TEST-imony (Personal status and life lessons)

The past three years have been tough.

Tough personally, tough on my family, tough on our financial status.

But that is how it was intended to be, if life is really a test of who we are at the core of our being.

Many of the “tough” external and internal circumstances have not been entirely random, although some were outside of my direct control.  However, much of what has happened has been a result of personal choices and intentional experiments to test myself, those near me, and indirectly, society at large.

A “life experiment” in progress…

I have begun to act in ways that challenge the cultural norms of the community where I live in order to test the reactions of others.  I have also asked family, friends and acquaintances to explain to me why they believe what they do, then question the unstated assumptions that compel them to conform to social norms.  Some of those around me have probably concluded that I have gone completely insane.  I have not necessarily discouraged, and sometimes even encouraged that conclusion.  This  was actually a key part of the experiment.  Truth is, I have been struggling to maintain what society deems as sanity for most of my life, all the while suspecting that society itself is suffering from near-psychotic states, such as massive self-delusions and self-destructive behaviors.

While teasing apart widely held cultural assumptions by observations of the outside world and comparing these with my inner constructs of reality, some very sobering conclusions have been reached.  Time (and eternity) will have to provide the final proof of my conclusions, but my life views have been radically revised and I have committed that the remainder of my life will need to change accordingly.

That journey is the subject of this blog.

Why would I purposely allow myself to appear to “go crazy”?

One reason I have wanted to purposely “test the waters” of potential mental instability is that there is a very good possibility that this state may become a reality at some point in my life.  A history of major depression runs in the families of both parents, as well as Alzheimer’s and other conditions that could lead to cognitive decline.  I also understand from research and observation that mental decline is sometimes not noticed by the person suffering from it, and may be first detected by others.  This means if or when I do start “losing it”, I may not be the one to figure this out, so I need to start educating those around me about what to expect.  Apparently, I also need to develop a much better contingency plan for this possibility than I now have.

What are the intended long term outcomes of this “social experiment”?

One intended outcome was a first hand understanding of the emotional and practical impact of living with mental health issues. From personal and family events, I have seen how others tend to respond to those who are “different” in cognitive function or emotional status. Mental health issues have been suppressed, punished, or ignored for most of human history, rather than openly acknowledged and addressed. Unfortunately, despite medical and scientific advances, the denial of mental health issues is still prevalent  in modern society. To help counteract this dysfunction, I plan to find opportunities for advocacy in this area, based on my first hand experiences.

But this experiment has also provided a partial fulfillment of a “bucket list” item that I made much earlier in life.  I made a promise to myself as a youngster that I would find out for myself the truth behind my inherited religious beliefs.  I also pondered at length  why people are the way they are, why society is the way it is, and why I seemed to be so different than those around me.

Formative experiences

My early reading as a child included many “classics” of literature such as: mythology, science fiction, science history, biographies of “great men and women”, along with some rather esoteric subjects.  These probably helped form a view during childhood that the world was once a more noble and civil place, and there was a possibility that it could be again some day.  The dissonance between the observed state of the world and what “ought to be” led to a conclusion that humanity has an ongoing obligation to bring about something closer to the utopian ideal I had read about.  Leading others toward a higher state of expectation and behavior was what I believed my life should be about.

Regrettably, as a matter of practicality to make a decent living, I chose to study engineering, rather than a more liberal educational path, as the means to find practical ways to contribute to the greater good.  So my early impulses to study philosophy, religion, psychology, and brain sciences was put aside in favor of getting a job and making a living.

However, as most of us eventually conclude, making a living is not the same as living life fully.  Although I can be a slow learner, I think this lesson is starting to take hold!

In the past couple of years, I have attempted to research first hand the origins of our social norms, political philosophies, economic theory, and religious beliefs in enough depth to understand why as a society we believe and behave as we do.  This should lead me to what I need to believe, embrace, and do, in order to be true to my own value system and life philosophy.  In other words, I can no longer live life on autopilot, accepting social and religious norms as universally and eternally true. I expect that my life may become substantially more difficult in some areas, based on what has been discovered, but there seems to be no possibility of returning to mindless living. This commitment to live life as intended is the biggest checkmark on the “must do” life goals list that I have made for a long time.

What led to this dramatic personal change?

As I began to lay out my career change plan several years ago, several uncomfortable conclusions seemed to be confronting me.  First, I began an analysis of my work history (including likes and dislikes from each job) to figure out what industry or target job made the most sense to pursue.  Then I began using some online career planning and job analysis programs to find a likely match for my skills, interests, and aptitudes.  Over some time, I came to the very uncomfortable conclusion that I was probably not really temperamentally well suited to any of the jobs I had held before. In fact, the major demotivators and stressors in each position were due to trying to force myself to fit into job requirements that did not reflect my personality or core values.  In retrospect, that was a major contributor, if not root cause of the chronic depression I had been experiencing for the better (or rather worse) part of my work life.

Those who have been through a career or major life transition can probably predict what happened next…mid-life crisis trigger event!

Embracing the decline into depression.

Many repressed frustrations, doubts, and fears flooded out over the period of several months, furthering accelerating a slide toward major depression.  Anyone who has experienced or watched others struggle with episodic or chronic depressive states probably realizes that a person can begin to welcome the idea of death as a much more attractive alternative to living with the internal agony.  If not arrested and reversed, this “mental” state can actually cause changes in the brain that prevent a person from perceiving or accepting positive situations or encouragement from others.  (This will be a topic for a future blog post.)

In my case, the slide was dampened with anti-depressants and support from my loving wife, who has helped keep me from going totally over the edge.  By way of caution, for anyone tempted to offer trivial encouragement or exhortations to “get over it” to someone in genuine major depression, don’t do it!  The person in the grip of depression will not only find this unhelpful, they are likely to resent what was said and this may drive them further into isolation.  (“Depression – lessons learned” is another planned blog topic.)

I certainly am not yet totally free of the symptoms of depression, and some things I have done or not done have deepened the impact and lengthened the duration of recovery.  In this sense, I am responsible for the course of my recent condition.  But becoming aware of what was happening to me, I decided to get the most benefit from the experience, for me and others I hope to help in the future.  For this reason, I did not immediately seek “professional” counseling and instead began to try to understand depression in all dimensions, including the brain science, biology, psychological therapeutic techniques, theories of mind, and spiritual dimensions.  (Each of these dimensions deserves at least one blog article and possibly more!)

My personal takeaways from this experience are expected to be:

    • Greater compassion and sensitivity to those who suffer with mental and physical challenges
    • Greater motivation to seek personal and spiritual development as countermeasures against recurrence
    • Greater appreciation and gratitude for my wife and extended family
    • Fulfillment of intention to study how the mind works, why it malfunctions, and how collective perceptions can be altered by social conditioning and mass  propaganda.

What are my expectations for the future?

There seems to be no crystal clear path forward at this moment, but that is exactly what I needed to confront – sometimes life is not predictable, and my best intentions, plans, and efforts and might be completely misguided.  Ultimately, the future is truly in God’s hands, not mine.  I still need to do my best, as always, and keep my eye on a worthwhile goal, but also notice that there is actually beautiful scenery to enjoy along the road of life!

Any who dare are invited to join me on this journey!

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