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Finding Meaning for Suffering and Life

 

No one likes suffering. Suffering is evil. 

Modern Americans are determined to eliminate pain. We keep patenting stronger painkillers, designing softer and stretchier clothes, and inventing new ways for mattresses to perfectly conform to our temperature demands. 

But at the same time, many of us deliberately inflict pain on ourselves. On the healthier end of the spectrum, people work out and brag about their sore muscles, or proudly complain about their strict diets. Military boot camps are made deliberately miserable, partly to encourage physical and mental toughness, but also to give the soldiers a sense of unity and pride, since they succeeded where others did not. More unhealthily, some people form addictions to tattoos and body piercings, and finally there are the sad and desperate people who cut or otherwise abuse themselves. 

But why? Pain is always seen as something to be avoided. No one likes pain. And yet people deliberately seek it out. 

Reasons people seek pain

This is by no means a phenomenon which is limited to 21st century Americans. Most cultures have some ritual practice which involves discomfort if not actual pain. Many of these practices are religious in origin, such as fasting for Christians–and the Lenten fast used to be much stricter than it is now–or dangling yourself off hooks on procession floats for Hindus

Others are more social. In many tribal cultures boys need to prove themselves men by suffering some sort of ordeal–sometimes a prolonged, horrifying one. Girls too are often expected to undergo painful rituals to prepare them for adulthood. These ceremonies simply indicate that the initiate is now part of the tribal group, with all its rights and privileges. 

But pain remains something that humans try to avoid, and rightly so. Pain is a signal our body sends that something is wrong. Pain, except considered as information, is a physical evil. And so pain cannot be sought for its own sake. This would be contrary to human nature, which is ineradicably directed towards goodness. Why then do people in every place and every time seem to seek it out? 

While some more or less imbalanced people seek physical pain as a counter-irritant to mental pain, or in a misguided attempt to assuage feelings of guilt, the majority of people who deliberately undergo physical pain are looking for something else.

Everything worthwhile has a price

Nature teaches us that all good things come at a price. The beautiful flower must shrivel and die to produce the seed-bearing fruit, and the seed in its turn must die to produce a new plant. Trees must die to provide shelter and heat for humans, and animals must die so that other animals can live. No child is born into the world without pain. 

Everything worth having comes at a price, and for humans, the highest price is the price of pain. 

So painful tribal initiation rites, though some of the more horrifying are probably satanic perversions, have their purpose. Undergoing an excruciating initiation rite does not indicate a desire for pain as such. Rather it expresses the initiate’s desire to accomplish something great, something deeply worthwhile. If achieving full adult membership in a tribe comes only at tremendous cost, it must be worth a tremendous amount. What we value most we pay the most for, and vice versa. 

Religious rites that cause pain or discomfort are similarly logical. The purpose of religion is to honor God. And how can we as humans show that we value God above ourselves but by paying some price? Sacrifice of some valued object is a common element in pagan religious rituals, as is undergoing physical pain, mutilation, and even human sacrifice. The idea is that the favors asked of the gods are worth something, and the worshipper is willing to pay that price. The greater the favor, the higher the price. 

The Christian view

Christianity transforms this idea into something nobler. In Christianity, religion is not a servile grovelling for favors, but a simple recognition that God is God and we are creatures.  Fasting has always been a part of the Christian tradition. By fasting and other penances encouraged or allowed by the Church, the Christian shows himself and God that he values God and God’s laws more than he values himself and his own comfort. Religious vows–like the vow of celibacy that Catholic priests and religious take, or the vow of poverty that some religious take–take this idea even further.  The religious is saying that God is more important than even his primal human instincts to own property and reproduce. 

Even outside the realm of religious sacrifice, Christians also believe that pain and suffering can have real value in helping people grow in virtue. But Christianity also forbids mutilation, and encourages people to seek good health and happiness, and to alleviate the pain of others.

So Christianity and human nature seem to agree that pain is both valuable and to be avoided. And while this might seem like a contradiction, it is resolvable, because it’s not really about the pain. Many of us face frustration, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. But these sufferings, while they can be so painful as to overwhelm the spirit, do not build up the person in any way. You cannot strive against a feeling of pointlessness in your life, or achieve moral victory over depression. No spiritual writer recommends feeling anxiety as a way to God. 

It is not about the pain. Pain and discomfort in and of themselves are evil. Being more uncomfortable is not the recipe for virtuous living. 

Meaningful effort

What is necessary for both human flourishing and Christian perfection is not suffering as such, but meaningful effort. 

We humans need to strive. We need to overcome obstacles on the way to meaningful goals. What are games if not artificial obstacles we create so that we can overcome them? But there has to be a goal, a meaning to make the struggle worthwhile. 

The endurance required by tribal rituals is given meaning by the social context. However brutal these rituals might be, they are undergone because they give the participant a sense that he has accomplished something worthwhile. And when he joins the brotherhood of his tribe as a full adult, having passed the test, he is closer to his fellow tribesmen than he would be without that test. 

Suffering the pains of childbirth for the sake of a new life is meaningful. It is hard—I’ve done it three times, twice with no pain meds—but the results are worth it. 

Suffering the pains that hard physical labor brings in order to grow food for your family’s survival; that too is meaningful. But most of us have never had to do it, and that—I think—is a good thing. It is good that most humans do not have to work every waking hour to provide a bare survival diet… but with our prosperity and comfort comes the cost of having to find a new struggle. 

Finding meaning in ordinary life

Christianity offers meaning. The sufferings Christians undergo, whether chosen as penance, or simply accepted as God’s will, are given meaning by our Faith, and bring us closer to God. The connection between these actions (or sufferings) and their supernatural meaning is hard to see, however. 

To suffer discouragement and depression for the salvation of souls… where is the connection? Suffering loneliness for the good of your country? How does that work? 

We suffer, not the same way other Christians in other times and places have suffered, but we do suffer. No Roman emperors stand by with racks, whips and ravening lions to test our Faith. The specter of starvation rarely lifts in head—the last major famine in the West was over 100 years ago. Even the fast of Lent prescribed by the Church has been mitigated. 

Our sufferings come from health problems, financial worries, family drama, worry over our children’s future. And even if we manage to escape from those, mental anguish, loneliness, frustration, the pain of misunderstanding lie in wait. We might surround ourselves with more and more physical comforts and distractions to drown it out, but we cannot escape the suffering in our own minds. 

But this suffering is unconnected to anything. It is not the result of striving—as the pains of childbirth or physical labor are. It is the opposite. It is the result of having nothing to aim for, no goal on the other side of our obstacles. 

To be happy healthy humans, that is to say, virtuous humans, we need to strive for a difficult goal. It is the nature of humans to shrivel without a goal to live for. 

But what goal? And how shall we strive? What mission can we undertake? 

Yes, we strive for salvation. Yes, we strive to follow the commandments. We raise our families. We do our jobs. We do routine maintenance, the million sisyphean tasks of housekeeping and parenting. These things must be done. And we can “offer them up” along with our physical and mental pain. Spiritual writers like St Therese of Lisieux assure us that these tasks and pains and struggles can bring us closer to God, if taken in the right way. Far be it from me to contradict St Therese. 

What if we need more?

I wonder sometimes, however, if we expect too much from our mental muscles. It is hard to see the connection between routine tasks done every day (even with a morning offering) and the glorious service of God.  It is hard to see how renewing car registration paperwork or suburban loneliness relate to the passion and death of the God-man and the work of salvation. Maybe you, reader, are capable of this mental workout. I personally find it all but impossible. 

Much of the life of a religious involves the same daily grind as the life of a layperson. Monks and nuns have to take showers, scrub dishes, cook meals, and tidy things up, just like laypeople. But their lives are dedicated directly to the service of God, and everything about their rule is designed to remind them of this fact. They wear a uniform and live together with others who have made the same consecration. They have scheduled prayers and activities. 

The religious rule is, of course, not applicable to married people like myself. It would be inappropriate for me to wear a religious habit. The very existence of babies—those maddening and delightful creatures—renders order and schedule and fixed prayer (or sleep) routines impracticable. As for life in community—well, I do believe in single family dwellings and the autonomy of the married couple, within reason. 

Is it possible though that we spend more effort than necessary in doing the mental gymnastics of trying to see connection between our Faith and the daily grind, when perhaps what we should be looking for is a way to make more connection between them? 

I haven’t yet come up with a solution to this question. Are active and dynamic religious third orders for married people the answer?  Or community living and radical charity as practiced in the Catholic Worker houses associated with Tradistae? Stronger parish associations? 

We don’t need more suffering in our lives. What we need are more reasons to suffer. We need friends who will suffer and pray with us and for us; who will hold us accountable and encourage us. We need concrete goals to work for, a way of bringing our Faith to life in physical reality.

I don’t know what this looks like. If you have any ideas, please share them with me. 

 

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A Few of My Favorite Parenting Books

When I run into a challenge my instinct is often to go to the library and check out all the books on the subject and skim through them looking for useful advice on the subject. Parenting, as anyone who has ever done it will (I assume) tell you, is most definitely a challenge. And so I have read a LOT of parenting books. Several were merely boring. A few I actively detested (Sorry, all you people who love BabyWise.) But there were a few that I genuinely loved. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites with you today.

Why I like these books (and not some of the others)

Before I get into the books, though, I’d like to explain why I liked these books and didn’t like the others. 

First, I’ve personally had zero success with any corporal punishment based systems of child discipline. (Doctor Dobson’s books aren’t on this list) I know lots of parents seem to get great results that way, but it doesn’t work with my kids. I also have problems with the idea of teaching my children by example that when people upset us we hit them. It’s very hard for me to see how a system of physical discipline can avoid this philosophical pitfall. 

Secondly, my goal in raising children is to help them become confident, adaptable, and free adults. Any system that treats children as Pavlovian dogs, or tries to apply the methods of horse or dog training to the education and development of children seems deeply flawed to me. I don’t want to raise compliant robots, or well-trained dogs, but interesting and adaptable people who will ask questions, take initiative, and try new things—but who will also hold fast to a few vital principles, and feel secure enough to take calculated risks and form their own strong relationships as adults. Therefore I want my discipline system to leave a lot of room for choice and initiative at every stage of development

Lastly, children have free will and intellects and should be treated as if they do. I understand that humans are animals too, and that there is some overlap in methodology, but I want methods that emphasize and respect the humanity of the child to be raised. Therefore, I want every discipline strategy to both produce the desired behavioral result, and model a virtuous reaction. 

These books are all easy to read, treat both children and parents with respect, and seem to have a pretty balanced idea of what children are, and are not, capable of. 

Bringing up Bebe

I think I’ve mentioned this one here before. Pamela Druckerman is an American woman who moved to France and had a kid. She tells a lot of hilarious stories (some adult humor) about raising an American child in France. This book is especially useful for its ideas on how to deal with clingy children and picky eaters. It helped me have a lot more fun with parenting, mainly just by encouraging me to micromanage my children less. 

As a result of reading this book, I now let my children play on playground equipment without hovering. And you know what? I love being able to relax at the park, and they love being allowed to do their thing. And if I leave them alone and do my own thing, it turns out they are surprisingly good at calculating risk, even as young as 18 months.

Hunt, Gather, Parent

A journalist had a baby…. And then didn’t know what to do with the screaming toddler it grew into. So, she put her journalist hat back on and decided to interview some behavioral scientists and investigate what certain other cultures do with their difficult young offspring. 

What I loved about this book is that it’s got three different threads, that the author braids together into a compelling and enjoyable narrative. Firstly, she visits three indigenous cultures that have traditional child-rearing methods that result in respectful, helpful, confident teens and adults. Second, she talks to behavioral scientists and presents the current understanding of behavioral forces like motivation, skill acquisition, and incentives, and shows how different parenting strategies presented in the book measure up to the science. 

And thirdly, and perhaps most entertainingly, she presents how all of these new ideas and methods worked on her own rambunctious three-year-old. 

I really enjoyed this book—couldn’t put it down. It was funny, made me feel like I wasn’t doing all that badly with my own children, and encouraged me to do things like let my just-barely-four-year-old crack eggs and then scramble them for the family…. She was actually pretty good at it! 

Another thing I appreciated about this book was her call for stronger social networks and communities to support parents in their parenting. She explains very compellingly why “it takes a village to raise a child,” and gives practical tips on building your own village to help you, even in the middle of a big city. 

How to Speak so Little Kids will Listen

 

This book is a well-written and highly practical guide to teaching your child communication and social skills while disciplining effectively. It goes through a large number of typical problems pre-rational children present, and suggests multiple strategies for dealing with them. Every child and every parent is different, and this book encourages you to find a tailored approach that works for your child. 

My favorite thing about this book was the idea of “problem solving.” If you have a toddler who is consistently resisting some seemingly basic rule or task, there’s usually a reason behind it. The problem-solving method helps you walk through a strategy for figuring out why the child doesn’t want to do the thing, resolving the issue, and figuring out a way to make both the child and the parent happy. An excellent example from the book is the toddler who doesn’t want his hand held while crossing the busy parking lot. The book encourages parents in this situation to figure out why the toddler doesn’t want his hand held, and then work with the kid to come up with a solution that does work. (I had this problem, and the solution we worked out for us was for my daughter to hold onto the shopping cart instead. Our shopping trips have been much more pleasant.) What I liked about this strategy was that I feel like it models relationship skills. This sort of problem-solving behavior where each side presents their difficulties and they work together to find a solution where both parties feel respected and get what they need is absolutely vital to a successful marriage or friendship. If you want your kids to grow up with the skills to manage conflict constructively in their lives, I highly recommend giving some of the ideas in this book a try. 

Some of the ideas in the book come across as very silly, but, as the book points out, sometimes silly works. 

The New Six Point Plan for Raising Happy Healthy Children

This book, unlike the previous three, is mostly about raising older children. John Rosemond handles topics like argumentative teenagers, allowances, and in general, managing kids incentives so that they develop the virtues and qualities you want them to as they grow up. 

One of my favorite things in this book was the idea of teaching your teenager how to argue with you. Tolerate absolutely no disrespect from your child, but absolutely allow him to present his case, and if he has a good case, by all means compromise with him where appropriate. Once again, I appreciated this approach because it not only increases child cooperation, it also teaches an incredibly valuable social skill—disagreeing with someone else respectfully. (Imagine how much better American political life would be today if every parent taught their children how to disagree respectfully!)

 

Affiliate links if you want to buy these books, (and support my blog at no extra cost to you.) Or, of course, you can just do what I do, and get them from your local library.

Buy Bringing up Bebe

Buy Hunt Gather Parent

Buy How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen

Buy The Six Point Plan for Raising Healthy Kids 

(Disclaimer: I have three children, but the oldest is only 4… so it’s unclear how they’ll turn out. That being said, I do have several years experience teaching middle and highschoolers.)

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No More Polite Lies

I recently heard it said that white lies were the lubricant of society—that everyone lies constantly and that social life would be intolerable if we didn’t. If you go to a dinner party and the conversation was mediocre and the food bland, you say, “It was delicious and I had a wonderful time.” A lie…. But doesn’t society work better when everyone tells that sort of lie? When we smooth out the rough edges of reality for our neighbors, and let them see only what they want to see? 

This is merciful. This is right. Or at the very least, it’s how you have to do things to be liked. Or so we tell ourselves. But this is itself a lie, a deeply destructive one. 

“White lies” rob the hearer

Perhaps white lies take the sting out of failure, but they also take the shine from achievement. 

Let’s suppose I host a dinner party—as all who are able should—and it is an utter failure, but people tell me, “I had such a great time. Your cooking is fabulous.” In their mind, they are sparing me embarrassment, making me feel better, and in general being good, responsible friends. But I am not an idiot. I know if I did a decent job cooking or not. I know if I planned badly and invited an incompatible group of people. Their praise will fall flat.

Worse, if my failures are praised as wonderful, what about when I think I have succeeded? Will I receive the same feedback? Will I be told, “I had such a great time. Your cooking is fabulous?” If I am told I succeeded when I didn’t, how will I know when I have really done something good? There will always be that lingering doubt. “Maybe they’re just saying that to make me feel better?” 

Imagine for a moment how glorious it would be to know that no one would ever tell you a lie about yourself to make you feel better. That any praise you received was the person’s absolutely sincere and convinced opinion.

“White lies” are not the only way to be polite. 

This is not to say that we should say whatever nasty thoughts come to the top of our minds all the time. Telling all of the truth all of the time is hardly the right answer. It would be horribly impolite and possibly even cruel to tell the hostess of a dinner party, “I was bored out of my mind and the roast was dry.” But it’s not as though there are only two options: either be rude or lie. 

Suppose the meal was really terrible. Suppose you were bored out of your mind. Was nothing about the experience good? Maybe as you leave you can tell the hostess, “Thank you so much for inviting us. That was such a lovely bouquet you had on your table.” Or “That pie was good.” If you honestly cannot think of a single truthful compliment—and I think it would have to have been a remarkably bad evening for that—then simply say, “Thank you so much for inviting us.” 

It is not rude. And you have not degraded the truth by saying it. 

“White lies” rob the teller

To go back to our failed dinner party—not that anyone wants to go back to one of those—imagine that you do always fall back on the white lie so that you don’t have to say the unpleasant things in your mind. Then there’s no motivation for you to change the things you notice. It’s not socially unacceptable to have negative thoughts… just to express them. Even if you never express your unpleasant thoughts, they still poison you. You will come home from that lousy dinner party after telling the hostess what a wonderful time you had and how much you enjoyed the food, and your thoughts will be something like this: “Wow. What a waste of an evening. What horrible food. I really can’t stand that one guy who was there telling lame jokes. I should just stay home next time someone invites me out. It would save a lot of trouble. I’m so disappointed in humanity.” 

But now suppose for a moment that you had made a pact with yourself never to say anything you did not honestly think. You would have to search your mind for something positive about the evening. Perhaps there was nice wine, or maybe the hostess set the table in an elegant way. Perhaps you were just grateful to get out of the house and the dinner party was an excuse.

Whatever the case, you are now looking for the positive. Courteous truthfulness is like keeping a gratitude journal. It forces you to look beyond the negative and see the other story you could be telling yourself. 

Let’s start being courteously truthful instead of telling polite lies. It makes everyone’s life better, starting with yours. 

 

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Three surprising ways small children make you better 

Sometimes when you’re in the midst of parenting tiny humans, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative. They scream a lot. They make messes. They keep you from having a sane sleep schedule. Having babies makes you gain weight. They make most adult activities harder. 

All of this is true. Kids can be a pain. But they have their pluses. And I’m not even talking about the obvious things, like their cuteness, their innocence, or their humanness. Though that’s all true too. 

I’m not here to tell you to “enjoy those special moments; they’re only small for awhile.” It’s great when you can take the time to try to notice how cute your kids are…but maybe what you actually need right now is some sleep, or some adult conversation, not a few more toddler cuddles. Take care of yourself. Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, so you have to pace yourself (wow…could I be more cliche?)

Maybe a better way to put it is that parenting is a lifestyle, and you need to make sure it’s a sustainable lifestyle, not a constant survival mode. If you’re a counselor at a summer camp, it’s okay to push yourself to the limits of your endurance, because the camp will be over in a week or two, and you’ll be able to rest up. Parenting is never really over, so you need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself properly the whole way through. 

Parenting is hard. Your kids take a lot out of you sometimes, and it can be hard to find the time to do necessary self care.

But kids add things besides cuteness now and possible future grandkids down the road. Here’s a few things I’ve noticed my kids do for me–when I let them. (I find that I’m more ready to receive these blessings from my children when I’m not sleep deprived or starving for adult company. So this is absolutely NOT saying that parenting isn’t hard or that you don’t need a break sometimes.) 

Healthy Disruption

 

Routines and habits are vital. Good routines and habits make life possible. But our habits, like our technology or any other thing we use, need to be our servants, not our masters. It’s all too easy to become a slave to our routines and habits when nothing disrupts our patterns now and then. Nothing is so disruptive as having a child around. Every season or so, you have to rethink your household routines, because your child is in a new stage of development. Storing the remotes and pretty glass knicknacks on the coffee table seemed like such a good idea…until the baby started crawling and pulling himself up on things. 

Kids make you rearrange the furniture, rearrange your schedule, and rethink your life choices. This might not sound like a positive, but it is. If you are never forced to examine your choices, routines, and habits, it’s too easy to slide into unintentional living. Children are a constant reminder that you have to keep deciding what’s important to you, and keep choosing it, not just drift. If you’re parenting young kids right now, it might be helpful to try to think of the constant changes and curveballs as an opportunity to consistently reexamine your habits, and not just a toppling of your neatly laid plans. 

Smelling the roses

 

With kids around you’re likely to smell a lot of other things too. But what I’m talking about here is enjoying the unexpected, and observing things you might not otherwise see. 

The other day I was hurrying into the grocery store with two small children in tow. Hurrying not because I was in a hurry, but because I like getting things done quickly so that I can get on to other things that I find more interesting. One of my children asked the standard toddler question, “What’s that?” and I looked. There was a dumpster in the parking lot for a renovation project the grocery store had been doing, and a truck was about to take it away. We stood there next to the grocery store and watched the whole process. And you know what? It was fascinating. I never knew before what a marvelous piece of engineering those dumpster-hauling trucks are! Or the skill their drivers need to have. 

And I would still be unaware of it if my kids hadn’t been with me that day. If I’d been alone I wouldn’t have stood there and watched. Partly because I’d have been embarrassed to. (Why, I’m not sure. It should be socially acceptable for adults to stand around and watch interesting things happening.) And partly because I wouldn’t have noticed it. 

Kids are so good at noticing things and wondering at them. As Chesterton says, “The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade…” And while they remake our worlds in unpleasant ways sometimes, they can also refresh it for us; remind us that the world really is a rather marvelous and wonderful place full of interesting things to see. 

Renewal of hope

 

If children have the power to renew our interest in the outside world simply by being interested in it themselves, they also have the power to renew our hope. A baby is so full of glorious potential. A toddler is constantly learning new skills, new ideas, new abilities. They seem potentially limitless. (Sometimes we wish their energy was not quite so limitless) 

It is strange to think that everyone started out in the same place–as helpless innocent babies. 

Remembering that everyone started out as a tiny baby can be encouraging. If Stalin was once a baby, so was St Therese. There is hope for everyone. Your children are the future, and you have a hand in shaping it. 

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Five strategies for coping with temporary depression

 

It’s been a long time since I posted here. I never wanted to be that blogger, but… life happens. In this case, life handed me some pregnancy depression and then a wonderful charming baby.

I’m finally back, and I’d like to share some of what I learned about dealing with temporary depression. I say “temporary depression” because if depression is your everyday reality and you don’t even know what you are like without it anymore, you should probably get professional help of some sort. If you’re suicidal, you definitely need some expert help. There are non-drug options out there. I personally had a good experience with a homeopath several years ago. Whatever the case, if your depression is permanent or very severe, these tips probably won’t be enough. These are just suggestions for how to get through the occasional rough patch.

Talk to someone about it

This can be incredibly helpful. If you feel hopeless or discouraged, bottling up your negative thoughts inside can make it worse, because you don’t have the energy to challenge them. Sometimes you need to get those hopeless and discouraged thoughts out in front of someone else so that they can tell you how wrong they are. Of course, if you confide in the wrong person this can be the opposite of helpful. You need a person who wants your good, first of all. Next, it helps if the person has some understanding of depression. “Just snap out of it,” is rarely useful advice. Neither is, “You’re not praying enough,” or “Offer it up.” Prayer is good, yes. Prayer can be helpful. And depression is certainly a cross that can be offered to God. But if you’re really down and asking for help, it’s likely you can’t even remember how to pray. You might feel like you hate God, as well as everything else. You might be able to offer up your misery anyway, but you still need help. So try to find an understanding friend who cares about you and is not currently depressed themselves.

Ideally this person will sympathize and then help you strategize.

When you tell someone about your feelings of depression, it’s helpful if you don’t start with, “My life is awful! I hate everyone. Everyone is awful. No one loves me.” This might be how you feel at the moment, but probably not actually true, and it’s very hard for your friends to hear.

You will get better results if you can objectify your feelings. Your feelings are a real thing that you have to deal with. Just because they aren’t themselves an accurate reflection of reality doesn’t mean that they aren’t real. It is objectively true that you are feeling that way, and that you need help managing that experience. So if you can, try saying something like, “I am feeling depressed. It feels like hopelessness and misery. I know there are good things in my life, but I can’t feel that way right now. I know the world is actually colorful, but it feels gray right now. Do you have any idea what I could do that would make me feel better, or manage my feelings better?”

Get out of your head and do pleasant things

When you’re depressed, the last thing you can usually do is get out of your head. So why is it on this list? Because it’s still what you need to do, even though it’s impossible. So maybe this heading should be something like, “do pleasant things that are easy to start and force you to get out of your head.” But that didn’t sound very catchy.

My personal go-to strategy for this one is to text a friend and say something like, “Hey are you busy today? I’m having a bit of a rough spot and I was wondering if you had time to hang out/chat on the phone/go shopping with me.” I might not be able to motivate myself to get off the sofa and do something useful, but I can at least motivate myself to text someone, and they might be able to get me off the sofa. I might not be able to break out of my negative thought pattern, but at least I can call someone and say hi, and they might be able to make me talk and think about something other than how much I hate everything and what a loser I am.

When none of your friends are answering the phone you can try listening to a podcast, reading a book, or doing an easy-to-start hobby activity to help you get past the worst of it. I spent an afternoon laying on the floor listening to multiple episodes of the Art of Manliness podcast (which I do recommend) while my kids played nearby. It was all I could do that day, and the podcast helped me get out of my cycle of negative thoughts.

I also bought a nice grown-up coloring book and used it toward the end of this pregnancy. It really did help. My kids colored their coloring books and I colored mine. I felt a bit silly, but it got me through the day, and was the closest thing to quality time with my kids that I could manage.

One other thing to try, is if you have a to-do list, pick the easiest thing on it (pro tip: always make sure there’s something easy on that list) and do it. Then check it off. Making progress on a project is a great way to increase dopamine and serotonin levels, which will make you feel better.

Leave the past in the past

I talked to a counselor to help me with my depression and discovered through the process that part of what I was struggling with was not just my current emotional challenges, but baggage from my past. I had previously felt depressed and helpless, and the feeling of depression made me feel helpless again, even though I was in a different situation where I had more control over pretty much every aspect of my life and so many more options for helping myself. Just realizing that I was dealing with past challenges as well as present ones when I really only had to deal with present ones was very helpful. So take a step outside your thoughts, if you can, and see if you’re subconsciously assuming things that aren’t true.

Cut yourself some slack

Another thing my counselor told me was to admit that I was actually facing real difficulties and stop telling myself, “I should be able to do more, do better, be better…”

I was pregnant and had two young children to take care of. This is actually a challenging situation. Just because other people might do something harder doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t hard. Who says you should be able to manage that without some extra help? Who says you shouldn’t lay on the floor and cry sometimes? Laying on the floor and crying isn’t a sin, and sometimes it’s all you can do. Don’t make it harder on yourself by telling yourself you’re a loser for doing it. All that will do is make you more depressed, more anxious, and more likely to end up laying on the floor crying.

Sometimes it’s helpful to remind yourself what you did do. I fed my children and kept them safe today. So what if I also spent a couple hours crying? I accomplished something worthwhile today.

Would I rather not have spent two hours crying? Definitely. But it’s more helpful and more healthy to focus on what you did succeed in doing that to beat yourself up about something you might very well have no control over.

Ask for help

You don’t have to be bedridden, having a baby currently, or dying in order to ask for help. Obviously, you should do for yourself what you can, and be ready to help your friends when you can, but sometimes you do need help with physical tasks. Ask for help before you’re so desperate and miserable you can’t do anything.

And if your friends offer to help, do take them up on it if you want help. Don’t be concerned that it’s weak or selfish. It’s not weak to take proper care of yourself, and no one can do life alone. If you have kids, you will need help all the more. Parenting isn’t supposed to be a solo activity. It’s not supposed to just be the parents. Sometimes you need to get other people to help you. Hire someone if you have to and if you can possibly afford it. Consider it an investment in your most valuable asset–your mental health.