Prior to and during my Meltdown year, if I had been asked directly about my religious beliefs I would have identified myself as agnostic. My dad attended the Methodist Church while he was a child, and I was baptized in that church as an infant. My maternal grandfather was a pastor in the Missionary Church, so my mom attended church three times a week while growing up. In spite of my parents being raised with regular church attendance, we didn’t go to church regularly when I was a child. I’m not sure exactly why this was the case, but I think this lack of religious education left a place for me to develop beliefs based on my own experience of the world rather than any particular religious doctrine. Unfortunately, my experience of the world as a child involved personal trauma and the death of my brother, Eddie. Both of these life impacting events led to my belief that the world is a harsh place and to me questioning the existence of God in light of such terrible events.
I don’t wish to offend anyone of any religious faith. Religion works for many people all over the world. But everyone has their own beliefs and I personally do not support organized religion. Too much hypocrisy, hate, killing and war has been done in the name of, and with the support of various religions over the course of history. I believe a person can be spiritual without going to church.
However, even though I would have said I was agnostic before 2003 I suppose I could have been called a Cafeteria Christian, as I believed in a few concepts consistent with Christianity. For instance, I believed in heaven and angels. I think I incorporated these into my belief system as a child in response to Eddie’s death from cancer at the age of four and a half. I was told then by my parents and all of my extended family members that Eddie had gone to heaven and had become an angel. This was a comforting thought to me as a child, and remains comforting to me as an adult as I’ve lost other loved ones. I believe that my dad, Aunt Sue, Grandpa, and even Epiphany are in heaven with Eddie, along with all of my other loved ones.
When I was a senior in high school, I was introduced to Existential philosophy in an Advanced Placement English class. Existentialism isn’t an inherently negative philosophy, but the concepts that attracted me reinforced my negative belief system. The phrase used to describe Existentialism is “existence precedes essence.” In other words, we are not born with meaning or purpose to our lives, so we must create it ourselves. Adolescence was a particularly vulnerable time for me, in hindsight, as I was dealing with the impact of sexual abuse and probably the beginning of bipolar symptoms. It’s not surprising that I became particularly interested in Existential philosophy, as it felt consistent with my depression and many of my life experiences.
In creating a purpose for myself and meaning in my life, I focused on helping abused and neglected children. I did this through my career in mental health. This purpose, which had become my identity, was threatened by my Meltdown which contributed to my despair. Also, when I was younger I assumed that I would create meaning in my life by getting married, maybe having children, and owning a home. The fact that I had none of these things also added more and more to my sense of despair as I got older. I compared myself to peers who did have these things, and it depressed me.
Absurdity, another existential concept that caught my attention, refers to the fact that the world is a harsh and indifferent place, uncaring whether someone “deserves” to have something bad happen to them. What happens, just happens. Things like child abuse, genocide, and the death of innocent children all exist because of the absurdity of life, according to existential philosophy. In my experience, Eddie was just a child so he obviously did nothing to deserve to suffer with cancer and die. My parents were a young, hardworking couple when Eddie got sick. They did nothing to deserve the pain of watching their innocent child die. Growing up with the legacy of Eddie’s death as well as my personal experience with trauma contributed to my negative view of the world as an absurd place, as did my work with abused and neglected children.
In existentialism, human beings have free will which causes anxiety, or angst. An example of existential angst that my high school teacher described is a situation in which you are standing on a cliff. You are not only afraid you will fall, you are also afraid you might jump. I have often experienced this when I’m depressed while driving my car. During the summers while I was in college I worked at a wholesale bakery I called “The Bakery from Hell,” because it was so hot inside. The twenty minute drive to work took me along a curvy stretch of road along the river that was lined with trees. As I drove to work I sometimes pictured myself driving into one of the trees along the route. This example of angst, along with many others, continued to happen whenever I was depressed. I have experienced a lot of angst during my lifetime.
So in 2003 my world view was pretty ugly. My beliefs could be summed up by the phrase “Life sucks and then you die.” I questioned the existence of God in such a hostile world in which horrible things happened to innocent people. Working with abused children and their families reinforced this issue. I was pessimistic in general, and expected the worst of life.
This is the world view Sharon tried to address by making me CDs in response to the CDs I made for her. Accessing and expressing my emotions was not something I did well. I related to my emotions through music, and making CDs for Sharon allowed me to express to her how I felt. My songs were filled with negativity and pain and reflected my dark world view. Sharon countered my negativity with positive songs and notes, full of hope and life. Rather than listening to my depressing CDs when I was feeling suicidal, I could listen to one of the CDs she made.
One of the CDs I made for Sharon in 2003 was less about expressing my emotions and instead was specifically meant to help her understand my world view. I called it “The Roots of My Perspective” and wrote notes to go with each song, discussing how the song impacted my belief system. Sharon wrote notes of her own about this CD, discussing her views on the songs. While she shared my opinions in general about many of the songs, she managed to put a more positive spin on them than I had:
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding- Elvis Costello
Robin’s note–This song is a general description of the basis of my dark perspective of life, so it seemed like a natural place to begin. See, this song isn’t depressing sounding at all, yet still makes the point that a lack of peace, love, and understanding are at the root of much of society’s ugliness.
Sharon’s response–I think it’s ironic that I had already been thinking about including this song on a CD for you when you put it on your “Roots” CD. The ironic part is that you see it as a reinforcement of your world view, and I focus on the fact that peace, love, and understanding are the key to life’s purpose. I guess it all depends on your perspective.
I Don’t Like Mondays- Boomtown Rats
Robin’s note–Song about an incidence of school violence in England that occurred prior to the major events in this country. Guns are much less common in England than in the U.S., making this that much more of a shock. Too bad we didn’t learn anything from this incident. Everybody wants to blame someone else for the increased child violence in the U.S., and nothing gets done about it. Just one among many reasons to be cynical about politics.
Sharon’s response– I have no idea what it is about this song, but it plays over and over in my head after I listen to it. I think it is a great depiction of the “madness” of guns being so available, and the need to pay more attention to what’s going on with our kids. I am as cynical about politics as you are, and feel discouraged about the problems in our country (and, obviously other countries as well). But, I try to stay focused on what I can do within my own small piece of the world, and on “staying centered” despite the madness.
Pride (In the Name of Love)- U2
Robin’s note–Discusses the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who fought to make a difference in the fight against racism. Forty years later we still haven’t fulfilled his dream.
Sharon’s response–Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man and this is a great song honoring him. I believe that he fulfilled his purpose in life by speaking out so eloquently against racism at a time when few people were doing so. I think his assassination may have actually contributed to his message being heard more strongly by so many people. Although his dream has still not been fulfilled completely, we’ve come a long way since then. We still remember him and his message 40 years later, which is a testament to his influence.
Dust Bowl- 10,000 Maniacs
Robin’s note–A very poignant song about poverty in this country. I could’ve picked almost any song from 10,000 Maniacs and it would’ve been issue related.
Sharon’s response–This song affected me emotionally too. It stirs up my strong feelings about the whole issue of how money (lack of it, inability to manage it, materialism issues, etc.) impacts people emotionally in profound ways. This is something I talk to people in therapy about all the time, and was one of the reasons I started to encourage you to file bankruptcy and give yourself a fresh start. In general, I think that we as a society do not do enough to educate people about how to manage their money (I think it should be taught to children in school).
Me and A Gun- Tori Amos
Robin’s note–One of the less pleasant songs I included, but it’s about an ugly topic so I went ahead. Covers the emotions of rape fairly well. This song makes my skin crawl sometimes (unless I have time to detach first).
Sharon–Wow…what a powerful song! I am impressed that you said you can detach enough to listen to it. Sometime we will talk more about this, when you are ready (we’ve got other work to do first).
Hold Her Down- Toad the Wet Sprocket
Robin’s note–Way too peppy of a song for the topic of rape- you’d never know the topic if you don’t listen carefully to the lyrics.
Sharon’s response–I have a harder time listening to this song than the last one. I think it’s because it highlights the perspective of the perpetrator, which I have great difficulty understanding or tolerating. This song emphasizes the complete lack of respect or empathy that some men have toward women, which just horrifies and angers me.
Chile- Toad the Wet Sprocket
Robin’s note–This song is specifically about the imprisonment of people in Chile for the expression of beliefs contrary to the ruling political party, but can be generalized to many nations. In spite of all its faults, we are lucky to live in this country, I suppose.
Sharon’s response–Yes, we are very lucky to live in this country, despite its problems. I try to remember this often. It’s all about perspective. I think it is important to clarify and express our feelings about the “madness” in the world, as a way to get clear about and to express who we are. But beyond that, where we focus our energy on an ongoing basis impacts us and our ability to carry out our true purpose in life. Although I feel strongly about many of the same issues you do, I try to focus as much of my attention as possible on what I am grateful for, and on what I have control over rather than issues I can’t control. I try to do what keeps me energized, so that I can influence what I do have control over in a positive way.
Ask Me- Amy Grant
Robin’s note–I’m sure you’re familiar with this song, which is about sexual abuse. I know you’d prefer that I focus on the ending, but I’m far from that place. In my opinion, sexual abuse is one of the most shameful things to happen to a child; it definitely damages my psyche and self-concept to a point at which I wonder if I can be changed. Certainly a major factor in my perspective on life…
Sharon’s response– I agree with you that sexual abuse is one of the most shameful things that can be done to a child, and that it has impacted you in profound ways. But I know it is very possible to heal, Robin. I hope that someday soon you will be able to relate more to the second part of the song.
I Just Shot John Lennon- The Cranberries
Robin’s note–Another song about gun violence and the focus on entertainers in this country. Guns are way too accessible, even to mentally ill people who obsess about stars.
Sharon’s response–Sorry…couldn’t get past the frantic guitar and drums. This song is too hard for me to listen to (the sound, not the words). But, I wholeheartedly agree with you about the whole issue of guns being too available.
Talkin ‘Bout A Revolution- Tracy Chapman
Robin’s note–This one’s about poor people claiming their share of what life has to offer. Unfortunately, this revolution gets less likely each year as the state and federal governments continue to cut money for programs designed to assist the poor. Another issue that my work as a case manager emphasized. I didn’t grow up wealthy, but we never lacked for anything and pretty much got anything we wanted. Working with kids who didn’t have any toys really opened my eyes.
Sharon’s response–Unfortunately, I think this kind of revolution is less likely than the politicians making slow progress toward reforming the welfare system. I am very cynical about politics and generally get frustrated even listening to politicians, but the optimist in me believes we will make gradual change in the right direction in spite of the politicians. The way it works is that an issue needs to reach a crisis level where it affects enough people that it gets the attention of the politicians. This usually means they then have to do something to keep enough people happy enough to get re-elected. It is terrible, but this is the way positive change usually happens within our existing political system… it’s a process like everything else. I think it will work this way eventually with many issues including welfare reform, health care reform, re-vamping the social security system and the education system.
Sharon and I ended up exchanging many different CDs and notes about them during 2003 and the following couple of years. It didn’t have an immediate impact on my world view, but at least I wasn’t reinforcing my dark thoughts by listening to hopeless music. As I kept listening, with Sharon’s perspective about each song in mind, my negative world view began to slowly tilt toward a more positive outlook on life.
The CDs and the notes that accompanied them became an integral part of my treatment. Changing my negative world view, which was accomplished through the use of music and also reading spiritual books, became an intervention that helped me, over time, become less prone to depression and more able to bounce back from it when it happened.
Coming Next: Chapter Four–Rock Bottom