**The following is an analogy about depression, written to help friends and family who struggle to understand and relate to what their loved one battles, and it was written to hopefully give a semblance of empathy and hope to those who suffer. It is an analogy, so it was intentionally written to allow for personal interpretation. To me its the best and most important thing I’ve ever written. I hope you agree.
In the middle of a dark and tranquil room stands a battered easel, it’s legs chipped and scratched so thoroughly that the wood looks to have developed a uniform layer of scar tissue. On the easel rests a canvas, flawlessly clean, foolishly calm. If the canvas could be personified and granted the ability to foreshadow, it would have every reason to fear its future. So many canvases who came before it left the easel in varying degrees of destruction. Some left in pieces.
But some left worthy of a wall at the Louvre. Today would be one such day, and this would be one such lucky canvas.
The owner of the battered easel is a man. A talented painter, but still just a man. He does not have a name, but he, like so many, has a wife and 2.4 kids and a middle class house and a job selling widgets to weebles.
The canvas on the battered easel is awash with light at first blink. Our artist understands his routine. Often all hope for the day is determined at first light, for most people do not have to consciously consider their own cognition. The artist is required to not only consider it; he is charged with reassuring and confirming it constantly throughout the day. But the first thoughts are the most vital.
In most people, cognition makes up all of thinking, reasoning, controlling emotion, remembering, and hopefully, if they are lucky, forgetting. For most people, cognition is involuntary. For our artist, the voluntary maintenance of his own cognition is his primary focus, and often the only one allowed. It has actually become a passion, which is, in truth, a gift few people ever actually attain. This passion towards his own cognition is required of him. He cares for it as an artist would. His passion, therefore, comes from a place within that is very personal, very vulnerable, very prophetic, very fragile.
The artist’s world is painted by a mind at constant civil war between positive and negative thoughts. Sometimes the positives are rejuvenating, in a way leaning towards manic, unsustainable joy. Sometimes the negatives are physically and mentally crippling.
He has no other choice but to sustain the battle. When using historical perspective, there can never be a victor. The good can never defeat the evil, but full surrender is likewise forbidden. His survival depends on the fight. His art depends on it.
Today the artist approaches his easel and the stark white canvas, and he feels a commencement of hope. Hope means he will paint a sunrise. It is always a sunrise when life smiles back. Sunrises spawn light. Light means his world is open for business. With light and a world that awaits him, he is free to set off in search of people to whom he will give his paintings.
And today, they will be breathtaking.
The artist, however, will not understand why or how this is so. His daily production does not include a probability for breathtaking, unless, of course, that probability is literal. Even still, our artist is constantly at work. Every moment he is awake, he is painting. He of course manages to perform the necessary chores of life, but even then, he is constantly, almost without pause, finding ways to improve – or at least understand – his painting.
He may only have today. He’s no longer too foolish to believe otherwise.
There are some days that our artist paints with such joy and clarity that he does not need to be in nature to paint his sunrises. His mind is a constant panorama of rolling hills and seascapes and sun-drenched farms and children playing in Magnolias and pastures of wildflowers and horses. His inspiration is often elusive, but the pictures are always there, like an old View-Master is constantly on tap with unlimited reels of beautiful sunrises.
He can paint almost any kind of landscape on these days. All except sunsets. He never consciously paints sunsets. He does, however, spend the majority of these days painting a sunrise into every landscape. Seldom does he paint a landscape without a sunrise. Where, after all, would the subjects in the painting get their light?
He has noted many times the hypocrisy of this. On canvas, sunrises and sunsets look almost identical. On canvas. It is always a matter of perspective, and often that perspective is preservation.
Not only can he paint almost any kind of landscape on these days, he can also paint almost anywhere. He can paint at home, in his studio, on a bench in the middle of the park, even perched on the trunk of his car staring out over the dark gray skies that have given way to a double rainbow after an early morning storm. He recognizes the beauty of that scene, and he must capture it right then and there. On the good days, the spontaneity of his art is oftentimes the inspiration.
The colors in his palette are rich and vivid and glossy and virtually bottomless. Color choice is never a consideration because the first choice is never wrong. They land on the canvas with such brilliance and precision that depth and shadows and minute intricacies nearly paint themselves.
His sunrises don’t need him the way he needs the sunrises. It is not a mutually beneficial relationship, but he is mostly blind to that on these days. He doesn’t even need to keep his sunrises in a collection somewhere in order to assist in the affirmation that he is a talented artist. He keeps some, sure, because he knows he will need them, but he would almost rather give the paintings to perfect strangers. And he often does. But mostly he reserves the beauty he produces for people he knows and loves. And though that number has dwindled remarkably with time and age and millions upon millions of paintings, there is seldom trouble in finding someone to whom he would like to give the new ones.
At these times of intense enthusiasm for his art, there are days our artist will paint one or two paintings in a day, but they will be such immaculately detailed, often palatial, sometimes risky works of art that one or two is more than enough to maintain the pride and lustfulness and energy that comes with the work.
There are also days – still with incredible enthusiasm for the work – that quantity is more important than quality, and he simply wants as many people as possible to have his paintings. When this happens, he will paint dozens or even hundreds in a day, as he will hand out his paintings with a visual pride typically reserved for an unapologetic narcissist. Confidence is carelessly running amok. But that confidence is beautiful, if only temporary.
These days are the highs. They are the days that he will look back on and not understand. These days will not make sense. Somehow, he lived them – he was there, after all – but they will be unattainable. Maddeningly elusive. Even his memory of these days will be hazy, almost as if he were punch-drunk or awakening from hypnotism.
These are the great days. They are fleeting. They are wholly undeserved.
Our artist will soon have a day in which he will paint, but the painting becomes slightly sporadic, as if he must pause for intermittent periods to simply refocus on the landscape he is currently painting. His lines and colors are not as sharp, his focus impossible to maintain. The most damning distinction is that his confidence, in all things, is shaken. This leads him to question most of his choices. Color, spacing, shading, the realism of his work, the subject of his landscapes, even the recipients of his paintings. All will happen as before, but now there is doubt.
There is only assuredness in painting sunrises on these days. He never doubts his sunrises. When the perfect sunrise peeks through, he will paint until it is gone. Often they rise far too quickly. Far too often they leave darkness behind. When that occurs, it is only in hindsight that he will realize he has not painted a sunrise at all. He will find it was nothing but that godforsaken sunset.
All other aspects of his work will leave some doubt, but not enough to quell his confidence completely, and certainly not enough to keep him from giving his paintings away. So cautiously, he will paint. It is much more difficult than before, but he is able.
There is some comfort in these days. They make more sense. They feel normal, as comfort zones often do.
These are days that lend themselves to painting at home or in his studio, but he’s been known to paint in public on these days, too. If he were to do so in the middle of the park, for instance, it would be tolerably risky, but he could do it and oftentimes does. Because his paintings in crowded places can be seen by dozens or hundreds of people, however, he will normally determine that it is safer to paint sunrises that illuminate landscapes of which he is intimately familiar. Giving away risky paintings begets opinions and criticisms that can subdue his desire to give away more.
These days typically don’t end with a prayerful thankfulness that he lived another day. No, they normally end with a series of ill-conceived paintings that all look wrong to him. They’re gorgeous, just as before, but he has painted himself into a dark introspection, a place where there is no room for sunrises. Luckily, however, having no room for sunrises means sunsets are likewise banished from his mind. Mostly. Even sunsets have too much light.
These paintings are difficult to accept, but he is mostly numb to them after all these years. He knows he can’t just throw them out. He either does not or cannot allow it. After all these years, he really isn’t sure which.
In their totality, these are the good days. There is just enough light to get lost in the beauty of the sunrises he is able to paint, even if the focus required is at times exhausting, or even if the quality of the painting is slightly depressed. What drags the day down is the surrender to those reprehensible sunsets. He will often begin to paint some on these days. He has no choice. But he will share them with no one. They’re hideous.
The people who receive his paintings on these days are often blind to what they are receiving. They can see the beauty, but they cannot see the grit. They can see the light, but they cannot see the darkening hope. And they can see the delicacy, but they cannot see the fight. Most importantly, they see the giver, but they do not truly understand the gift. For that matter, they don’t understand the giver either.
But he so wishes they did. He knows that is many steps past unlikely, but he has always dreamed of his paintings being understood, especially the ones that contain no illumination whatsoever.
There comes a day, often without warning and void of a catalyzing event, when he awakens with no desire to paint at all. He will still paint, of course – life requires it – but his paintings bear no feeling, no emotion, no personality. The few sunrises he manages are gorgeous, as always, but the landscapes look sad. He paints trees without leaves and grass without greens. The skies look ominous, even in spite of the sunrises he paints so naturally sublime.
He will finish very few paintings on these days. They will all be left in a state of incompletion, whether that state is in need of more time or, oddly enough, more courage. This inability to finish paintings will be okay for a day or two, maybe a week. He still has plenty of sunrises stashed away for days like this. Mostly they are nothing more than copies of his originals, however. The demand is still there to give his paintings away even when the desire to paint them is absent. For that, reproductions are acceptable gifts.
The inability to paint with any real joy leads to a powerlessness over criticisms created in his own mind. The paintings are ugly and stupid, he tells himself, believing that others feel this way. He doesn’t realize that he is the only one that places any real importance on his paintings. The recipients of his paintings pretend to appreciate the gesture, and some actually do, but his art is largely forgotten by its recipients. The artist does not realize the insignificance of his paintings, nor does he appreciate or understand the insignificance of his very being.
But the day will come when he understands it all too well. And as quickly as the realization hits that it is inevitable, that day has now come. It was always a certainty.
It is on this day that a strange thing occurs. His new paintings come off the canvas as black sheets. His color palette stands in front of him with the gorgeous colors of a sunrise, but when the oils hit the canvas, the image is many hours past the hideous sunset they were never supposed to become. He doesn’t understand why he was trying to paint a sunset anyway. It was the only idea he was allowed to have.
The paintings he produces on these days should never resurface outside the confines of his house. They must be destroyed, but there are no tools to destroy them. The brushes with which he paints are all ruined, matted with dried paint. They could be restored, but the work required to do so would be too daunting.
The artist looks at his black sunset and worthless tools and he is defeated. He looks at the old sunrises that he keeps for times like this, and he wonders why he even bothered. He is unable to paint them anymore. Why keep them around as mementos of a talent lost?
Soon, it is not just the paintings that have grown black and worthless. The monster takes over. All foundations of human needs – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, even social – are controlled by a monster he cannot see. The monster that powers his arms to hold his family and powers his body to maintain a household and sell widgets to weebles takes control of the entire engine that propels him. It has conquered the most vital fuel – hope – and it will not relinquish control.
The monster, a feral creature of limitless range but very limited civility, picks up where our artist gave up. The monster destroys most of the remaining paintings, it buries the worthless tools, it challenges love of family, it controls who can see the remaining sunrises, if there ever are any left. Mostly, the monster suppresses the ability to form a hunger. Food is of no use for this hunger, however. The suppressed hunger is that of yearning, of dreaming, of basic forward movement. And it is now gone.
The monster gained this power by stifling hope. It also stripped away self-esteem and confidence and held it in front of the artist’s face like a carrot in front of a horse with no legs. And then, it simply took the carrot away. Suddenly there was nothing to attain and no physical ability to go in search of something better than life with the monster.
Painting no longer matters. At all. Even the memories of his beautiful sunrises are blanched. The byproduct is that his family and his job have also lost to the monster. The crazed belief that he now lacks the functionality to maintain either dominates the love that will always be there somewhere. But now the love is lost in a virulent storm.
Days or weeks can go by with the monster in control. The artist has barely been able to pretend to enjoy the company of his family. He has tried, as always, but the monster believes this suppression should be wholly selfish. It won’t even allow the artist to attempt a simple pencil drawing. His wife can easily tell that the drawings the monster allows him to offer as gifts are nothing more than faded holograms, recycled from ignorant, talentless days of yore. There is nothing tangible or distinctive in the paintings he offers. Even the colors are transparent, like cheap stained glass with vanishing dyes.
The respite, if one can call it that, is that the artist is able to sleep. On those magical days of painting bliss, sleep can be difficult. He understands the need to create magic on those days, because he knows the monster will squelch it soon enough. And so he sleeps. Dreams typically don’t enter his slumber when the monster is in control. Any dreams that exist are nearly institutional in their blandness. Even nightmares are comical in their lenience.
The monster can be beaten, however. Not forever, and often not for very long, but the monster can be impaired. For the artist, the attack must come in the form of a surrender. The monster is not beaten by an attack, it is beaten by an admission of defeat. The artist will, at least metaphorically, fall to his knees and simply give up. He has been defeated. The monster has taken everything away from him and refused to allow him the power to seek its return.
The artist will find something in this surrender. That something almost always comes in the form of a glint of light. The light comes from a sunrise. The sunrise is most often not real, but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to propel him ever so slightly forward, shaky but empowered. His power is not that of a large engine, but even a small watch battery holds power. All the artist needs is the ability to start digging. Or climbing. Or crawling. Strength then slowly breaks through the atrophy and he finds but a single brush. It is his sunrise brush. It is matted and ruined, but he chips off enough paint to make it serviceable.
And so he paints a sunrise. When he has nothing else, he always has the hope and beauty that reside in a sunrise. If the monster allows its completion, of course. Sometimes he is allowed but a single brush stroke. Today, he finishes little more than a disheveled outline, but it is gorgeous. The glint of light from the sunrise blinded the monster just enough.
That first painting goes to his family. He knows that’s the requirement. He spends the entire day painting middling sunrises alone in his house. But on this day, he gives away very few. He is still adjusting to the illumination of life outside the monster’s control.
As he adjusts, there is little abundance of anything, at the very least an atmosphere of joy, in a house where his gloom and misery settled like ever-rising flood waters. But ever so slowly, a sunrise is completed. And then another. And another. The flood waters slowly recede.
One day the monster will live inside him. Day in and day out, the monster will administer his control. The artist knows this. He will not defeat him forever. One day the monster will take over his very soul.
But what the artist does not know is that just as people change, monsters can change, too. He does not know that a day will come when he emits one final surrender. He does not know that with that final surrender, his body will still hold breath. It will be the fight that gave him strength. With all the ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, storms and rainbows, he will become more than just an artist battling a monster. He will become a historian of his own life, and the monster will help tell the story.
If he’s lucky, he’ll have months or years to live out his days with the monster. It will be a world unlike he has ever experienced. He will look back at his paintings and let the tears of ignorance flow. All those years wasted. Only the monster can show him that now.
But soon the tears will dry up, and he will walk into the room with the easel. It’s frame and legs will be well past scar tissue by now. They will appear nearly petrified. But still it will hold a stark white canvas awash in light. On this day, and for all the remaining days on Earth or in the evermore, the painting will no longer be a battle.
For he will finally understand why there has always been such a vast and wretched difference between a sunrise and a sunset. And one day, one dark yet peaceful day, he will lose his desire to paint a sunrise. That day will come. It is not a matter of if.
And when that day comes, his sunsets will be stunning.