My life since I graduated (two years ago) has brought a lot of changes for me. My father died of complications from heart surgery last year. I’ve switched jobs three times while looking for something I feel comfortable working at long term. No matter where I work, projects are often sloppy, rushed, understaffed, and over managed. I finally settled into a pretty good job, but so far there has been a constant threat of layoffs. To my surprise last Christmas, my high school sweetheart came back to be with me, only to depart suddenly after just a few months. Lately I’ve been feeling like the world is a giant mess. No matter what I do, my actions rarely lead to outcomes I expect. It seems everywhere I look no two people are not on fire.
This feeling isn’t new. I’ve been experiencing episodes of depression every few years since my first year of university. One of my best friends helpfully commented that I’m having a midlife crisis. Perhaps a liberal bout of drinking, debauchery, and travelling would cure me. He even graciously promised to accompany me for some of it. As tempting as my hedonistic friend’s itinerary sounds, I know that it would feel hollow to me in my current state. I need to pull myself together before the party starts. I have to give him credit though, because he got me thinking. What does a midlife crisis even mean?
The answers I found proved my friend eerily accurate in his assessment. I think what’s been bothering me all this time is existential depression, which is associated with the typical midlife crisis. The problem stems from four issues: death, absence of external structure, isolation, and meaninglessness.
- We all must die. Our lives are short, and severely limited by circumstance.
- We are all born into a random, unstructured world where we create structure.
- We are all alone – even the closest relationships can be taken from us.
- If we must live alone in a random, arbitrarily constructed world where everything is made up and the points don’t matter to await our imminent inevitable death, then what meaning does life have?
Choosing a Good Path
First year at university triggered my first episode of depression. I had doubts about the quality of the expensive education I had signed up for, and I was wondering if my choice of career was really the best path for me to follow. I felt like I had a more or less thrown a dart and picked a random degree. Time is limited, and committing five years (including co-op) and tens of thousands of dollars to a degree requires a lot of confidence in having chosen a good path. I was confident in my interest and ability in math and science, but to the exclusion of all else? Why engineering and not medicine, music, teaching, or pure science? I was equally confident in my ability to succeed elsewhere.
In retrospect, I was lacking the structure of my earlier life. Children are born into a family they didn’t choose. Their parents heavily influence their lives, and provide a lot of structure: where they live, where they go to school, what goals (and fears) they adopt in their early years. High school students don’t start choosing their own courses until the latter half of their diplomas. Then, suddenly, students are thrust into a world where they choose everything: the school they attend, the city they live in, all of the courses they take, what they eat for breakfast (I distinctly remember my roommate’s favourite breakfast of two cigarettes and a coffee), and their initial career direction. It’s no surprise I was feeling overwhelmed and disoriented. With a multitude of choices and little life experience, it is difficult to choose a good path. If you’re like me, and wanted to determine the best path, things get harder. How do you even know a best path exists? How can you find the best path with so many unknowns?
I resolved this initial crisis by asking myself two important questions. What would you rather do? Would things really get better, or would there be different aspects to love and hate? I couldn’t really answer those questions. Any other path I was interested in taking would be equally difficult, and some would be almost certainly less rewarding. The most reasonable option was to simply choose a good path. Since no degree seemed convincingly better than the one I had already signed up for, I decided that finishing my degree as quickly as possible would be best. A degree with requirements to work towards provided me the structure I needed in my life to resolve (but in reality, merely postpone) my depression.
Run Me Over, I’m Tired of Studying
By fourth year, I was exhausted and reaching my limits of handling university life. Lack of sleep, poor diet, and too much stress were catching up to me, and everyone around me. One of my best friends dropped out that year due to insomnia, and I began slipping into depression once again. Ironically, this was actually the first time my high school sweetheart came to visit me, before suddenly running away the next day. She later told me that she didn’t know how to handle a guy being genuinely loving toward her. I would consider it amusing if I knew for sure that we would be together eventually.
Around exam time, I distinctly recall several occasions where I was stepping into the street just a little too close in front of oncoming city busses. I considered the bus drivers in my city overly aggressive, and I was secretly daring them to hit me. Somehow I just didn’t care about my life anymore, and figured I wouldn’t have to write my exams if they hit me. Luckily the busses were well maintained, the drivers were more attentive and less aggressive than I imagined, and I wrote my exams well enough.
At this point, I wondered if my depression was partially external. Perhaps reading the news on a daily basis was depressing me. Mainstream news reports are often written with a heavy emphasis on attracting readers with a sensational story. Something newsworthy must have some extraordinary quality to it, which often ends up being shock value from some horrible, highly improbable, distant world event. I figured that maybe the news simply paints an unrealistically bad picture of the world, which really isn’t so bad after all. I reduced my consumption of news to a decent source for few minutes per day. I also investigated more user-centric (hopefully less biased) sources of information, like Reddit. I have since given up on Reddit, which isn’t so much of a news source as it is a cat photo repository.
Although banishing the news from my daily routine didn’t rid me of depression, it did cheer me up a little, and freed some time to read more substantive literature. I basically coasted the rest of my degree (which blessedly contained mainly electives), and graduation was a welcome relief. I took the summer off as reward for my hard work, and immersed myself in video games that summer (specifically Medieval II Total War) to get my mind off of my troubles. Sacking someone else’s castles has historically made miserable humans feel just a little better. My depression abated for a while, while Rome burned…
The Black Swan
As someone who likes to design, plan, and build, it’s a disturbing realization that life is dominated by severely volatile randomness that dictates the course of events. According to Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan, that’s exactly it. This is the very nature of the world we live in: unpredictable and random. Being educated can even make the experience worse by giving you the illusion of predictability or control in situations when you have very little (most situations).
I have only read the first half of the book, and I hope the remainder might provide me some insight into how to live in such a world. Maybe I can learn to enjoy my random walk with gelatinous monsters and different people on-fire. Like the hit-count on my obscure blog, the points don’t matter anyway…