Saturday, November 20, 2010

Happiness and Denial and Reality and Death

1. Happiness is the denial of others’ suffering. Denial is the first of the five stages of grief every person goes through after a loss. It is a defense mechanism that works by pushing certain facts that are too painful to face into the unconscious. Usually, denial is elusive because a person would rarely admit that he is refusing to believe in something which is presumably true, such as that his loved one has died, and, in fact, they may even know that something is true, such as that their loved one is dead, but refuse to believe in it, and belief, like understanding, is different from cold knowledge, or facts. Every time I see a happy face it reminds me of all the misery in the world that that face overlooks. Seeing others happy makes me sick, and I feel nothing but contempt for those people. It is a reminder—as well as a cause—of all the ignorance and indifference of others' suffering, including my own. I can see them watch their friends and acquaintances rolling from side to side on the side walk, in agonizing torment, as they pass them by while rationalizing their spineless apathy. It seems people are in denial of all that is wrong with the world. They consciously, and often even craftily and pertinaciously, refuse to face the horror that surrounds them. The suicide rates, the prevalence of illness, poverty, and inequality are just a few of the plethora of issues that cause people their lives, and, probably even more importantly, the quality of their lives (if you can even call it 'life'). Instead of stopping and helping those who can’t help themselves, we make the world helpless for them.

They also serve Who only stand and wait.
--John Milton, "On My Blindness"

2. Happiness is the ignorance of others' suffering. Those who say “appreciate life”, or “life is too short to be unhappy”, or similar normative statements, have never been depressed. For most people, there is always some form of relief from pain; we expect the pain to lift, whether through rest or medication or change in posture or, most often, through the body’s natural capacity for self-healing, and we come to believe that this eventual relief is the reward for our placid endurance of this temporary suffering. However, in depression this faith in liberation, in ultimate salvation, is absent, and so is the capacity for joy and happiness. There is no life after death. However, I know that hell exists, and so does heaven. They exist, however, only on earth, and I experienced them both, literally. The concept of hell must have come to humans from their own severe bouts with depression, and the concept of heaven—from their bouts of bliss, or at least from their days of well-being. For obvious reasons, the Bible’s writers could not have come to us from beyond the grave to tell us about heaven and hell. However, the pain I felt matched the biblical description of hell—a fire tormenting my soul with no end in sight. Yes, this was literal hell and not some metaphorical place deep underground with the devil throwing coal into the fire. That place is where I died a long and horrible death. Similarly, the belief in life after death is a fairy tale. People don’t like to believe in something that makes them feel bad, such as that they are alone or that they don't belong, so they create stories and elaborate justifications—no, rather, rationalizations—that soften the brutality of reality. The conflict between the reality of death and man’s wish for meaning produces cognitive dissonance, and the process of creating such stories is called dissonance reduction. These stories manifest themselves as religious doctrines and superstitions. By believing so, we live in delusion. As the saying goes, “the fool is happy, the doubter is wise”, and most people would choose to be happy fools.

3. We engage in blatant denial everyday, through the manifestation of the self-serving bias, e.g., believing that praying has any effect on the physical world and that we are in control of our environment. Yes, even our belief that we have conscious control over our actions is a delusion:
Cognitive thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought – and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought. If the cognitive unconscious were not there doing this shaping, there could be no conscious thought. (Lakoff 13)
Cognitive neuroscientists conclude that the self-conscious mind constitutes only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity. That means that 95 percent of our decisions, actions, and behaviors are derived from the unobserved processing of the subconscious mind. I can personally attest to this through my experience with depression treatment. Specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing your beliefs by becoming aware of your unconscious, or automatic, thoughts. I hypothesize that depression involves the disruption in the mind’s ability to produce functional automatic thoughts, thereby disrupting one's deep-rooted beliefs about the world. Although it may be comforting, I would never deliberately chose to remain in denial. I always knew that if faced with the choice of being either wise or happy I would always opt for wisdom, for in wisdom there is a kind of salvation. It doesn't matter how uncomfortable the reality is, because—and I don't often quote the bible—“The truth will set you free” John 8:32 (NIV)

4. Reality is difficult to know and to accept. I pride myself with my ability to accept the absurdity, the contradiction, and the tragedy of the reality of life. It takes a lot of courage and understanding to face the reality of death and suffering in the world and to accept that there is no such thing as fairness, or that the world owes nothing to us, or that there is no karma, no god, no ultimate meaning, or that there is no reason behind why things happen. The world is a terrible place that is both impossible and necessary to face. If you face the world as it truly is, with all its unnecessary suffering and injustices, you will wish to be dead, because the horror is too much for any one man to handle. And yet, to face the world is the only way to live a free and happy life. As Bertrand Russell said, “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible." This Truth has been beat into me through my battle with depression. The truth being that it is tremendously difficult to see reality for what it is; the reality being that there is no ultimate meaning, no divine plan, and that we are going to die, some of us sooner than others. Moreover, it is arrogant and vain to claim that we can determine why things happen while knowing the gargantuan limitations and fallibility of our reptilian brains. There are no reasons for our lives and events other than those that we assign to them.


Johnson, Mark, and George Lakoff. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Print.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

A beautiful book... almost plain-spoken, and all the more profound for it. Describes depression very accurately and gives a just account of its innumerable intricacies—all the more impressive, since it’s a short book. Reading this book was the greatest solace in my loneliness, where no one can relate. The focus, the honesty, the disarming lyricism, the sensitivity, that constant rueful sadness, even humor—and, yes, redemption. There isn’t any attempt to glamorize or romanticize depression—Styron even reflects on centuries of artists who seem to be inexplicably blighted by the disease. A mix of personal defeats, friends, the writing life—and how one’s existence is just permeated with the darkness. Oh, there’s just so many things I want to share, to discuss—I want to point to a page and say, “Yes, that’s true,” and then to another, “He’s right.” Depression is sometimes termed "the invisible illness", because it is not apparent—nor is its severity accessible—to an outside observer.

William Styron (1925 – 2006), Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

[A] fascinating aspect of depression’s pathology . . . This concerns not the familiar threshold of pain but a parallel phenomenon, and that is the probable inability of the psyche to absorb pain beyond predictable limits of time. There is a region in the experience of pain where the certainty of alleviation often permits super human endurance. We learn to live with pain in varying degrees daily, or over longer periods of time, and we are more often than not mercifully free of it. When we endure severe discomfort of a physical nature our conditioning has taught us since childhood to make accommodations to the pain’s demands- to accept it, whether pluckily or whimpering and complaining, according to our personal degree of stoicism, but in any case to accept it. Except in intractable terminal pain, there is almost always some form of relief; we look forward to the alleviation, whether it be through sleep or tylenol or self-hypnosis or a change of posture or, most often, through the body’s capacity for healing itself, and we embrace this eventual respite as the natural reward we receive for having been, temporarily, such good sports and doughty sufferers, such optimistic cheerleaders for life at heart.

In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come- not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying- or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity- but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience- one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.

Thank you, Mr. Styron. You saved my life, and you are deeply missed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Is Suicide Selfish?

“Suicide is not selfish. Period."

—John Kevin Hines, a suicide prevention advocate and suicide attempt survivor.

Kevin Hines, at the site of his suicide attempt.

It is easy to assign blame. Whenever people are disturbed, their propensity is to assign blame, to get "justice" by holding those responsible for the offense accountable, whether through force, verbal attack, or shunning.

It's curious how the first emotion you feel when you hear about the suicide of somebody you know is fear—the fear that you are somehow responsible for the death. One day, when I was in Berkeley at my volunteer site entering data, I got a call. It was Pierre, my good friend from San Diego. His voice sounded grim, and after an exchange of 'how are you's', he said he had something serious to tell me and asked me to sit down. I was puzzled and asked what happened. He told me that David, our mutual friend—the one with whom we used to hang out and play the board game Risk—had committed suicide. The news sounded unreal to me, and a strange stream of emotions passed through me; one of the strongest ones, thought irrational, was fear—the fear that I was somehow responsible for his death, that there might have been something I said or did that caused him to feel so bad as to come to this end.

David, several months before his suicide.

My friend's death came as a surprise and a shock to me. And as I found out later, his family and friends, including Pierre, who brought be this terrible news, were no less stupefied. He left no explanation as to why he did it, and it is up to our imaginations to speculate what might have led him to take his own life. He had a good job, his family is well off, he had friends, and many people knew him at his Church.

You may read David's last words here.
Outside you act so tough
But inside you cry
All the pain inside just makes you want to die
—Brian Head Welch, L.O.V.E.

The point that I am making here is obvious—that no matter how much you think you know a person, you really don't. This point is illustrated clearly through the words of Karen Kenyon, author of the book Sunshower who has been married to her husband Dick Kenyon for almost sixteen years. One night, instead of coming home as he always did, Dick, then an administrative worker at UCSD, ended his life on November 3, 1978, by jumping to his death from an eleven-story building on the campus where he worked. "There were no observable clues, no threats of destruction, just a slightly noticeable withdrawal", write Ms. Kenyon; his suicide note to his wife began, "Karen, This job has killed me." This goes on to demonstrate the extreme dichotomy between the inward and outward manifestations of pain. A person may be burning in agony on the inside while showing no outward signs of distress.
"When someone takes his or her life, it is seen as the saddest statement anyone could ever make. At least in our culture, this is so. Suicide is covered up, hidden by family and friends. It is seen as a mark on the lives of those connected with it. But it happens. It is part of our human experience."
—Karen Kenyon, Sunshower

Death is a part of life (there is joke that goes "death is a part of life, namely the last part", which is also true), and so is suicide. In my suicidal ideations I do not blame anybody for my wanting to die. If I ever decide to kill myself, the decision would be deliberate, well-thought out, and my own. I would not take my life by impulse or folly, rather the decision would be rational and carefully thought out. We all sometimes cause suffering and mistreat each other, whether deliberately or unintentionally, but we never wish our loved ones to die. So you see, it is irrational to feel like you're to blame for another's suicide. Friends and especially families of suicide victims often find themselves in deep distress, because they feel responsible for their loved one's suicide, and the society may perpetuate this feeling. But this is never the case. It is never the family's, or anyone's fault. The pain of the tragedy of the sudden loss stings, but it is not because close ones are responsible. It is because a big part of them has died with that individual, and they need time to grieve and accept the death.

Blame is a fatal emotion. Along with shock, sorrow, shame, and sense of failure, guilt is the hardest emotion to get through for the survivors. All of the questions torture those left behind, making them want to punish themselves with things like cancer and death. It is important to support suicide survivors and to let them know that you do not blame them for what happened.
“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”
—Albert Camus (1913 - 1960), French existentialist author and philosopher

...To Be Continued
"We the living are likely to feel accused by this person who 'voted with his feet.' It appears to cast a subversive judgment upon the social polity as a whole that what was supposed to work in life—religion, family, friendship, commerce, and industry—did not."
—Edward Hoagland, "Heavens and Nature"

It is ignorant and arrogant to judge somebody’s decision of taking their own life, because everybody’s life belongs to them, not us, and to judge them is to claim ownership of their life. Furthermore, dismissing suicides as rash decisions is abhorrent because it diminishes the suffering of the suicide victims and prevents the society from recognizing its own role in contributing to suicides as well as addressing the dysfunction within the society that led to the suicide victims' suffering and the eventual death. It prevents others from holding themselves accountable for their lack of effort to prevent that person’s suicide and maybe even their own contribution to that person’s suicide. Life is every person’s inherent right, and so is the right to die.

"I went over everything in Dick’s and my life together. I felt we belonged together. But now I built case after case against myself. Maybe I wasn’t a good enough wife or a friend, I would conclude. And yet all my questioning was self-centered...

"After a long while, I did wonder if he didn’t have that right...

"... I know that if I could have stopped Dick I would have done almost anything within my power. But who would I be doing this for? Really myself. I am the one who didn’t want to suffer the separationthe loss. So now I want to say to Dick‘I let you go’. Now the only judgment I can make is that it is very hard at the point of separation (Journal excerpt, November 14, 1979).
"So I began to realize it was Dick’s decision. No one else would have wanted that in any way. He did not tell a soul. He kept his secret, and made the choice, for reasons I can only speculate about now, and still the reasons don’t really matter. People have said everything from “He was a saint and martyr” to “He was very sick”. He did what he did, and in a way we have no right to interpret it. He did it for reasons he considered right and necessary—the only thing to do. In a way I feel—Can’t he even have that?
"I do believe we are all responsible for our lives, and so acceptance of our involvement in what happens around us is essential, but I feel we have to also know and respect that others have their own ultimate choices, as we do ours.”
—Karen Kenyon, Sunshower

My friend David died by suicide two years ago, without showing any warning signs. His family and friends are terribly devastated and are still grieving his loss, but it is not up to me to judge his decision; I don’t know what he was going through. Even thought his family and friends deeply miss him, we respect his decision to take his own life. It is ignorant to blame the suicide victim, and it is selfish to call him selfish, because when we do so, it is only our own pain—and not the pain of the deceased—that we care about.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Some Favorite Quotations

It is not what we like or dislike, but the reason—the why—behind our preferences that really matters. While I can not convey to the fullest extent the reasons for which these quotes are my favorite—because they are far too many and some are surely not at all evident to me—I will at least attempt at an explanation.

"Don’t believe in miracles, depend on them."
Laurence J. Peter
This mindset, while I know is unintuitive, has saved me many times.

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."
Albert Einstein

"Bad artists copy. Good artists steal."
Pablo Picasso
This one goes back to the previous quote. Imagination is limited only by our experiences... of other people's work.

"We're all extraordinary - all of us are."
Dr. Bill Puett
This one is by my favorite professor. He showed me that the world is so much more wonderful than I have ever imagined.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."
Marianne Williamson
This quote often rings in my ears. Practically, we wont be able to experience the true extent of our abilities. Life is too short for us to truly know ourselves.

"The believer is happy; the doubter is wise."
Hungarian Proverb
This is the ultimate dilemma. Blue pill or red pill? Ignorant bliss, or the horrible truth? Most will be stuck in between. I know what I would choose in a heart beat.

"He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature."
To be satisfied in life is to be satisfied with what we have.
On the same note:
“It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him”
Seneca (4 BCE–65 ACE)

"The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no-one else did."
Chinua Achebe
Give yourself a pat on the back once in a while for doing the right thing.

...on the same page:
"In our world of big names, our true heroes tend to be anonymous. In this life of illusion and quasi-illusion, the person of solid virtues who can be admired for something more substantial than his well-knowness often proves to be the unsung hero: the teacher, the nurse, the mother, the honest cop, the hard worker at lonely, underpaid, unglamorous, unpublicized jobs."
Daniel Joseph Boorstin (1914–2004)

"Wisdom begins in wonder."
This is so simple, yet so profound.

"Given more time, I think we probably would've done better."
Sandra Day O'Connor, speaking on the Bush v. Gore decision.

"Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines."
'Abdu'l-Baha, 1844-1921, Iranian Baha'i Leader

"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
Friedrich Nietzsche

"What you resist persists."
Carl Jung (1875 - 1961)

Every once in a while, I'm reminded of one of many Mark Twain's quotes. I love the satire and the truths behind these quotes. The pleasure behind reading quotations is that you can reflect on what they mean to you through your own experience.

Mark Twain:

"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."
"Dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening. love like you've never been hurt, and live like its heaven on earth"
"Be careless in your dress if you will, but keep a tidy soul."
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear."
"Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with."
"Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time."
"I can live for two months on a good compliment."
"I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said I don't know."
"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."
"Be truthful. If you tell the truth you don't have anything to remember."
"When in doubt, tell the truth."
"It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not to deserve them."
"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare."
"It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."
"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."
"Let us so live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."
"Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising."
"Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident."
"The best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer someone else up."
"The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."
"Time cools, time clarifies; no mood can be maintained quite unaltered through the course of hours."
"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
"Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions."
"Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured."
"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."
"Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more."
"Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest."
"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect."
"It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!"
"In religion and politics, people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination."
"Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge."
"The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter."
"Classic: a book which people praise and don't read."
"Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerve give to wisdom."