A friend writes to say he is feeling blue. He is not in recovery so his blues are not as dire as mine, but they are just as painful. When I ask what is wrong, he replies, “life.” Life – the whole befuddling catastrophe; he and I share a tragic worldview. I have written previously about the German word for such an existential crisis: weltschmertz – worldpain.
Eager to help, I dash off a breezy response about all we need to be grateful for that seems as brittle and unsubstantial as the falling leaves outside. The Buddha tells us that pain has four sources: Death, disease, old-age and poverty. These are what Siddhartha saw from his palace window that compelled his quest for the relief of suffering. Note that the first three are inevitable; the fourth, poverty, seems reparable, but I suspect the Buddha means despair a spiritual poverty that accompanies grinding want.
I have never been impoverished myself but am intimately acquainted with despair. When you have a true depression it is never far away, lurking on the periphery out of sight but never out of mind. Think of Prufrock’s yellow smoke rubbing its muzzle on the windowpane. Prufrock notes it in a lovesong, for surely wanting another invites suffering. How many others have I dreamed of, pursued, cherished briefly and lost? Smoke evaporates but leaves a scent behind. It is the lingering smell of longing that causes suffering or as the Buddha describes it . . . our attachments.
Last year I attached myself to a man, one who lives 1000 miles away and was clearly out of my league. He seemed interested, I fantasized, wondering if this was a person who could really know, who would finally see me for me. The secret places of the heart long for such recognition, to be seen as the self sees itself without blemish or flaw. Of course such a disembodied love is impossible; bodies meet where souls never do. Hence the lovesong, a paean not to one person but to the ineffable shadow that lives in our imaginations.
He went back to his perfect life. I hear that he has a new lover of over a year. His facebook page is studded with smiling selfies on exotic backgrounds. “In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.”
My most recent disappointment was not the want of a man, but that of a job. On a lark I applied for a job for which I thought I was well qualified. I got an interview -- that triggered days of dreaming of escape from present drudgery. And then another, references were called and now I dreamed of new possibilities of fresh learning, more money, new compeers.
I thought I was a shoe in. At our last meeting, the hirer enticed me with talk of benefits, salary and employee culture and said that he would make a decision “soon.” A day went by leaving me on edge. A week of silence followed, so I wrote asking for feedback on my interviews (I assumed that I had been rejected). This was met with still more silence and I began to fantasize about drugs – may have done them too, but I had applied for two other jobs and was thinking about drug testing.
Unlike my friend Jay, disappointment, depression, despair all have a final common pathway. They all lead to self-pity, then resentment and then -- if I am not vigilant -- to relapse. Buddhism enjoins us to live without craving, to reign in fantasies of the new and turn our attentions to the present moment. It is the same with recovery. Better to enjoy what is than to chase what is not. The job was never mine; how can you mourn what you never had? But fantasies leave a shadow -- the yellow smoke again. It is the fantasy that I miss.