Life is too complicated and too confusing for any one mind to fully grasp it.
It’s even more complicated and confusing if you suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, or mood disorders – which often make you feel that you have even less control over your life than the average person.
It often seems that reality does what it wants to do and we are just here for the ride. There’s no sense in trying to control it. There’s no sense in trying to explain it. There’s no sense in trying to find meaning in it. It just is what it is.
The philosophy of existentialism tells us that there’s no inherent meaning in the universe or life itself, thus it’s up to us to create our own meaning. There’s a branch known as “absurdism” that takes this idea to an extreme: because life has no inherent meaning and it’s impossible to explain why anything happens, we have no choice but to embrace the absurdity of life itself.
At times, I think it’s healthy to embrace the absurdity of life too. There’s so much of it that we can’t explain and can’t control, so why not step back, observe it, and think to ourselves, “Wow, what the hell is really happening here?”
In fact, I find the absurdness of life to be a great source of entertainment and humor when it’s properly embraced – I like to call it “existential silliness.”
There’s a popular chapter in Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms… where Allie Brosh describes her own experiences with depression. Many people say it’s one of the best things they’ve ever read on the subject, and I think she perfectly hits on the value of embracing “absurdity” and “existential silliness,” especially in the face of debilitating depression.
For those unfamiliar with her style, she’s known for making comics with a very simple and crude Microsoft Paint-type feel to them. They are often super silly and funny, but they also have some amazing kernels of truth and insight.
Here are just a few snippets of Allie Brosh’s depression story in Hyperbole and a Half:
I really want to share some of the wisdom in Allie’s depression story. Here are some slides from her comic, as well as some of my own thoughts on each of them.
Allie begins her depression story by depicting just how pointless and meaningless everything felt in her life:
People with depression often have trouble enjoying things, even simple fun activities with friends become deep moments of questioning everything and wondering what it all means.
Allie then goes on to show the banality of most advice people get from others:
Of course, it might be true that Yoga and spending time in nature can have a positive influence on one’s mental health.
However, when people with clinical depression try these recommended activities and don’t feel a change in their mood, it often just makes them feel that much worse. They begin thinking, “Why are these things that work for everyone else not working for me?”
But wait! Have you tried being more positive?
This is one of my favorite slides in the story. One of the most common pieces of advice people get when they are depressed is to just “be more positive” or “only focus on the good.”
These “feel good” statements can often feel cheesy and superficial to people who suffer with clinical depression. At worse, it makes them feel that they are to blame for their depression because they simply aren’t thinking the right things.
As good intentioned as this advice may be, it often only makes things worse.
Allie Brosh wonderfully describes in the book how you can’t just magically overcome depression by willing yourself to not be depressed anymore. It doesn’t make sense, “…it’s like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back. A fundamental component of the plan is missing and it isn’t going to work.”
For those with depression like Allie, tapping into their “existential silliness” was a healthy way to deal with their problems. Much of her depression didn’t make sense and was completely uncontrollable, her best option was to embrace the absurdity of it – and even try to find some humor in it.
Perhaps the ending of her depression story embodies this “existential silliness” the most, where she discover a shriveled up piece of corn under her fridge while crying on the floor, and then starts hysterically laughing.
Her laughter at the tiny piece of corn was completely beyond her control – and didn’t make any sense whatsoever – but it felt good and she embraced it, even though she had trouble explaining it to anyone else. It didn’t matter.
Life is frequently unexplainable and it will always be a bit absurd. “Existential silliness” is an attitude that allows us to embrace life’s absurdities and turn them into a source of entertainment and humor.
Many of the short stories throughout Hyperbole and a Half tap into this “existential silliness.” Allie shares many hilarious stories of everyday problems like overcoming procrastination and motivation troubles, taking care of unruly dogs, dealing with sugar addiction as a kid, trying to be a responsible adult, and struggling with morality and personal identity.
Her brand of humor may not be for everyone. It’s often very silly, weird, and “absurd” – but that’s also the beauty of it. I think anyone can relate to the small struggles Allie mentions throughout the book, and her unique and refreshing perspective on these struggles can provide some valuable insight (or just a few healthy laughs).
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