A Force of Nature

A few times in my life, due to a terrible confluence of circumstances, I have felt real despair — the kind of despair that made me consider ending my own life.

No single condition or circumstance would have been enough; it rarely is for anyone. For me, it has only ever been when several struggles were taking place at the same time: personal, physical, spiritual, and professional crises, all escalating at once, draining the strength that could have easily overcome any one, or two, or even three of them. But too many things happening at once can overwhelm almost anyone, and lead them to consider choices that in gentler days, seem impossible to countenance.

I struggled with that kind of despair several times over a number of weeks many years ago, and although there have been difficult times since then (every so often), I never considered ending my life, or struggled with that desire to do so as much as I did recently, when I was in a good place, surrounded by friends and colleagues at a professional gathering where I was respected and honored, and where, less than a day later, I would give an inspirational talk that brought a roomful of my peers to their feet in tears and applause.

The same struggle I endured through the entirety of last night and into today, alone, and really unsure of what I would ultimately choose.

It’s bad enough when, in the grip of weakness and despair, you want to blame exterior circumstances and the choices of others for your sorry state; but it is far, far worse, and more difficult to overcome when you believe your own failings are the greater cause. And you think unthinkable thoughts.

The problem — if deciding against suicide can be considered a problem — is that the reason I wanted to do it had far less to do with what I believed were my failings and weaknesses, and EVERYTHING to do with wanting to give up the strength I knew I still had. The strength that made me, ultimately, choose not to do something terrible, irrevocable, and wrong.

I didn’t want to die — I wanted that moment, that irrevocable moment, where I would KNOW there would be nothing left to choose, because I had made a choice I couldn’t take back. And then, finally, I would no longer have the responsibility of knowing I was Just Strong Enough.

Only a handful of people knew some of the circumstances I was grappling with a little over a week ago that made me desire that, or that it was then I became ill with the physical issues I’m dealing with now, or that among the reasons I used to talk myself out of it was that it was really, really cold outside, which would make going up on the roof really problematic. But mostly, it didn’t happen because there was someone I wouldn’t be able to explain it to, who would want, would need, an explanation, and if I was not there to give it, no one would, but whom, if I offered it to them beforehand, would end up helping me find all the reasons I shouldn’t do it. So I simply sat there, gripped in indecision, and living.

If you have to explain it, you inevitably end up stumbling across several reasons that it is, in fact, a terrible, unthinkable idea. This is why there are suicide counselors, and hotlines — if people talk about the reasons they don’t want to be alive, they end up discovering the reasons that in fact, they really do.

I rarely confide in others, even those closest to me. It’s maybe more an aspect of my autism than anything else — something only the early readers of THE BARBIZON DIARIES are aware of — it’s not as much willful avoidance as it is an inability to drop the shields, as it were. I simply cannot, verbally, be completely open — to friends, but especially with professional counselors. The mechanism just isn’t there. Only a handful of people have ever seen my core self, and it was not an easy process to get to it, or share it openly. But if choices of life or death aren’t at one’s core, then what is?

Talking about the impulse leads to discovering reasons that live is actually worth living — but if it’s difficult to open up, for whatever reason, then it really becomes a problem. I’ve occasionally used the story of Pagliacci to illustrate this: a sad man in the grip of despair goes to a doctor, and is so sad the doctor says the ONLY thing that can pull him out of it is to go see the great clown, Pagliacci, who is visiting the town. The man bursts into tears and says, “But doctor — I AM Pagliacci!”

It used to be funnier to me until that point not too long ago when on a recommendation I contacted a therapist, who invited me, anonymously, to participate in a group counseling session — where the recommended reading was one of MY OWN BOOKS. I’m not sure I got much out of it, but I think I was able to offer what must have seemed like stunningly insightful thoughts on the book they were reading.

It’s difficult to open up to people when you are feeling as if you are in fact responsible for the circumstances that created your despair; harder still when so many people around you look to you and your words and choices to lift them up out of their own fears and worries; and almost impossible when you feel and believe, deep down, that to share such things with the people you love most, who would be most receptive, will simply create a burden for them too great to bear. And so, you endure, and think unthinkable thoughts, and you don’t act on them for the sole reason that you won’t be able to explain it to those who would most need to know why. And when they realize you are struggling anyway, you promise, silently and otherwise, that you would not leave them with that grief.

Sometimes that is enough — for me it is, at least. That one small handhold is enough; the promise not to leave them with that despair, because that’s what suicide would be — it would not eliminate the despair, but merely transfer it. And I would not allow that to happen to people I promised to protect, and help, and lift up.

That alone is enough of an explanation to open up my mind and my heart to other reasons, which actually invokes another kind of despair — the realization that you still have to be strong. That you’ll still have to make choices, and live with them. And you find yourself trying — futilely, I might add — to argue on behalf of your own failings and weaknesses, to try to convince yourself that you and everyone else would really be better off without you in the world. And you realize you are AVOIDING things you know will strengthen your resolve in the other direction.

And then, you have to choose.

Strength doesn’t have to be big, and flashy, and impressive. It’s like Mark Twain’s definition of courage: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.” Or better, George Smith Patton’s idea that “Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.” Strength is resistance to weakness, and mastery of weakness, not the absence of it. Strength is acknowledging one’s weakness, then holding on one minute longer. That small bit of strength, invoked by whatever means necessary that allow you to resist the weakness, and fear, and despair, is mightier than all the rest. It is a small thing, that realization that there is a small bit of light left in you that seemingly never goes out — but it is in fact, a Force of Nature. And it makes you strong enough to rise up.

Many people have been very concerned about me, and with good cause. Many people are going to be shocked, stunned, saddened, and hopefully, at last, heartened by what I’ve written above. When I made the choice this afternoon to nuture that small light of strength I had into something that could lift me up out of the despair, I had at first planned to write something cheery and uplifting — something about the Awesomist Protagonist, doing and writing good things that inevitably would include a pithy, insightful quote that fifty people will repost or pinup on the wall at the office, because it helped them. I write and say a lot of uplifting things, but I think knowing where those insights came from might be even more important and useful to the people reading this now.

To get through today, I have held on to some very specific things. Memories of a specific letter from my son; a brief online exchange with an old relative; a sign being held up during my recent lecture; and of promises I made. And it held me in place. What is moving me forward is a quote I found, downstairs in the Studio restroom, which is stocked with my grandfather’s Reader’s Digest collection, which I used to read on hot summer days behind his house in the tin storage building where he kept them. The quote was this:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

George Bernard Shaw

People hide who they really are out of shame, and fear that they’ll be judged. And this is a very judgmental society we live in — so instead of speaking up, or reaching out, people remain closed off, sometimes to tragic results. I have been one of those people my entire life, afraid to speak what I thought and felt because I didn’t want to be judged, and shamed for it. I hid some of the worst things that happened in my life for those reasons, until I realized that not sharing those vital, important stories, was not only holding me back from growing, but was keeping an example of finding a way through the darkness from people who might really, really need it.

Doing that also taught me something else — that I could write about things I couldn’t speak about. And something I couldn’t share with a counselor for myself, I could share with all of you for the very reasons my colleague Mr. Shaw explains up above. It also expands the promise I made to someone across a vastly wider spectrum, and it strengthens my resolve to not let go.

I am good. Not great, in this moment, but good. I am still the Awesomeist, but one focused on my work, which gives me clarity of purpose and sustains me. I am still the Protagonist, but leading by example in written words and not my physical presence, at least, for now. And I am still a Force of Nature, but a Force of Nature at rest, in repose. I have begun making difficult choices to assure my health is looked after first and foremost, which will strengthen me physically; that in turn allows me to turn my attention to completing some of my work, which lessens pressures mentally; spiritually, I am focusing on the things that are true for and resonate to me and no other, which I have been afraid to do, but which will make my character stronger, so I can better serve others; and when these things have been worked through, I think the things I’ve struggled with socially, personally, and professionally will largely be resolved.

No one needs to be strong enough to lift the world. You just have to be strong enough to hold on to your place in it. And brave enough to explain to people how you did.

You are strong enough. I am strong enough. And I WILL NOT leave you.

Love, your brother in moxie,


About caveo

James has written and illustrated six books in the bestselling series The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica: Here, There Be Dragons; The Search For The Red Dragon; The Indigo King; The Shadow Dragons; The Dragon’s Apprentice; and The Dragons of Winter. The series is now being published in more than twenty languages. A seventh volume, The First Dragon, will conclude the series in November 2013.

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