My 29th year has been the most challenging year of my life. In late 2016 we moved to Bryn Mawr for Clare’s postbaccalaureate program. In January, I admitted myself to the local hospital's psychiatric ward because I was depressed and suicidal. I then found a treatment that worked in ECT. In April, I had a brief, not-quite-as-serious relapse and was admitted to a partial hospitalization program, which was like hospitalization, but I got to sleep at home, and no one was checking that I hadn’t killed myself.
We moved in July to West Philadelphia to face the uncertainty of medical school applications, and our new apartment does not quite live up to the promotional materials. I applied to a master's degree program and didn't get in. I am dealing with Donald Trump systematically dismantling our democracy.
In short, 2017 was fucking brutal.
However, In most aspects of life, I have made more progress this year that I have ever before. I found a level of happiness in the life that I didn’t know was possible. Clare and I have come through these challenges more united than ever.
My career improved. I discovered the ability to stay present. And I deprived the self-critical voice in my head of its power. These personal developments helped introduce me to new paths of growth. I am happier than I have ever been. I am a different person than I was in 2016. I want to talk about the ways that I have grown.
Improvements I made in 2017:
1. I completely cut out alcohol and marijuana rather than just drastically reducing both.
2. I did two full rounds of ECT.
3. I joined a DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) study group.
4. I started meditating every day; I am currently on 220 straight days of meditating at least 20 minutes.
5. I left Facebook completely.
6. I limited my intake of news.
7. Clare and I got rid of Netflix and our TV.
8. We left Bryn Mawr and moved to Philadelphia.
9. I introduced a kale smoothie to my morning routine
10. Each of these experiments has made my life at least a little better.
Centering on the present
My daily meditation practice mixed with listening to some books and lectures on secular Buddhism has helped me to shift my focus. I have shifted from an overwhelming despair over my past wrongs to the person I am in the present. Also, I moved from severe anxiety and relentless planning about the future to a focus on our present moment together - enjoying it, savoring it.
The fascinating part of a meditation practice is the ability to step outside of an emotional experience - good or bad and experience it physically rather than as emotionally. I feel my chest tighten with anxiety, my face flush with anger and my body turn away from uncomfortable situations. When I am meditating, I can feel myself separate from my body, from myself, and observe the present.
It is hard to explain, but I’ve concluded that the concept of “Jeffrey Lee Baird” doesn’t exist. There isn’t a separation between the present me and anyone else. The physical experience of the present moment is all there is - and we experience it collectively.
That sounds ridiculous.
I don’t know how to make these experiences seem less silly. It reminds me of the feeling I had once as a teenager, when I was a practicing Catholic. I was praying at a Eucharistic adoration and after an hour on my knees, in silence, I broke down into tears, feeling absorbed into the Christian body.
This separation from my feelings has allowed me to see the truth in the Buddhist saying that “thoughts think themselves.” Acknowledging the autonomy of thought absolves my responsibility for them and helps me not blame myself for them. I can ignore the images of suicide that bombard me fairly regularly. I am not my thoughts because I don’t exist.
Distancing my present experience from my past and future selves helps me be kinder to the rest of the world. Another person is not meaningfully different from my future self, so I can prioritize others as much as Future Jeff.
On being wrong
One of the biggest things I’ve understood this year is how wrong I am, about everything. Not in the actual sense. I’m sure that I am correct about the world in some ways. But, I have learned that my perception of the world and my assumptions about myself and others were wrong and that some of my past behaviors were wrong. My understanding of my wrongness stems from a series of lectures I listened to about how your mind is continually working to deceive you. I read a bunch of behavioral economics books about how those deceptions manifest in irrational behavior. I read a book on Buddhism, called “Why Buddhism is True,” which explains how this causes suffering.
My conclusion is this: everything I thought I knew is possibly wrong. My initial gut reaction to any given situation is also possibly or probably false. I often get so excited about something that I “know” and try to explain it to everyone I can. I now understand that my "knowledge" is more of an interpretation filtered through the unreliable lenses of consciousness. Knowing the fundamental fallibility of human experience is humbling.
There is a downside to this. I have become more silent. I don’t write or share my opinions as often. I think this is a negative. I am working on finding a way for me to feel safe sharing my excitement and wonder about the world without an overwhelming fear of my “wrongness” hurting or misleading people.
As I come to terms with my wrongness, I start to understand how much pain I have caused people I love or have interacted with in my life. I have apologized to some of the people I hurt. I have not reached out to others; I am either not in touch with them or feel it wouldn’t be appropriate to reopen old wounds. (Note: If I have hurt you in any way and you want to talk about it - please let me know. If you don’t, please know that I am sorry and I am growing as a person).
I have been working with my therapist with what she sees as the more significant problem: how do I forgive myself? Self-forgiveness is a work in progress for me. I feel that I deserve punishment for things I have done. But at the same time, I know that punishing myself only prevents me from growing, and it doesn’t help make amends or improve the world.
Meaning and purpose in life
As I mentioned previously, in 2017, I started to entertain the idea that “I” don’t exist in any meaningful sense. With that came a gut feeling that consciousness is an illusion. The mantra of “thoughts think themselves” has been a large part of my recovery this year. Understanding that I will likely never get rid of the violent suicidal imagery that pops up in my head, accepting that and not judging it has allowed me to separate from it.
My favorite thing about this releasing of the concept of “self” has been the amount of connectedness I now feel to everyone. My experience is trending towards a collective experience. Again, I’m not sure where this will lead, but so far I have found more peace than I have in the past.
So what will be my driving force in 2018? Service. Service to my wife, to my community and the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). At the same time, I will continue seeking fulfillment in my experience of the present moment.
Over the course of 2017, my political views have taken a huge turn. I went from a capitalism true-believer to firmly anti-capitalist. I joined the IWW and the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America). I am now the general secretary of the Philadelphia branch of the IWW.
The turning point for me was reading "Capital" by the economist Thomas Piketty. Piketty describes in precise and riveting language how the structures of capitalism inevitably lead to wealth inequality unless there is substantial, coordinated policy intervention - on a global scale - in the form of a wealth tax.
It made me concerned that wealth inequality was a destabilizing force. It can lead to civil unrest and contributes to the power imbalances in society.
At the same time I read "Capital," I started to consume more philosophy. I thought more about how power interacts with capital and concluded that society can't meaningfully address systemic inequities as long as those with wealth have control of the reins of power. The rich and powerful will take as much as they can without causing a revolution.
If those who can fix the problems are standing in the way of a more just world, how can we achieve a better world? I have ideas - mostly in their early stages - but I don’t have answers.I will be thinking out loud about this more in 2018.
As I recovered from my mental health struggles, I spent a lot of time reading books and listening to audiobooks. Here are my top 2017 reads:
"Capital in the 21st Century," by Thomas Piketty helped me wrap my head around the economic structures of capitalism that had not made sense to me before.
"Listen, Liberal," by Thomas Frank made me question my political assumptions.
"All Quiet on the Western Front," by Erich Maria Remarque is an excellent piece of fiction that changed me from passively anti-war to a full-fledged pacifist.
"Janesville: An American Story," by Amy Goldstein is a well-reported story on the effects of the 2008 market crash on a Wisconsin town.
"Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America," by Ibram X. Kendi helped me to understand how racism has shaped and built the world that we live in. It also helped me grasp how far we have to go.
"Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage," by Alfred Lansing is a riveting book about just how much a person can survive.
"Wages of Rebellion," by Chris Hedges helped stoke my more radical side.
"The Dispossessed: A Novel," by Ursula K. Le Guin was a beautiful novel that helped me dream of a better future.
"The Sea Wolf," by Jack London is a classic that I am sure is full of a lot of deep stuff. I just thought it was hilarious.
"Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment," by Robert Wright was an interesting intersection of mindfulness, evolutionary psychology, and secular Buddhism and has impacted my mindfulness practice.
Looking ahead to 2018
Now that I’ve written close to 2000 words on my 2017, let’s talk about 2018.
In 2018, Clare will find out if/where she is going to medical school, and we will be moving again. We are visiting Florida to run the Gasparilla Half-Marathon and will attend a few weddings.
I fell in love with skiing at the end of 2017, and I hope to do a lot more of it in early 2018. I also want to dive deeper into playing with my telescope.
My big hope for 2018 is to find peace. I spent 2017, justifiably, angry. I am not alone in this. Everyone I know is upset about 2017 in some way or another. Being angry is exhausting, unhealthy and, for me, unhelpful. Anger increases my anxiety and my guilt and paralyzes me.
So, as I search for internal peace, I hope I can spread it to those around me in turn. And I hope that finding peace will help me be a better advocate for the causes and people I love.
Thank you for reading, I hope you and everyone you love has a beautiful 2018.