Why do I only identify with the worst parts of me? there is nothing more inherent in my fear, exhaustion, or anger than in my energized, inspired, charisma My compassion and joy seem to me less real than my anxiety and cruelty for some strange reason I can't quite understand Why is it so much easier to internalize all of my mistakes than to take credit for the things I've accomplished throughout my life As if any success was an accident but all of my failures, a reflection of who I truly am deep down I'm tired of denying the aspects of myself that I can admire Is it so impossible to accept that I can be magnificent and flawed at the same time? my mysterious soul knows it can be everything at once
It’s no secret that I am an extremely cynical person. On the surface this may seem confusing to those around me, given that I put so much effort into fighting for social change and self-improvement. Why bother if you don’t believe that there is any hope of creating any lasting, large scale impact? Why be vegan if you fully believe we’ll never be able to liberate animals, that the earth will perish long before human beings make the connection? Why do social work every day if you believe human beings are inherently bad, that the system is corrupt and won’t change? Why advocate for a leftist agenda if you also acknowledge any political system will inevitably be taken over and coopted by bad actors if given enough time?
The reason I keep fighting, isn’t because I think I can change the world. In fact, I feel completely confident that I won’t. I fight because I have to. Even if failure is the only possible outcome. Giving up is still not an option. As long as I am here, as long as I’m still breathing, I will keep advocating for the things I believe in. I will keep fighting for those that don’t even have the privilege of a voice of their own.
Despite my resignation to the hopelessness I feel on a large scale, I do find personal fulfillment and meaning on a smaller scale. Very few of the child abuse cases that I work on ever go to trial. My clients, my coworkers, and myself are constantly faced with the sobering reality that many of these pedophiles and domestic abusers will walk free, that they will go on to victimize more and more people, that they may never ultimately face justice. Even so, a criminal conviction is not the only outcome that I consider a success. I’ve had many kids tell me that my coworkers and I are the nicest people they’ve ever met. And they meant it. I believed them. Sometimes I get to be one of the ONLY people that would even listen to them, the first person that believed them. Sometimes this is all someone needs, more than they thought they would ever get. I get to hold their hand as they let go of the external repercussions and focus on the possibility of inner healing, the only thing that they actually do have the power to influence.
Even though I have no hope that I’ll see the end of animal agriculture, even though I believe I will, instead, see the end of the earth, I will continue to do everything in my power to spread the vegan message and protect animals. Every person that goes vegan, every person that buys an Impossible Whopper without mayo instead of a Whopper, every person that switches to plant based milks, makes a difference. Maybe not in the bigger picture of the oppressive, abusive industries across the world, but to even a single animal. That matters.
I may not believe that I can change the world, but I do believe that I can change the lives of the people I meet everyday, of the animals that I DON’T eat. Just because I can’t do it all, doesn’t mean what I can do doesn’t matter. Take pride in the small victories. Why should it matter than you couldn’t end all oppression? You were there for someone in a vulnerable moment, in their moment of need. Maybe you didn’t change the world. But you changed the world for one person and that’s just as good. All we can do is offer our love and compassion, and that’s enough.
I heard a guest on one of the podcasts I listen to describe himself as someone who is pessimistic in the long-term, but very optimistic for the short-term. He said this in a light-hearted, humorous manner, but it has resonated with me ever since. This is precisely how I would describe myself. I may fully believe that in just a few decades, the earth will collapse from underneath us due to our selfishness and our negligence. However, that doesn’t have to take away from the beauty and meaning still left to be found in the months and years we have before us.
It can be hard to hold these two perspectives in my mind at once, but I’ve been practicing it for a few years now and it’s gotten easier. At first, I only felt cheated and victimized by the current state of the world. Now I see that instead I should be immensely grateful for the life I have been given regardless of the length or the way it ultimately ends. It’s a bizarre frame of mind to be sure, but I am capable of being thankful for where I am and what I have even as everything around me slowly crumbles. I’ve heard before that death is a gift because it forces us to more fully appreciate life. And to a certain extend I view the impending climate crisis in the same way. It has made each small moment that much more poignant and precious to me.
I may not know how long I have left, but I do know that I have been blessed with the most amazing people to share this life with until then. In twenty or more years, the earth may be decimated, but in a few months, I’ll be in the arms of the man I love. I’ve managed to find someone to share my remaining years with, someone who understands and respects my beliefs and opinions. Someone that acknowledges the threats we face as a species, and as a planet. Someone that can hold my hand through it all and face it with me when that day comes. I have a job I love to go to everyday with people that mean so much to me, that help me grow, and that allow me to do something meaningful. I have a family and friends that love and understand me even when I don’t always understand myself. I have three soft fur children that adore me and depend on me, that bless me with indescribable tenderness and warmth each and every day.
In ten years I may not have access to clean water or food, but right now I have everything I could ask for and more. Each week I get to go collect a fresh, vibrant bounty from the store to nourish me and keep me healthy. In a few weeks my entire country will celebrate that bounty and the company of those most precious to us as we brace ourselves for the cold months ahead. I reflect on this miracle each day as I prepare my colorful collection of fruits and vegetables and turn them into delicious meals.
I have a home. I am loved. I love. When I am thirsty, I may always drink. When I’m hungry, I may always eat. Each night I lay my head down in my soft, warm bed surrounded by my sweet babies. Soon that bed will even contain my loving partner. I have heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. I have electricity and running water. I have clothing that keeps me protected from the elements and allows me to express myself to those around me. I have a community to teach me patience and teamwork. I have a stable foundation laid beneath me from all the those that came before to ensure that future generations would have plumbing, highways, public services, and a power grid.
Despite the downfalls of the modern age, never before in history has life been so easy and filled with pleasure. When life has given you so many incredible gifts, it isn’t fair to complain when they eventually run out. Someday I may suffer, but the fact that I have never truly suffered in 28 years of life is unbelievable. And I am so grateful for all of these blissful years I have been given, and I am overjoyed to likely still have quite a few left ahead of me. The future may ultimately hold fear, pain, suffering, and uncertainty, but that future will not be here tomorrow, or next week, or next month. And for that I am also grateful.
The longer I live, the more I realize just how much about our lives and the way we experience reality is a personal choice. Our upbringing, our genetics, and our environment definitely contribute to how easily we are able to choose one thing over another, but we all have a choice. Some people may be naturally inclined to view things more negatively than others. For these people, it will always take more effort and practice to see the good in other people and situations. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.
I think I was born a with a friendly, happy, and positive disposition. Even so, as I grew older I began to lose touch with that lighthearted, open nature. Encounters with heartache, pain, and rejection caused me to close my heart little by little in an attempt to protect myself, to shield myself from the world. I started to view myself as a pessimist. I was the stereotypical “emo” kid throughout high school. The longer I stayed in that “woe-is-me” mindset, the more I started to identify with it. Suffering became an essential part of me. For years now I have been working to redirect myself back down a more positive path, a path that feels more true to who I was meant to be, and who I want to be. (I plan to keep that emo aesthetic though. I love me some black clothing.)
Currently, I am at a stage where I am able to clearly see both sides of that coin. I can see the negatives, the pessimistic viewpoint I would have once had, but I can also see the positives, the option I have to view things in a different way. I used to think one way was more true or honest than the other, but now I see that reality is all about perception. There is no right or wrong way to experience the world. It is always a choice. At times this can lead me to feel frustrated as I struggle against that doom and gloom voice I spent so many years feeding and building up inside my own head. It can be easy to get stuck feeling hopeless, feeling unable to change, a lost cause.
When these doubts begin to bubble up I try to remind myself just how far I have come. I never could have imagined that I would be able to become the person I am today. All I can do is keep moving forward and trust in myself. It may be a slow and arduous process, but it’s worthwhile. Truly, it is the only kind of self-improvement that matters. You can tell yourself you will be happy once you get a promotion, make more money, lose more weight, build more muscle, move somewhere else, but even after reaching all of your goals, you are still the one you have to face at the end of the day. It is easy to think that changing external circumstances will change the way we think and feel inside. That inner voice loves to complain and blame this or that for all of our problems. However, those upsetting and limiting thoughts are the real problem. This is always where we must start our journey, inside ourselves.
Even after seeing so many people achieve the things I want to achieve in life and continuing to be miserable, I find myself thinking those same accomplishments will bring me happiness even if it didn’t for them. We always think we are the exception. But those things we desire are ultimately just distractions. They are excuses for why we aren’t able to be happy right now. It can be difficult to admit that we are the only reason we aren’t happy. Happiness comes from within. It has been ours since the day we gained consciousness and it will be available to us in each and every moment until the day we die. Even when it feels impossible for you to allow yourself to be happy, just know that it’s because you haven’t spent enough time practicing. Sometimes I even think of this practice like a game. When I find myself facing something exceptionally upsetting or challenging, I ask myself: are there any positives I can find in this situation? Just like the hag stones I scan the riverbank for, the more time you spend searching for certain things, the easier it becomes to spot them. When I first tried to find those special stones, I felt like I would never find one. I wasn’t even sure if there were any to find. Yet now I am easily able to pick up two or three as I walk along the shore without even trying. At first it might feel like there is really nothing good about different parts of your life, but the more you practice looking for the good in things, the easier it will become and the more abundant those good things will seem.
It can be hard work, training ourselves to be happy, but it is possible. Don’t lose hope. Don’t give up. Keep trying. I say these words for myself as much as for anyone who happens to be reading this. We are capable. We are powerful. We have everything we need inside of us. Don’t be afraid. You are safe. You are loved. You are enough. Even if at first you don’t believe it, keep repeating these uplifting, empowering words to yourself. Eventually they will become as true and real to you as that negative inner dialogue that many of us have become accustomed to. It may not be easy, it may take a very long time, but I promise you, it will work. And it will be worth it.
This evening I have been talking with an old friend. He will often send me photos of our group from high school and remark forlornly about how much he misses those days. I understand the sentiment. I miss those days too. It can be hard to accept how different and lonely life can be as an adult. I genuinely feel for this friend and often find myself wishing there was some way that I could help him to be happy again with the life he now lives.
Today has been especially difficult in this regard. My friend expressed to me that he doesn’t believe he will ever be happy, just less sad. My heart breaks for this kind soul that I have known for so many years. His dejected state reminds me painfully of who I used to be as a teenager, believing I would never find happiness. Even though I’m not where I would like to be in life, I have still been able to carve out my own unique sense of wellbeing and contentment.
There have been many times since noticing this change within myself, this awakening to my power over my own happiness, that I have desperately longed to somehow be able to share this new point of view with others that are still suffering. Yet somehow there never seem to be any words that I could deem fitting to do so. There are lots of things that helped me to heal, primarily yoga and meditation. But I hesitate to even offer these solutions. I can’t help but cringe internally as I imagine how I would have once felt receiving the same sort of advice.
I had been on the other side of this encounter many times in the past. When you are depressed and feeling hopeless, it is frustrating to keep hearing: “have you tried meditation?” “You can make your own happiness!” “Just focus on all the things you have to be grateful for.” In that state of mind, I always felt these suggestions were more like a slap in the face than practical options. It just made me feel more alone. It felt like no one was listening, like no one understood. One of the things my mom used to always tell me when I was younger and having one of my many existential crises comes to mind. Essentially she would tell me not to worry about all the big problems I saw in my life, my past and my future, but to focus on the small everyday joys like hearing the birds chirping outside my window, or having a hot cup of coffee on a cold Sunday morning while watching the snow blanket the world in a crisp, bright whiteness. I can still remembering being incensed by this. What did any of those things matter in comparison to my problems? A cup of coffee isn’t enough to make a happy life. Chirping birds don’t make me feel any less alone.
Yet now all of the things I once considered useless platitudes have become so poignant and meaningful to me. It is wild to juxtapose these two parallel perspectives inside me. I was so grateful to have the chance to tell my mom that I finally understand what she was trying to say. The problem is that I don’t know what it was that got it to click. I don’t have an answer for why I am able to see life so differently now. I keep racking my brain for that answer, but always come up empty. I’ve even tried to imagine what I could say to my sixteen-year-old self that would have helped her. Sadly, I feel like there isn’t anything I could have said.
When you decide that you are miserable and you will never be able to be happy, there isn’t much anyone else can do to change that. I wish there was. When feeling sad and lonely becomes part of your identity, part of your own idea of who you are, it is hard to get away from that. It’s similar to an addiction. If an addict doesn’t want to stop using, nothing anyone else does is going to help in the end. The most crucial step in recovery is deciding that you want to recover. And just like some addicts need to hit rock bottom to finally get to that point, that is also what it felt like it took for me to change. I finally had had enough. I couldn’t stand to feel so miserable any more. Then something inside of me finally let go and I realized it was up to me to decide how I was going to feel. I began to truly believe that it was my choice, and that I could choose to be happy if I really wanted to.
The problem I keep being faced with is how to help others make that shift in consciousness. I just cannot accept that there is no way to do so even though that honestly seems like the hard truth. But maybe telling people my story can help in some way. Although I can already imagine teenage Rachel rolling her eyes at anyone having told me this story. “Well they didn’t really know what it’s like to feel this way. They could never understand my situation.” But I am going to keep telling it anyway in the hopes that maybe it can help someone. There is no easy fix for feeling alone and depressed. It takes a lot of work. Everyday. I haven’t stopped that work and I know I never will. But the point is it’s worth it, it’s possible. The bad news is no one else can do it for you. The good news is you can do it all by yourself. You are capable. You are powerful. Even if one person can’t change the world. You can change your own world. I hope you do.