Yesterday I learned a new phrase while reading a book: “negative capability”, which was coined by poet John Yeats in a letter to his friend. This was the author’s interpretation (that was slightly different from wikipedia):
“Sometimes the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads.”
Something clicked in me when I read that. That’s what good books do for me. They provide timely messages to me whenever I needed them, and my mind would do the work of interpreting them according to my context.
Two years ago I embarked on a life-changing journey when I left San Francisco. I had imagined this period in a multitude of ways in my head, but none of them really actualising to what I am experiencing now. I had thought months of uninterrupted rest would alleviate the symptoms of my burnout, but it has been two years (I did work part time for nine months in between), and I still experience chronic pain almost every day.
I experience survivor’s guilt, thinking of many other people who have similar chronic issues and yet their situations do not permit them to take a break. My illogical brain tries to guilt trip me into going back to employment so I can feel better about myself. But I think I would die slowly if I really did that. I’ve been reading up on what chronic stress does to the body physically and it is not pretty. The short version is: stress causes damage to our arteries and hormonal system (I’ll write an essay, but if you’re curious, read this).
I think about the chronic pain in my shoulders, neck, head and eyes as I am writing this, I could almost visualise my damaged arteries not only through chronic stress, but also lack of sleep, and lack of movement while spending 10-16 hours on the computer screen.
At this point I am not sure how long it is going to take. I am supplementing my rest with weekly doctor visits, exercise and a diet to the best of my capability, but there is just no date in sight.
That is a very scary thought, and it is enough to trigger my depression.
People ask me what I’m working on or how am I doing, and I tell them I still feel unwell. I look fine. I don’t know, should I contort my face perpetually to demonstrate my actual physical pain?
I got a lot done with that pain in the past. Simply by drinking a lot of coffee and operating on adrenaline, adrenaline fuelled by caffeine or the thought I am doing some good (yes I have a saviour complex).
Then I crash. Rinse and repeat. It is almost funny at this point, and there’s nothing much I can do except laugh at myself. The alternative is a lot of self-resentment.
But the pain got worse. Now I just feel like I’m on the verge of a migraine every other day, and I am lucky if my eyes feel well enough to type an essay.
I was feeling very sorry for myself the past few days, but reading Yeat’s quote grounded me. It is that craving for a sense of resolution, a completeness that is making me so unhappy. I was attached to an outcome, an outcome that I must get well, and get well soon. I must get well and realise all the ideas swimming in my head.
Suffering occurs when the reality is not matched to an expectation. There is a narrowness to what I think it should be. This is the first time in my life I truly have time, I want to make use of this time to create a ton of things. But it is not to be, not in the pace I imagined. At least for now, or for the foreseeable future.
Another realisation hit me while mulling. It is because of my illness that I am able to truly look at myself and think deeply about my issues. If I wasn’t ill, I would be running all over the place, expending my energy without thought or strategy, because I am so conditioned to ruthlessly produce. I am conditioned to think of rate of production as a measurement to my self-worth.
But now, I can’t really work in the long spurts I am used to, I am forced to be really strategic and picky about what I should do. I am forced to be bed-ridden some days and think, to examine my deep-rooted beliefs. I get time to clear out the noise and really drill down to what truly matters in this short span of my life. What is the life I wish to lead?
I think I am still finding out. If I am lucky, perhaps this period can be the foundation of the next stage of my life. If not, I wish to embrace whatever comes, to develop negative capability, to appreciate the truth of my story: the lucidity and agency to observe it all.