Everyone seems, myself included, to focus on an open mind being the most important thing in life. It occurred to me today, when I woke up from a particularly painful dream, that my mind is never the problem. It's my heart. I think this is true of everyone. In fact, I'm almost certain of it.
There are very few things we hate as toddlers. As Denis Leary says about the subject, "Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list." The same can be said for gender and sexuality. Does a two-year-old care that uncle Frank has a boyfriend? Hardly.
As we get older, not only are we taught to hate anything that might be different than we are, we also lose empathy through our own life experiences. Basically we get our hearts broken. I don't mean the romantic version, either, although that also applies. No, we get hurt by people all around us, over and over. For that matter, it isn't just people that hurt us. We lose things in life along the way. Those things can build up a little more scar tissue each time, until there's just no way through the damage.
We get so hardened by life that we lose our ability to keep opening up our hearts. Once the heart becomes closed, the mind doesn't stand a chance. We no longer risk getting hurt, because there's just no feeling there anymore. The problem, of course, is that it's the loneliest, coldest existence imaginable. Believe me, I know. I've been there. It's not loneliness based on whether or not you have people around you. It's a loneliness that nothing can penetrate, and that there's no help for. At its core, it's emptiness of the purest form. Every once in a while I go back to that place, and it's a giant struggle to pull free of it.
I have to wonder if many therapists would mistake that place for depression. The clinical symptoms are similar. I very strongly believe they're entirely different things, however. Just like there's a difference between chemical and situational depression, so too is there a difference between depression and real life damage. The difference in my mind is that real life damage is like a learned behaviour, rather than emotions that are simply too painful to bear so we repress them. It's conditioning similar to that of Pavlov's dogs. The dinner bell rings and we react by drooling. Depression would be more like we just stop eating.
Compare that to human life. Let's say you have a friend that has a tendency to betray you - not much of a friend, obviously, but sometimes people have difficulty letting go of the negative people in their lives. Now, every time something goes wrong in your life and you're looking for a friend to talk to, you go to this friend. Every single time you try to confide in them, they turn around and tell everyone else in your circle of friends. Now, I'd bet it doesn't take long for you to catch on that they're doing this, and realize that you no longer wish to confide in them. Unless you're a sucker for punishment, you stop confiding in them. Or at least you sit down and have a chat with them about it, and then give them some time to grow up before you try it again. That would be the conditioned response.
The depressive response would be more along the lines of feeling betrayed, but the pain from the betrayal is too much to bear so you repress those feelings and pretend everything is okay. Not only do you stop confiding painful secrets to that friend, but you stop talking to anyone at all about your vulnerabilities.
This is why there's hope with conditioned responses, whereas depressive responses tend to be more along the lines of people just giving up. Dogs can be re-trained to drool at a different sound, or not drool at all to the sound of a bell, if they hear it often enough where it's not associated with food, particularly if they start associating it with painful stimulus. We can re-learn our associations in life, and that includes keeping an open heart.
Luckily, I don't think I've ever had a 'friend' like the fictional person mentioned above. I've had friends that have hurt me, sure. Relationships can be painful. I've given people second and third chances, too, which is a huge struggle for me, and brings me back to the main point of trying to keep an open heart. This is a very, very difficult thing for me. I have switches or circuit breakers inside me somewhere, that get tripped when I get hurt. I won't go into a lot of examples or anything, but suffice it to say that once someone has hurt me I have a very difficult time resetting that switch. I have to force it. Occasionally I lose the ability to do so with an individual. The one example I will give is my mother and father. By abandoning me as a child, not only did they flip the switch, but they blew the damn thing up. I was never able to love or trust them again. I can't even bring myself to care if they're alive or dead. It's not anger that does that, it's a lesson learned. It's not repressed emotions, either. I just have no feelings for them.
When it comes to the world in general, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain openhearted. We get stepped on, dirt kicked in our faces, and disrespected every single day. Many of us get to the point where we might as well have FTW tattooed on our bodies (meaning, "F**k the world," in case you've never hung out with that sort of crowd). We simply can't bring ourselves to give a crap about anything but our self-centric world, because life has taught us through conditioning that there is just no point. However, that's where it slides into the depression part if you let it. Once you throw up your hands, giving up on everything rather than concentrating on the things you can still change or control, you are now officially in the land of depression.
If, however, you keep struggling to hold onto the things that give you hope, opening up your heart just one more time, seeing the possibilities that are there for you just one more time, that's not depression. Sure, you're hurting and lonely, but you're not depressed. If you can feel pain, allowing yourself those emotions, you're not depressed. Depression isn't what the vast majority of people think it is, anyway. Most people equate it with being sad. It's not. Depression literally means your feelings are depressed (or repressed). They are shoved down so you don't feel them, making sadness irrelevant. Sadness is not synonymous with depression. They are two completely different things.
The dream I mentioned I woke up from had to do with my ferret, Stimpy. Dreaming about him is the only place where I can have him back again, so even though it's painful and I wake up crying, I would gladly take on that pain to be able to spend that time with him. He may not be there in the dream with me, but it makes be feel better to know I've spent the time thinking about him, and that I haven't just forgotten him. In his case, because his death was so devastating to me, I could have allowed depression to take hold. It would have meant letting him go in a way that was unacceptable to me, though. I need him to be a part of the life I've had, both the joy and the pain. I could also have chosen to close my heart to that kind of hurt in the future, but I have another ferret who needs me to love him, and there are others out there in shelters that need to be loved, too, so when the time is right I will adopt another ferret, possible a couple more.
When it comes to the romantic end of things, throughout my life I have certainly fallen in love with people I knew better than to fall in love with. Not necessarily because they were bad people, or even wrong for me, but in some cases I simply knew they didn't feel the same towards me. When I do love someone, I don't usually stop loving them entirely, either, but I am quite capable of distancing myself from them emotionally. The thing is, I know what it's like to not be able to feel the hope of loving someone. The empty loneliness I spoke of earlier is a very cold place to be.
In a lot of ways I've had to learn to embrace this place as I've damn near taken up residence here these last few years. There have been temporary relocations, kind of like staying in a foreign country overnight, but for the most part this is where I live.
I came to the conclusion a while ago that I didn't really want to live here, but you know what they say about tangos. Instead I'm doing a Billy Idol impersonation and dancing with myself. Emotions are such tricky things, too. Nobody can be forced to feel them, myself included, and it's pretty damn difficult to force yourself not to feel them, either.
Aside from my personal life, or lack thereof, there's my life out in the world, too. I would really like to be able to say I've given more to this world than I've taken from it. To that end I'm always trying to resolve issues that I see. An open heart is very much required, and the more hurt I see people causing in the world, the more difficult it is to retain that open heart and not simply give up on people altogether. There are days when I just have to leave it alone. I have to walk away from everything I'm doing or I know there will come a point where I simply break. If I can't continue at least trying to make this world a better place, then something very fundamental to my personality will be lost. I have been speaking out for human rights and animal rights since I was about thirteen - twenty-nine years ago. That's almost three-quarters of my life. It's an intrinsic part of my personality at this point, and to lose it would be devastating to who I am at a core level.
No, the only way I can subsist in this world is if I keep opening myself up, over and over again. If I don't, I'm no longer "me," I'm a shadow of my former self. I'm the "me" that's given up on life. That's not a way I'm willing to live. Whether that means falling in love with people who will hurt me, or fighting a losing battle for the rights of humans or animals, in the words of Popeye, I am what I am. With an open heart, the open mind will automatically follow. It takes courage to love. It takes courage to open your heart in any way, because it leaves us vulnerable to pain. I honestly can't imagine living with a closed heart, though. To me there just wouldn't be any point in drawing my next breath.