve trodden, the mistakes we’ve made, and the lessons we have learned along the way. It is only ourselves who may determine whether, in this moment, we will sink or swim.
Now whether we see this as an enchanting opportunity or a devastating drawback is going to determine what we do with this inescapable reality. We must not fear. We must slow down. We must pause, breathe, and look fully and earnestly into the eyes of the person that is going to be with us on this journey from this moment until its undetermined end. We must have compassion for this person who has suffered great losses and forgive them for their inevitable mistakes. We must be gentle, empathetic, and reassure them that everything is going to work out, as long as we stick together. We must understand that we are but human, and that things are not always going to give way to our decided desires. But when we trust ourselves, only then can we move forward.
Knowing oneself is an ineffable necessity to living an abundant life. We are born alone and we die alone, and we must be our own co-captain for the unfathomable journey we have, for whatever reason, already begun. It is only with the love, compassion, and empathy for ourselves as individuals that we may see the beauty and opportunities given to us by world in which we reside. We are fortunate though, in that we are surrounded by millions of people, though on different paths, on the same journey, also seeking to create some kind of intelligible explanation of all that we are witnessing, or the fact that we are witnessing at all. We must first be with ourselves, but we are never alone. Though we may at times feel lost, there is someone else who knows where to find us. It is in these moments that we must seek help, a hand to hold the flashlight so that we may row ourselves back to shore. When you are with you, you are never alone. But when the water seems too rough, know there is always someone who can help you find the way back home.
So that’s all I’ve got. If you actually read all the way to this point, I salute you my good ma’am/sir. I challenge you today to start a conversation about mental health, and if you do, I’d love to hear how it goes. Until then, I will be here somewhere gallivanting around Mozambique. Stay grateful, be well, and live abundantly.
All my love,