Fundamentally Wrong: I Can’t Just Do It If I Choose

One of the deepest and oldest philosophical and psychological debates revolves around the concept of choice and free will. The question of whether we truly have control over our lives is something that comes up across all fields of human reasoning, from whether the universe is pre-determined to play out the way it does, to whether or not there is a god who gives us the perception or reality of choice.

These concepts are so basic that most people find themselves on one side or the other of the debate without really even knowing it, or understanding it. People are brought up with certain beliefs, and many of those beliefs – especially if they reinforce or are reinforced by the events in our lives – become indistinguishable from fact in our minds. The notion of god, or the concepts of organized religion, for example, survive by the very fact that they fit so well into the world-view of most of the world.

My wife, for example, was raised from an early age with the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to. She’s shared stories with my of her father teaching her and reinforcing these concepts, such as using ”elbow-grease” to clean the tub (which turned out, of course, to just be a great deal of physical effort, and not an actual cleaning product, much to her dismay). She learned from this, and it reinforced for her that with enough effort, you can succeed at almost anything. Indeed, her life and career has been largely successful, guided by this and other lessons learned from her youth.

I, on the other hand, was largely raised to believe that I was a success naturally, whether or not I put effort into something or not. I was praised as highly intelligent, as though somehow intelligence was in itself a success, and effort was rarely, if ever, rewarded. For that matter, many of the things I attempted as a child needed little effort, and through intellectualism I was often able to accomplish many great deeds. When I encountered something that I actually struggled with, I would more often than not simply give up, and was allowed to – moving on to something easier to achieve.

Just as much as my wife’s childhood led to her adult outlook on life, I’m sure my own influenced my current state of being, even to the extent of my mental disorders and never-ending depression. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to break out of, any more than you could convince a life-long Christian that there is no god. But it also leads to conflicts – often between my wife and myself – around the ability to do things, given one’s state of mind.

For example, we had a minor argument the other night around doing the dishes. We had already eaten dinner, and all that was left was to clean up the kitchen. Something that, physically, I am perfectly capably of doing. However, I have been struggling over the past month with a very, very severe depression, and the honest truth is that there are many times when I simply cannot do something.

I said as much to my wife on the night in question, and her response, born partly out of frustration that the house is perpetually a mess and partly, I’m sure, out of frustration that I was behaving in what she saw as a lazy and unproductive manner, was: ”You can if you choose to.”

This is where the conflict sets in, both from our views on the world, our lived experiences, and probably our upbringing. To me, in a state of chronic depression, there is no choice in the matter. I might as well have no arms or legs; the task of washing up after dinner is absolutely impossible. To her, it’s all a question of mental will: if you want to do something enough, you’ll do it.

I mistakenly made a poor, in-the-moment analogy of a physical, chronic illness: I said that by that measure, you could cure yourself of cancer if you chose to. Poor taste, poor analogy, it didn’t go over well, and we kind of got into a minor shouting match.

In hindsight, there are better analogies I can think of; the reason I chose the one I did is simply because people so very often assume that mental illnesses are somehow less than physical ones, or that they shouldn’t stop you from performing in the way that a physical disease might. Instead, I think a better comparison would be trying to lift a boulder: you can ’want’ to all you like, you can ’choose’ to lift it, but if the boulder weighs three tons, you’re not going to be budging it.

It’s so terribly difficult to describe what it’s like to be depressed to the point of incapacitation to someone who’s never experienced it. It feels impossible to convey the weight of emptiness that takes hold of every waking thought, and the way in which it makes even the simplest of tasks insurmountable. When I say I ’can’t’ do the dishes, I don’t mean I’m choosing not to; I mean I literally can’t do it.

Lately, there’ve been a lot of things I can’t do. I realize this must be making me extremely difficult to live with, and the mess I leave behind me, unable to clean up, only makes it worse. For what it’s worth, I do try to minimize my impact, only using dishes when absolutely necessary, and mostly just lying in bed to avoid disrupting the rest of the house. But I can’t live without creating some kind of path, whether it be hair in the shower or dishes in the sink, and I feel awful and guilty for it, but it doesn’t change my ability – or inability – to do anything about it. (By the same token, I am often unable to go to work.)

I appreciate the efforts that the world is taking to liken mental illness to physical illness, inasmuch as trying to get people to take mental disorders seriously. They are just as incapacitating as physical illnesses, and oftentimes just as, if not more, difficult to overcome. But perhaps a better likening might actually be to compare a mental illness to a physical incapability. If you are missing an arm, or weigh 100 pounds, there are certain things you may simply not be able to do – at least not without help. Humans are, of course, adept at overcoming adversity, but there are some things that are impossible to overcome on one’s own, and a mental illness is one of those things.

So when I say I can’t do something, please don’t assume I’m taking an easy path, or being lazy, or simply ’choosing’ not to put in effort. I choose the word ’can’t’ very deliberately; it means what it means.

One day I’ll gain the strength to lift the boulder; for now, I am weak.

Of a Great Person

About a month ago, the world lost a soul. Not a celebrity; no one famous. One of thousands who die daily for no reason other than it was their time to go. It was no global catastrophe, no tragic demise; simply the passing of someone who lived their life simply, selflessly, and straight to the very end.

Death is oddly easy to come by, yet so far from easy for the people who knew the deceased. Funerals, wakes, memorials and services and wreaths and tombstones … all these efforts are done not for the person no longer with us, but for the people left behind. And it kind of sucks, because the last thing you want to do when you lose someone is worry about funeral arrangements and burial costs. Mounting bills and gathering family last-minute hardly fills the void left by the departed in your heart, but these processes perhaps hold some value, because they’re a painful reminder that in the dead’s absence, life goes on. The world doesn’t stop turning. Work gives you a few days off, and then it’s back to the grind.

So before I discuss what I think was important about the departed, I need to recognize my wife’s strength, resilience, competence and willfulness as she laid her father to rest. She mourned and wept, and amidst it all simply made shit happen. No one asked her to, and she didn’t need to be asked; there was little doubt as to who would bear the heaviest burden of actually giving her father the rest he deserved in the best way possible. Her family attended what she arranged.

This strength didn’t grow in a vacuum. My wife has led a difficult, troubled and at times traumatic life, but her strength grew from the person who raised her: her father. For whatever suffering she’s dealt with, her father almost certainly dealt with just as much. From a lonely childhood to war service and the mental breakdown of his wife early in their marriage, he suffered and fought for fairness and justice like no one I’ve ever known, and he did it entirely for his children – his legacy.

You see, whenever someone dies, you can’t help contemplate their importance; you can’t help but wonder what impact they left on the world, and if their life really mattered much – or at all. These are – on the surface – easy questions to answer when said deceased was known to the world at large; the world is immeasurably worse off for the loss of Robin Williams, or Chester Bennington, or [insert celebrity here], because of course these people made an impact on our psyches and left indelible impressions in our emotions. We miss what these people could have brought to the world, and reminisce about what they left behind. We feel like we know these people, and their deaths definitely leave a void behind.

But what about the residual importance of those deaths that are a little closer to home? What about when our father, or our brother – uncle, or grandparent – dies? What if they spent their life toiling in a factory making communications circuitry? What if they sacrificed any possibility of renown for the happiness of their own children? What if they were, ultimately, forgettable to all but their closest family?

I say this makes them not less important, but all the more so.

This argument, of course, comes down to how one chooses to measure the importance of a person’s life, but I think it’s fair to say that an individual’s significance can be told by the impact they made on others – the influence they had on the people who knew them. And in this argument, I believe that the true measure of influence is in its quality, not its quantity. It doesn’t matter that Robin Williams made millions of people passingly happy, whilst my father-in-law might have done so for fewer than a dozen folk in his life, because the depth of influence is immeasurably greater on the latter.

My wife’s father was quiet, humble and generally inconspicuous, and if you never had the chance to talk to him and get to know him, you would never guess the tragedy and trauma hidden behind his soft brown eyes. Many other men, I believe, would have walked away from similar circumstances given half a chance, and yet he spent years balancing a tenuous living and desperately fighting through courts to win his children back after their mother suffered a nervous breakdown early in their life. He abandoned career ambitions and sacrificed his personal life entirely to ensure that his children had the best life he could provide for them.

And that life he gave them formed the person who is now my wife. For as long as I’ve known her she’s idolized her father; looked up to him as an example of virtue and strength of character. She’s modeled her own life on many of his characteristics, and the upbringing of our son is a testament to his own work in raising her. He was her mentor, her confidant, her advisor and friend.

So in looking back on his life, does it matter that he was wounded in the Korean War saving others’ lives? Or that he build the communications systems that sent men to the moon? Does it matter that he was disowned by his Jewish family for marrying a Catholic woman? Or does it matter that, when the odds were stacked against him and the chips were down, he soldiered through to protect his children, because their own happiness was the only thing that mattered to him?

I like to think that the measure of a person’s importance is not in whether they influenced a million people or only one; it isn’t in whether a person goes down in history or is forgotten to the annals of time. It’s in the subtle influence they leave on those closest to them, and whether that influence was to their benefit or detriment. And in considering my father-in-law, the influence and legacy he left behind is in the person my wife became, and her siblings, and his grandchildren, and – perhaps one day – theirs.

And so I suggest that he was as great a person as any out there. He didn’t write books that changed the world; he didn’t leave behind a canon of film or music or scientific achievements. He left behind, quite simply, a strong, virtuous woman, who will remember him with love for the remainder of her own life. He changed her world, and I think that’s at least as important as any other.

He used to say that he just wanted to be remembered and thought of. I don’t know how he wanted to be remembered, or by whom, but I remember one thing clearly. A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk to him one-on-one, and I asked him simply what he wanted. What, I said, would make him happy?

His answer was to see his children happy. Nothing more, and nothing less. The same driving motivation to keep his children happy never wavered from the moment they were born until the moment he died.

If that isn’t a worthwhile legacy, I don’t know what is.