If you’re going through a dark night of the soul, you might as well pass the time in a beautiful place.
That’s what I was thinking as my hour-long Qantas flight from Melbourne began its descent to Sydney. Australia has long been a place of joy and peace for me, and Sydney in particular. Ever since I first stumbled into town five years ago, when I was denied boarding on a flight from Brisbane to Nauru (long story), I’ve been coming back every chance I get.
This time felt different because, well, I’m different. I’ve been judging the days on a 1-10 scale, and I get excited—at least moderately so—when I feel higher than a 3.
And so as the flight lands in Sydney and I take the airport train to the city, bracing myself against an onset of anxiety, I begin my self-talk.
First, a disclaimer: you can’t motivate your way out of sadness. It’s not a matter of saying “Self, cheer up!”
If you know someone who struggles with depression or anxiety, remember this. When people are persistently sad, some aspects of their experience are outside their control. They aren’t always able to access parts of themselves that give them a baseline and protect them from harm.
Still, a little perspective helps, I remember as I hop off the train onto Circular Quay. It’s Australia! If you can ever be cheered up by virtue of mere geographic placement, being randomly dropped somewhere on the planet, this is the spot to hope for.
It’s good to celebrate small victories. I usually think of this in terms of starting entrepreneurial projects, but perhaps it matters even more in a season of sadness. Chances are, no matter how sad you feel, there will be moments where you recognize the joy and liveliness you once knew. When these moments show up, be sure to appreciate them.
So I don’t tell myself to suck it up, or that I should just “decide” to be happy. But I do tell myself: Self, try to take joy in all circumstances. Lift your head up. You’re in Sydney, Australia—is there any better place?
The good memories I have here are numerous. I remember arriving for the first time on that unscheduled visit and finding one of the most remarkable places I’d ever known. I had purposely saved Australia for the last part of my quest to go everywhere, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.
I remember walking in King’s Cross, pondering snippets of conversation from long ago. The Gin Garden on George Street. The hidden speakeasy. That week when I rode a different ferry every day in hopes of seeing each stop in the area. The Bondi beach walk. Dinner in Darlinghurst.
And as always, running over the Harbour Bridge, listening to the same songs on repeat. You Get What You Give by the New Radicals, for example.
This time I added Shadow Days by John Mayer:
“Hard times help me see
I’m a good man with a good heart
Had a tough time got a rough start
But I finally learned to let it go.”
It’s aspirational, of course. But that’s okay. If you repeat something over and over, sometimes you end up believing it.
“And I’m right here and it’s right now
And I’m open, knowing somehow
My shadow days are over
My shadow days are over now.”
As I said—name it, claim it. It doesn’t have to be an accurate reflection of the circumstances, but all things considered, it’s better than Everybody Hurts or Hallelujah. (Side note: If she didn’t really care for music, why did he write her a song?)
And so I return to my favorite place at an odd time of my life. Less than 3 months before 40. The year of “change everything.” The post-year of “WTF, really?” The season of now or never. I’m a nine-ender, a term I recently learned and identified with right away. (Short version: people make far more changes in the last year before they turn a new decade than in any other year. If you’re 29, 39, or 49—pay attention.)
I’d made a reservation at my favorite hotel in the world, which 7 out of 10 times has rewarded me with a balcony view of the Opera House. Would I receive this auspicious benefit today? It’s good to manage your expectations, or so I hear. But my fingers are crossed nonetheless.
Here are some other things I tell myself:
- These days are full of opportunities for you, traveler. This is a place where you can come to rest. No wonder it’s so far away!
- Take heart, take courage. You’ve been through hard things before. You are adaptable. You are resilient.
- And lest you forget: what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, but first it will really try to kill you.
I tell a friend that I’m nervous about coming here when I’m feeling so sad. This has always been a place of comfort, not stress, and I’m concerned about the nostalgia making me feel sadder. She says something wise: “Perhaps it’s important to return at this time.” And so it is, or so I decide it will be.
In times of trial, it’s helpful to consider what you know to be true. This list shouldn’t be comprised of anything less than “known truths.” There are plenty of things that might be true, could be true, or even that you’re pretty sure are true.
No, the list of known truths is much shorter. In your heart of hearts, what do you believe about a situation or circumstance? What do you believe about yourself?
As I consider the list of known truths for this season, this visit to paradise, I come up with a few things.
1. The blue sky is there even if the clouds are in the way (thanks, Headspace). I suppose in other situations this is called faith, the belief in the unseen.
2. We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we are always in control of our response. Sometimes it feels like we can control more than we really can, and sometimes we feel that we can’t control our response. But if we focus on what’s true, not just our preferred interpretation of events, chances are we’ll be better off.
3. Sometimes you’re just going to be sad, and that’s okay. There’s not always a solution, and some things can’t be fixed.
4. Choose love, sometimes even for yourself. Choose giving, and don’t forget to give to yourself.
5. When you encounter those moments of joy, hold on tight. Consider the moments a reprieve from your affliction. Give them prominent space in your operating system.
6. Remember that you’re not the only one struggling (as covered elsewhere). Maintain that perspective, too.
And so that’s what I do: I keep perspective, I do what I can, I accept sadness when it appears without trying to push it away. I run across the Harbour Bridge. I drink a flat white at breakfast. I eat dinner every day and sometimes even lunch.
I reflect on the talks I’ve been giving. Normally my mind races to the recollection of flubbed lines or unsatisfactory answers I give to questions. This time I realize that once in a while I can walk away feeling proud of both performance and impact. I’m doing something that matters! I hear it from other people every day but I don’t usually believe it myself.
I remind myself that it’s possible to appreciate the present moment without feeling anxious about the future.
I tell myself that uncertainty will produce strength; I just have to accept that I’m not in control of the timing.
I see glimpses of something positive emerging. I don’t want to jinx it or point to it too early, but the sensation is there underneath whatever else.
I have no onward ticket and I don’t care. I will stay or I will go. When I go I’ll fly east or west. There are always options. There is always choice. There is always blue sky even when it’s nowhere to be seen.
I got the balcony view at my favorite hotel.