The Value of Breakdowns.

December 23, 2021

The Value of Breakdowns.

May 29, 2023

Breakdowns are hard, and they often feel quite solitary. It's like you're the only person in the world feeling the way you do. Of course, we all know that's not true, but logic doesn't prevail when we're in that state.

And, yet, for as alone as we may sometimes feel (and want to be), it's also the moment when we often start comparing and contrasting ourselves with others, as if that's going to make us feel any better.

I’m a big fan of philosopher Alain de Botton’s School of Life, who has the following observation, chronicled in one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings (now called “The Marginalian”). The young artist Van Gogh wrote his brother,

"Does what goes on inside show on the outside?
Someone has a great fire in his soul… and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney."


Maria Popova of Brain Pickings continues, "Meanwhile, we move among other chimneys — all the taller built by the artful self-masonry of social media — from which we intuitively infer, even if we rationally understand this to be an illusion, that the fires burning in others are far tamer than those roiling in us; that they live with far lesser levels of confusion and complexity; that we are, in other words, not normal by comparison."

Alain de Botton writes: "We simply cannot trust that sides of our deep selves will have counterparts in those we meet, and so remain silent and shy, struggling to believe that the imposing, competent strangers we encounter can have any of the vulnerabilities, perversions, and idiocies we're so intimately familiar with inside our own characters."

Ultimately, if you look for "breakdown" in the dictionary, it will suggest "a mechanical failure" of sorts, as if we humans are machines that are never supposed to fail. Conversely, the antonym for breakdown is to "create or erect," verbs that can pump up the ego. It is one thing to erect an identity or a narrative that gives the impression of progress. It is quite another to take down the scaffolding of the ego to see what remains after construction is complete.

I'll finish with a quote from psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who believed that grief and suffering might lead to a breakdown that allows us to become more human. She said:

"People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within."


Here's to your light from within—may it guide you and comfort you always. And remember, the kindling of your fire within could be stoked by those around you. Seek help if you need it.

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