I’ve made no secret of my struggles with depression. Some days sadness just comes in waves. Sometimes I know why (that friend who lost a baby, this friend who suddenly lost her partner, that family dealing with suicide, this news story about war and pain and loss, that, this, this, that …) Other days, I don’t really have a clear understanding of why I’m hurting, I just am. It’s physical. Right in my chest. And it can take my breath away.
There are times that I find myself getting caught up in the why of it all. Why are we here and why does all this shitty stuff happen? And I don’t really have an answer to that question. Except that the older I get the more I understand that there is something innate in the human condition, something we can’t separate ourselves from, something almost … required of us. I’m grasping at words here. But I’ve been learning that it isn’t about bad choices or punishment for misdeeds. When I was younger I felt that it was punishment. I felt a lot of self blame and guilt, and I felt that I probably deserved to suffer (and so delayed getting help a long time but that’s another story.) But I see good people suffer, too. I see children suffer. So I can no longer believe it has anything to do with the individual and instead I’ve come to believe it is just part of us.
Our pain, our grief, our anger … these things come together to help form the guts of who we are. And along with your joy, our elation, our love, and our moments of pride and accomplishment, they are the building blocks that lead to our wisdom, our deep understanding of life and what it is just to be. We can’t just have the joy we need the grief to balance us out.
Yes, I hear you say you don’t want the wisdom, thankyouverymuch. You’ll just take the good stuff and be unbalanced. I’m sorry to tell you that you don’t’ have a choice. This life comes with sadness, with grief, with anger and frustration an loss, and it’s up to us to decide how we are going to manage it, to weather it, and to come out the other side of it.
I can think of so many ways we demonstrate our resilience in our life, from the first moments where our instincts drive us to breath, to later roll and sit and walk, to fall and get bruises and fat lips and get up to do it all again. I can think of so many cliches (which as we know are all true) and so many analogies for how we manage to carry on when it seems impossible. Sometimes I play them out in my head when I feel like I can’t lift my foot to take another single solid step. And today I share one with you.
Imagine you are standing on a small wooden platform.
Below you is the mud. And the muck. It is dark and it’s thick and it’s oozing, and it spans who knows how far. You know how this muck feels. You’ve walked through it. You’ve felt it pulling at your every step, clinging to the hem of your pants and the bottom of your shoe so you never really get free of it. It pulls you down, squelching away as you slodge. It feels endless.
Above you is a beautiful blue sky. The sun is shining and there are just enough light fluffy clouds to make it beautiful. When you look up you feel light, you feel weightless, you feel …. free.
But you can’t live in the sky and there is all this muck that you have to get through. You can’t stand on this small platform forever.
And then there’s the monkey bars.
They are just above your head, silver metal worn by the hundreds of hands that have passed before them. They are your way up and over the muck, and they are within your reach.
So you stand on your tippy toes and you reach and you wrap your hand around one bar and you hang on.
And you look down and see the mud and the gunk, and its bubbling and oozing towards you and you feel like you can’t resist it, but you hang on.
Then the rain starts, and the mud becomes a slow moving but strong current, lapping and pulling at the tips of your toes, but you hang on.
And what was maybe a spring rain turns into a thunderstorm, with wind whipping your face and pulling at your sleeves. The bar becomes slippery and you can feel yourself falling into the mud so you swing up your other arm and you grab with two hands and you hang. the fuck. on.
You scrunch up your eyes so you can’t see anything and you go deep to a place within where nothing exists but just holding that bar like your life depends on it. Because it does.
Eventually, the storm passes, like all storms do. The mud loses it’s current and resumes it’s slow mucking about below you. You can open your eyes, you can look up at the sun again. You can breathe.
When you have calmed some, you notice that the next bar is also just within reach. You take a few breaths, swing back a bit with your legs and take a big swing forward. Then you see the next bar, and the next, an you can see some sort of a way through, even if you can’t see the end.
And maybe somewhere along the way, you pause for a breather. There’s no rush, you can take it at you own pace, but you know that you can make it over this mud.
As your mind slowly relaxes you look to your right an you see someone beside you, eyes forward, focused inward, swinging slowly from bar to bar. And ahead, someone else. In fact now that you can see again, you notice there are many people making this journey, not with you but beside you, navigating their own way over and through the mud and weathering the storms.
Chances are, another rainstorm comes before you get to the other side. Maybe many more rainstorms come. Maybe you don’t really know where the other side of this playground actually is, but you keep swinging from bar to bar because you can’t go back and you don’t want to drop down.
You won’t always see the platform at the other side but it’s there. You will come to a place where you can stand again, rest your arms. Where you can strive less, where you can have stillness.
When you get to the other side you won’t be the same person.
You’ll arrive with the knowledge that you are strong, you are wise, and you are resilient. You will look behind you and see how truly dark and deep the mud was, and how long the journey was, and you will discover a quiet pride that not only is it behind you, but you are here.
You’ll see those who are still struggling to cross their monkey bars with a new compassion. You’ll find yourself with the strength to reach back to them, encourage them, and give them a hand.
You can do this, we all can, when we figure out where our monkey bars are. (spoiler – I’m not talking about real bars of steel).
So, where are your monkey bars? What can you hold on to when the muck threatens to carry you away?
Maybe you just need to turn to your left and see the person who’s been quietly standing beside you all along, seamlessly stepping in closer when you need to be held up and stepping slightly away when you are strong enough to stand on your own, but never gone.
Maybe your monkey bars are not people, but have fur and a tail, and greet you every morning, making sure you get out of bed and get out of the house for a walk, and keeping you warm as you fall asleep at night.
Maybe your monkey bars are online, on social media and in private groups, names and faces and stories and understanding, a place where you can go and get support at any hour.
They don’t even have to be the positive things in your life. I went through a time where I desperately needed to hang on to anger, to be defiant, to assert that there was something wrong in the world I needed to stick around to address. When I was stronger, I was able to let go of the anger, but there was a time when I needed it desperately.
Sometimes, you’ve really got to look to find them. We aren’t all blessed with a supportive family and a large network of friends (especially when our moods can alienate people so easily). Sometimes it can feel like your monkey bars aren’t there. But they are, you just have to redefine them.
You can hang on to the rituals you create, like making your morning coffee, or walking through the forest. Moments of solitude can strengthen us, so long as they aren’t moments of loneliness.
You can hang on to your work, or your volunteering, or some other commitment that requires you to answer emails, leave your home, interact with the world, and be present.
Heck, even videos of random babies laughing on the internet can be your monkey bars. You don’t have to know them to be grounded by their big belly laughs. And sometimes big belly laughs can get us through the next 5 minutes, which helps us see we can get through the next 5, and the next, and step by step we’ve made it through a day.
If you don’t know where your monkey bars are, look around. Find them. Build them if you need to. So that when you need them you have them to reach for.
And when the time comes, you reach up, you grab hold, and you hang on.
Sometimes all you can do is hang on. And that’s ok. Hanging on can be your one job for now. The world needs you, even when you don’t see it.
And one day, you will be someone else’s monkey bars.