“Depressing shit”

24 May

It was brought to my attention, for the umpteenth time, that I like “really depressing shit.”  According to those who know me best, I “seek this shit out.” On Friday night, these comments came about as we discussed the racial tensions in South Africa post apartheid, and I recommended everyone read the book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah.

Ishmael is a little Sierra Leonean boy  visiting his grandmother’s village  when rebel army forces invade the area. They burn houses, pillage, rape, and shoot children, women, men, the elderly. Ishmael loses his friends, is turned away by villagers who suspect he may be part of the rebel forces, and spends weeks roaming the jungle alone.  He’s eventually caught by the rebel army and forced to fight with them or be killed. Drugs keep the ‘soldiers’ awake and violent. He eventually is rescued by a UNICEF backed group, and enters rehabilitation while living with an uncle in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown. Just as the reader stops sobbing and wipes away tears, the rebel forces invade the city.  He escapes narrowly and flees to the U.S.

I couldn’t stop reading the book, even though I wanted to at times. I cried quite a bit while reading it, and I just wanted this kid – all those kids, all those people – to get a fucking break. It’s an unending, unmerciful, nightmarish torturous existence, to live in these conditions.  And that kind of war, that kind of brutality happens today. Right now, as I sit in my air conditioned office, writing this blog post.

So my friends question why I read such books, watch “depressing” movies, and read sad poetry. I’m certainly not desensitized – this stuff makes me cry, it makes me sad, and it makes me feel small and insignificant often times, as though the grandest gesture I could ever make wouldn’t put a dent on people’s suffering. So why bother?

A lot of people think that the afterlife is what will save us all and erase all the pain our “souls” feel while on Earth. I don’t believe in that. I think we are born, then we die, and that’s the end of our individual lives. And if that’s the case (sure would seem like it, what with the thousands of years humans have been on Earth in just this manner), then I want to be as aware and connected with this world as I can, while I’m here. Poverty, sickness, injustice, death, and misery exist – it’s all part of the living experience. I’m thankful for the life I have, and I don’t think it’s necessary to throw my body in front of gunfire to “feel alive” – but I also don’t want to skip the “depressing” things about life, because they are real.

It’s easier to pretend that homeless people, lonely elderly people, or even incarcerated people don’t exist. It’s all very “depressing.” But even if it makes me feel sad, and I cry a little bit when I get back to my car, I feel like a human being when I look others in the eye, when I acknowledge them as people, and engage them as equals.

I was listening to a story on the radio about elderly women in African villages who are abused, killed, or expelled from their homes on charges of witchcraft – when a child gets sick or dies, the elderly are blamed for performing spells on them out of envy for their youth.  A woman was interviewed and told of how she’d been chased out of her village – the only place she’d ever lived her entire life. She’s now living in a shelter for women with similar life stories. She recounted details and though I relied on the translator, I also listened to her voice – I heard fatigue and detachment. But beyond her sadness, what she said at the end sticks with me the most, “I have a decent life here – I have food and shelter, what more can an old woman want? But I’m happy that you’re here. In all the years since I was chased out of my village and have been living here, not once did anyone ever ask about my life. This is the first time anyone cared, and it feels good to tell my story.”


9 Responses to ““Depressing shit””

  1. Mr. Apron May 24, 2010 at 15:25 #

    That’s it. I knew it. We’re kindred fucking spirits. I attend funerals for slain police officers and listen to old English folk ballads where the freshly devirginized red headed lass invariably gets stabbed through the heart by her jealous, incest-craving father.


  2. Martin May 24, 2010 at 17:11 #

    I like the post. For me, I have to keep my absorption of “depressing shit” in moderation.

    Late in ’09, I read “Crime and Punishment,” watched documentaries on the Khmer Rouge, visited the S-21 torture museum all within about a week.

    I was depressed for weeks, and not in an enlightened way, just in a “damn, everything sucks” kind of way.

    It’s good to want to be exposed to all parts of the human drama, but don’t forget the good, inspiring, and enlightening stuff either.

  3. Shayna May 25, 2010 at 17:02 #

    I like the last line of this post — and the truth is – I think – that even if it isn’t happy and smiley, the honest stories are the most satisfying (although the happy smiley fantasies also have their place!)

  4. Hanley June 1, 2010 at 15:05 #

    Great post. My friends find me to be “heavy” and “depressing” at times too. My argument is usually along the lines that people try to avoid or ignore the bad stuff in life and just hopes it doesn’t fall on them to deal with any of it. Well somebody has to confront all of it and carry it with them so the ignorant or naive can remain as such.

    There are fewer of us who actively persue reality in all it’s instances. I think to do what you, I or others do in exposing ourselves to the sad part of life requires empathy. It seems empathy is an emotion that is nearly lost in most societies.

    • Juliana June 9, 2010 at 19:47 #

      more empathy, less paper pushing 😉

  5. Kelsey June 9, 2010 at 18:22 #

    I’m the same way! I intentionally read about sad things and watch movies that I know will make me cry. For me, I think it’s just because I’m generally a very happy person and movies/books/articles that are so sad and “real world”-esque just really put things into perspective.

  6. eemusings June 9, 2010 at 18:51 #

    I asked myself this after watching a string of totally depressing movies, the last one being Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

    Why? Why do I do it to myself?

    Because, like you say, it makes me feel human. Because we need to remember that these things are going on around us. Because I want to learn and to understand the world I live in. That’s why I’m trying to read up about the Middle East conflict, among other things – I want to be a real citizen of Earth.

  7. Tiffany June 10, 2010 at 07:17 #

    It’s not uncommon for people to want to live in blissful ignorance. I choose the diverge from that policy. My family and countrymen have shared stories of struggle and endurance. To forget their experience would be most disrespectful. Although it does sadden me to know so many were taken advantage of, I think it makes me better to know – so I am able to appreciate the life I live. It really bothers me when people want to ignore the reality of the situation. It really, really, bothers me.

  8. annah June 21, 2010 at 11:57 #

    Depressing shit also equates real shit, so we all have to have a bit of it in our lives. I LOVED that book. Read it in less than 8 hours in one sitting. AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING! Highly recommend.

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