Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Living with Your Mind
“You have to live with your mind your whole life,” teachers once told the novelist Marilynne Robinson . “You build your own mind, so make it into something you want to live with.”
No one ever told me that essential lesson in so many words, but I sensed it and pursued it as a young person. My husband and I never said as much to Noah, but hopefully we modeled it for him and he, too, sensed it. From about the age of 12, he set about building a beautiful mind—curious, passionate, wide-ranging, ready to engage with anyone and anything (also risky, ridiculous, absolutist). I was often surprised by the turns of his thinking, especially when it went beyond his life experience or education. He absorbed ideas effortlessly, keen to learn from people outside his world, like Vietnam vets and a Cambodian chess master, as well as self-made men like his French host dad. He was like a lawyer who didn’t need a brief to argue a case. I felt privileged that he shared his thoughts with me well into adolescence; I could watch his mind shape and shift. I like to think he knew that mind was more than intellect to dissect and critique, but rather a precious instrument for wonder, self-awareness, connecting with others, and creating and doing good in the world. How we would have loved to see where his mind would have gone as it grew past his 21 years.
The mind Noah relied on and identified with--the mind he needed for his friendships and his studies, his travels and his dreams of the future—began to fail him at some point and he panicked. Did he have mental problems first, like trouble reading or delusions, that spiked his shame and anxiety? Or did untreated depression and anxiety (or some other cause) compromise his thinking? Probably all of the above. His family and friends saw he was no longer himself. His mind was clear enough to know there was a problem, but too tormented to conceive of healing and change.
You have to live with your mind your whole life. Did Noah come to feel he could no longer live with his mind? That the very thing he cultivated, and we as parents tried to lovingly nurture, had been ambushed and destroyed by forces beyond his control? That without his mind, he was no longer himself and life no longer worth living? Is this what others who kill themselves are thinking?
Here’s what we should have told Noah: You have to live with your mind your whole life, so build a strong mind that you can love and cherish and use to affirm life.
We loved and cherished his beautiful mind. How, now, to understand and honor it?