Overcoming Depression: The Fine Art of Looking Up

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

Life is made up of choices–some simple and some extremely difficult. When in the middle of crisis, like depression or severe anxiety, it is hard to make any decision. Why? Because it is hard to look at or think about anything but ourself. It’s easy to understand the indecision process because we feel like crap and hate this feeling and all we want to do is not feel this way. So it seems easier to hide and not deal with anything, particularly a difficult decision, or a life altering one.

To be fair, if you read the whole poem (and not just the three lines quoted) Frost describes two paths that seem equally delightful to head down. If anyone had the time, heck yea, let’s do both. His conclusion though is that there is a qualitatively different outcome depending on the choice. He didn’t say one would be hard and the other looked easier. He only concludes, “Hey, not as many people walked down that one, maybe the surprises will be greater.” Who doesn’t like surprises. Especially ones that take no effort.

When walking under the cloud of depression, every choice seems like an agonizing effort. But choices still have to be made, especially if you ever want to feel any different. We’d probably prefer there to just be a pub at the crossroad with a elixir that promises feeling better. But it doesn’t work that way, and sad to say, it’s not as easy as that. So what do you do? In my last post I said one thing was to keep moving. There is no way to get out of the valley of death without walking.

I want to ask you to consider the fine art of looking up. In past posts I also wrote about having forgotten how to lift my head up and observe beauty. I needed to remind myself to look up. I’d like the chance to remind you of what is up.

The above photo was taken on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Arts on a sad day for me. I flew to visit a girl. I was excited about this weekend. But my first night there she said, “I think you came with the wrong expectation.” I was crushed. I felt sucker punched. I cried several times that day but I still forced myself to wander. In retrospect, finding this spot and taking this photo is more what I remember from that weekend. I’m glad things didn’t work out with that girl, because I got something far better later. Two paths, either could be delightful…one went up and the other level. Could there really be something quantitatively different in the choice here? Yes!

Another piece of prose from a song by Ben Rector called 30,000 feet. “Sometimes we can get lost living in the here and now. Sometimes it takes the sky to see what’s on the ground.” We’ve all heard the idiom “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Essentially meaning when we are too close to the situation, we can’t see objectively enough to make an accurate assessment. We get so focused on us and what we are feeling right here, right now that it’s hard to get out from under the cloud. Sometimes it takes getting up higher to be able to see.

So here is where a choice must be made. It is a simple one, but it means a quantitatively different outcome. You need to choose the hard road of asking for feedback and help. The easier road is to just repeat over and over and overwhelm our friends with the same things we are thinking at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. You need to choose differently if you want a different outcome. (Look up Einstein’s quote about expecting a different result.) Here are four ways I ask you to consider looking up. When I say looking up, I will define that as looking outside yourself.

  1. Write a thankful list each day. Jot down five things once a day that are joys, encouragements, or things you are thankful for. It takes your focus off of you for a second to recognize things others have done for or shown you. This will get you about 5,000 feet above ground.
  2. Ask friends for feedback. I’m thankful many friends just listened to me during my depression. They probably didn’t know what to do with their suicidal friend. Instead of constantly overwhelming our friends with our emotion, ask them questions like, “If you were in my shoes what two things would you do to get unstuck?” If they are not currently in your shoes, their feedback could be at the 15,000 foot level.
  3. Find a counselor. It’s expensive I know, but it’s the best money you’ll ever spend if you find a good one. But their training is invaluable in seeing from a position far above where we are standing in the forest, maybe even 30,000 feet.
  4. Look all the way up. For the highest vantage, you need to get out of the stratosphere. The Psalm of the Bible are a great place to find comfort and empathy. Many of the writers of these songs went through horrible anguish and wrote about it. One penned, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lordthe Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber.” (Psalm 121:1-3) They knew where to look for help. They looked up. He gives help, and wisdom, and His presence when things are hard.

Each one of these points requires a decision to take action. But without action there will no resolve. A boat doesn’t get unstuck without action. In physics, there can be no motion without friction. You need to take steps to get out from under the cloud.

I must confess I had a hard time looking outside myself during my depression. And I didn’t want to have to work at it. I wanted my counselor to spoon feed me the answers to I could feel better fast. It was agonizing to wait with no end in sight. That is exactly why I think looking up is so powerful. It allows others who have a higher vantage point to speak into our situation and give perspective. We have to remind ourself over and over that we need that help. For anything to become an art for us, it takes repetition and practice. When you finally walk out of the forest, and look back and see the trees, you will be grateful for the repetition. And you will be glad that you took that road because it made all the difference.

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