"OK, turn left at the next intersection."
"Are you sure?"
I'm not great with directions mostly because my wife is a human GPS but this wasn't the first time she'd questioned my instructions. In fact this was the third time this ride. For once, I knew I was right. I was using my phone's GPS to navigate.
And I'd had enough.
"So I'm too stupid to even pass along navigation from my phone!?" I screamed.
This was just the beginning of a multi-minute rampage about how people think I am stupid, incapable or otherwise ill-equipped to be a successful, contributing member of society.
Of course, my wife was just trying to make sure we got to the port in time for the soon to be departing ferry. She didn't mean anything by it. She didn't deserve my response. She deserved (and got) an apology. But as I reflected on why I responded so aggressively, these words kept bouncing around in my mind: "to whom much is given, much will be required." This scripture-turned-motivational-axiom had become the anthem of my inadequacy.
In a hero obsessed culture, we cheer for the underdogs. Those who, against incredible odds, go on to achieve at a high level. Whether it's overcoming poverty, discrimination, handicap or just a good old fashioned "David & Goliath" story, we can't help cheering for the little guy.
But I am no underdog.
I have privilege, in every sense of the word. I am a white, middle-class, college educated male, living in the United States. I was an honor-roll student. I was adequate enough at sports to avoid mockery (most of the time). I mean...the ferry we narrowly caught was Nantucket-bound! The closest thing I have to a disadvantage is that I am a very, very slow reader. But make no mistake, no one would ever root for me. On the spectrum, I am closer to a Goliath than I am to David.
As we left the harbor I sulked off to a frigid but isolated corner of the boat to be alone with the sea spray. Much is required. Those words echoed in my mind. As they steeped and stewed in the deep and distorting pool of my insecurity the message grew sharper, "You're not allowed to feel bad about failure. You are pathetic. I mean, really? People have overcome far more than you to be world class performers. You can't seriously be feeling sorry for yourself?"
Even as I write it, I think: "that cranky voice in my head was right". I would not be surprised to learn most people agree with that voice...which is the core of the problem.
That shame; the feeling you are not allowed to feel a particular way, is crippling. It does not allow you to properly process those feelings. Pressure building up with no outlet leads to one thing: explosion. I couldn't share my feelings without fear of judgement; fear of disconnection. So they came rushing out with only the slightest poke to an area of vulnerability (in my case: being directionally challenged!).
To those eager to dismiss this whole thing as yet another hallmark of the entitled, coddled millennial generation, let us remember that depression and anxiety thrive in the most developed parts of the world. Liberated from the more basic physiological & safety needs, we have the opportunity to work our way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs into the far less visible but every bit as real need for love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization.
Many are quick to dismiss mental illness - especially anxiety and depression - as "first world problems". There is a tendency to view items further up the hierarchy as more trivial. This is inaccurate. The hierarchy is intended to emphasize the all-consuming nature of lower level needs; especially the core survival needs. Complex relational problems do not often come to light until we have secured food and safety.
Most citizens of the first world have been liberated from daily concentration on these most basic needs. This creates enough space for higher order issues to emerge. Those who apply the "first world problems" label are seeking to trivialize these problems by lumping them in with, "my phone cable isn't long enough to reach the bed" or "my 2-day shipping got delayed by a snow storm". These do not belong in the same category as depression and anxiety. Anyone who puts them in the same list is misguided.
Still, we sort of think these people have a point. There are people who don't have food or water. It is very common to compare our pain to that of others. This can lead to a healthy sense of perspective and empathy for those who are worse off. But more often than not, we use this as a litmus test. Are we experiencing real struggle like starvation, epidemic, or war? No? Then our pain must not be real.
Of course this is absolute nonsense. Our pain and struggle doesn't make the pain and struggle of others any less real (and vice versa). We don't diminish their pain by validating our own. It isn't as though there is a set amount of pain in the world and we are hogging it all.
I am grateful for what I've been given. I know I have it good. But out of respect for "real" problems I was drowning under the weight of "much is required" and feeling as though I wasn't allowed to ask for a life raft.
It isn't as though there is a set amount of pain in the world and we are hogging it all.
Filed under: depression, anxiety