When I’m feeling philosophical, which is more often than I’d care to admit, I find that I’m often inclined to dwell on the paradox of perspective. As a hypnotist I know how powerful even slight shifts in viewpoint can be, but that’s an easy position to adopt from a comfortable distance. I’m lucky in a number of generic neurotypical ways: I don’t suffer from anxiety or depression overmuch, I have an executive function that can attend to most of the business of life without much existential stickiness, and I have a shelf full of coping mechanisms that do a solid job of tiding me over when I take a hit or two. Even so, I have my Bouts of Misery and Woe that I can’t quite think or talk my way out of. This past week featured one.
It’s not hard to get stuck in the Swamp of Sadness, Artax-style, no matter what encouragement and support we have on hand. (That link is worth avoiding if you are habitually prone to woe.) And, as it turns out, academia is filthy with cynics. It’s sort of a tell that, even when we’re in the midst of what’s a fairly beige year, our private message board consists almost exclusively of minor grievances. I do my best to power-skim the more morose modes of media these days, for I know too many Swampfolk who will habitually sink down into the depths if given half a chance and do their best to pull at any hand that reaches for them. And don’t get me wrong–I know I can only do most of that skimming because I lucked into a bunch of unearned privileges by birth and happenstance. I can resist the siren song of the daily doomscroll because privilege lets me pick and choose what I’m ready and willing to feel deeply on any given morning.
Every now and again, however, I’ll chance upon some useful contrapuntal bitterness, a vivid depiction of the tendencies I think most of us are hard pressed to resist. It’s helpful to see them from the outside, as they’re miserable to live through. In those gloaming episodes it’s easy to look back on all the losses, snubs, failures, and disappointments that generally make up a life, to wish we’d done differently. That bitterness has a special quality, as it’s generally easy to tell when the sufferer wants support and encouragement or would rather indulge in a good wallow. There’s no reasoning or philosophizing our way out of those blue moods, alas. We just have to strap in and see them through.
When we’re being honest with ourselves (which the mischief-maker in me admittedly believes is not all that often), it’s hard not to look back and wish for a do-over or two (or a bajillion, as the case may be). I imagine I have a typical range of regrets: folks I might have been kinder to, wrongs I might have righted, folks I’ve lost touch with or simply lost interest in, opportunities lost. But when we’re both honest and clear-headed (which the psychologist in me admittedly believes is not all that often) we can generally find the gains that offset those losses. It never feels like a rose-colored, thoughtless optimism but rather a generous reckoning, a resistance to cynicism that arrives as something akin a measured, ethical realism. It’s one kind of folly to take for granted that everything is going to turn out well, turn out just as it should no matter what we do; it’s another kind of folly to take for granted that everything is going to shake out badly despite our best efforts, that misfortunes are awaiting us, some of them earned, some deserved. The truth or it all is somewhere in between, and it doesn’t call for concessions or surrender on our part so much as a readiness to reframe the lot of it–the ecstasies, miseries, and all the business in between.
This week has been a slog, and it would be easy to look forward and expect more sloggery, to anticipate all the less than pleasant things that dot my calendar. Once I start down that road, it’s equally easy to look backward as well, to reflect on all the mistakes I’ve made as I’ve worked my way down the road. But today I find myself strangely grateful, which has little to do with any of the successes or failures I’ve met with, any decisions I’ve made or avoided. Jejune though it might seem, it’s mostly a matter of seeing things clearly and fully, which tends to involve a great deal of effort, energy spent clearing obstructions out of the way so that I can catch a more panoramic picture.
I’ve learned enough to know that might all change by bedtime, of course. But for a moment, at least I think I can let myself work toward some things, hope for some things, and maybe even imagine that, in the grand cosmic balance, it might all turn out better than I expect.