By Will Falk
I tried to kill myself a year ago.
In the year since, I quit my job as a public defender, spent weeks in group therapy, went on Phish tour, tried to kill myself again, searched every corner of my soul and began writing earnestly.
Sometimes, I think writing has kept me alive. Writing my poetry and essays allows me to fill my world with a meaning that is under attack.
The world is burning at an ever-faster pace. We are at war. Many of us may be imprisoned, tortured, raped and ultimately killed. Before I tried to kill myself, I let myself wander too far with clogged ears deaf to the friends – both human and non-human – that fill this world with meaning.
Armed with my experiences, I know that art can – and must be – a weapon used in defense of the world. Art can help us listen to what the natural world is telling us. Art can also give us the strong hearts we are going to need to face and stop the horrors that stand before us.
Why did I try to kill myself?
I still cannot answer that for sure. I was tired, for one. Tired of banging my head against the so-called criminal justice system trying to keep my clients out of prison. Tired of working twelve-hour days, day after day, seeing no tangible fruits of my labor. Tired of feeling guilty for never feeling like I had done a good enough job for my clients.
I was doing nothing to physically help natural communities. I lived in Milwaukee, WI and made the 60 mile round trip in my grey 2001 Jeep Cherokee to Kenosha, WI and back everyday pumping countless pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I woke up to read about expanding mining operations across northern Wisconsin morning after morning. I kept thinking that no matter how many people I keep out of jail today, it will not matter if we cannot breathe Wisconsin’s air in 30 years.
I owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. I rarely had time or money to socialize. I was dating a woman across the country in San Diego and hurting her because I was choosing my work over visits to see her.
In my depression-tinged view of the world, I saw no way out of a life of misery. Doing little more than rubber stamping the convictions of mostly African-Americans Chican@s, and Indigenous peoples, I decided that the best thing I could do for the world was to return my body to the soil.
At least the worms could benefit from my flesh, I thought.
Maybe the truest reason I tried to kill myself was I lost touch with a sense of wonder and awe in the world. As an attorney, I was trained to see the world in a framework of pragmatic rhetorical concepts. There were no truths only what you could prove. There was no justice only what you could convince a jury to believe. There was no magic only a universe made up of rational, scientific objects that could be used to advance my particular goals in the world.
For a long time, I convinced myself that this view of the world was correct and that I was redeeming myself by working on behalf of the powerless. Everything in my world was an existential choice bereft of any deep meaning. I chose to help those less fortunate than myself because I felt it was the right thing to do. But, outside of that, I had no argument that this was, indeed, the right thing to do.
Do you see how I was starving myself?
Let me put this another way:
One of my favorite writers, the environmental essayist Derrick Jensen, wrote in his book The Culture of Make Believe, “We have a need for enchantment that is as deep and devoted as our need for food and water.”
What happens when we do not get food and water? We become physically ill and die. What happens when we lose our sense of enchantment? We become mentally ill and die.
Many of my personal favorite poets are Native Americans coming from societies who have lived in balance with the natural world for 12,500 years. They also come from communities who have long resisted the dominant culture. These poets possess a beautiful ability to express a sense of wonder with the natural world in a language as simple as it is deep. I think their work reflects Jensen’s words about our need for enchantment.
Simon J. Ortiz, an Acoma poet, writes in his poem “Many Farms Notes” “What would you say that the main them/of your poetry is? To put it as simply as possible,/I say it this way: to recognize/the relationships I share with everything.”
When I was suicidal, I felt alone. I forgot that there was a whole world out there struggling for life. Ortiz helped me to remember that.
Lance Henson, a Cheyenne Dog Soldier and poet, writes in his poem “lines from a revolutionary text II,” “i have seen you/gathering the tiniest things/so they could not be taken/from your hands.”
When I was suicidal, I was being crushed under the weight of the world’s largest problems. Henson reminded me to gather things within my reach and to protect them so they could not be taken from my hands.
Through reading poets like Ortiz and Henson and through struggling to write my own lines, I have learned how poetry is a process that helps me recognize beauty all around me. I want to be clear: I am not saying that the poet creates the beauty or creates meaning. The natural world in all its glory existed before humans ever came to scratch symbols on dead trees. The poet does not create meaning, but can leave signposts for those searching for meaning.
I wrote earlier that we are at war. This is not an overstatement. Corporations are poisoning the soil, the air, and the water. Governments are using police and soldiers to protect them. And, a recent study documents a world-wide surge in the murders of environmental activists.
It has been said that, “War means fighting and fighting means killing.” After my experiences trying to kill myself, I know the power art can have when you’re at war – whether you’re at war with yourself or with a powerful enemy.
Think of the drum and fife corps on a Civil War battlefield. The rhythms provided by these artists were necessary for infantry so their formations stayed intact in the face of rifle and cannon fire. The music was also an important way commands were communicated over the din of battle.
But, there was another role the music played. It gave soldiers courage as they faced death. Songs like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie” and “Nelly Bly” were often played as attackers approached enemy lines in battle. It is no wonder that America’s bloodiest war was also one of its most musical.
I have written before that one of the best ways to combat depression is through action. I learned this after two suicide attempts. I am doing much better and am engaged in several actions in an attempt to save what is left of our choking world.
I know that depression is always lingering in the grey corners of my mind. It can reach out and surround me in its suffocating fog if I become complacent. The fog can be seductive. It can be silencing. It tries to drown the beauty of the world with numbness.
Depression also accompanies war. It can be as powerful a weapon in the hands of the dominant culture as the guns they will turn on us as we become more and more effective. And, we absolutely must become more effective. If the destruction of enchantment does not kill us, the loss of soil, air, and water surely will.
Guns will be turned on us, despair will be shot at us, and as we face death, we are going to need artists in the field beside us helping us to bolster our hearts.