How My Father’s Suicide Taught Me to ‘Just Be’
Nine months ago, I stood at my father’s burial trying to gather my thoughts before speaking about his life to family and friends. It was particularly difficult because I had arrived at a day I had been trying to prevent and had feared, for a long time. My dad had ended his life. Then, as I was standing there searching for the words, I remembered an article I had read only seven days prior. It was about ways to help yourself feel safe in an insane world. So I began by sharing what I had learned:
That “anxiety needs the future” and “depression needs the past.”
My dad struggled deeply from both of these things: His fear and lack of control over all that lay ahead, and his regret over the things he couldn’t go back and change. He struggled from an unhealthy relationship with time. He lost his footing in the here-and-now. It made him struggle, as all too many of us do, with the age-old Shakespearean dilemma, “To be, or not to be.”
Though it’s still difficult for me to admit it, this very question had begun to plague my mind just six months before my father died, during my own first battle with anxiety. So as I stood there with my father about to be lowered into the ground with many knowing eyes upon me, I shared an answer the article had given: to “be present.” It was an answer that spoke to my heart. So I told them, in that moment, and as hard a moment as it was, I was grateful to be with them.
Ever since that day, I have been thinking a lot about being present. I’ve been thinking about being centered, being grounded. In short, I’ve been thinking about being. I began wondering why it was so difficult to come up with a concrete meaning for what was perhaps the most basic verb in the English language, without consulting the online search-engine gods. I worried whether I forgotten what it was to just “be.”
Eventually, I turned to Google, and this is what it had to say:
Be /bē/ (verb.):
- occupy a position in space.
- stay in the same condition.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, I’m not so sure to be honest. After all, the word “be” is actually most commonly used in its fourth meaning: “possess the state, quality or nature specified.” This is when “be” is followed by other words rather than a period. Other, sometimes aspirational, words used by and for us humans like “smart,” “healthy,” “hardworking,” “good-looking” or “athletic.” The list goes on and on.
After some thinking on the subject, I began to wonder if the pressure of focusing on the many things we know we are supposed to “be” but sometimes fall short of (or believe we fall short of) diminishes our ability to more simply be. “To be” in the traditional, unembellished sense is to be comfortable in our own skin, to be one with ourselves and our surroundings, to be at peace (i.e. definitions 1-3 above).
I guess my question really is have we as a society forgotten how to just be?
Ironically, I think it’s when we constantly try to “be” too many things at once (or perhaps one astronomical thing) we entirely forget how to exist with any amount of calmness and composure in the present moment. When stressed beyond our normal capacity, our minds scatter and it can feel like we aren’t even inhabiting our own body. We can end up spiraling out of control and losing our sense of place, time and self. We land somewhere dark, frightening and terrible. It’s then, when we get to the bottom of that downward spiral, that we think it might be better simply “not to be.” Because at that point, the thought of being anything at all has become unbearable.
I know it all too well. I’ve been there once for a horrific, acute six-week stint, and I hope never to be brought back again. So, in the spirit of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I thought I’d share how I go about keeping anxiety and depression at bay. Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about just being. More than that, I’ve been putting it into practice. I’ve learned how to quiet my mind and focus on the present moment. I meditate, breathe and practice yoga. Building from that, I write, read, run and do all the things I’ve always enjoyed.
Here’s what’s different: I’m newly practicing mindfulness and gratitude all the while. I’m ensuring my brain is present where my body is. I’m making the effort to focus and mentally expand upon on all the simple things that keep me going. It’s through this present-tense state of mind that I find my rhythm, my sense of calm and my appreciation for all that is.
Now, to be honest, it doesn’t always come easy (even for a mentally healthy, happy, neurotransmitter-balanced brain). In fact, it truly takes constant effort. If, God forbid, there is to be a future struggle in store for me, then I also know better how to take it back to the basics. I know how to close my eyes, to find myself and to be. To truly just be.
Perhaps that is part of our answer.
This post originally appeared on The Washington Post.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.