The Light We Live By

Finding grace through grief

By Matt Steel
15 Sept 2016
16 min read

Photo: Daniel Burka

“When a man weeps he knows that one day he will stop.” – Elie Wiesel, Dawn

I have a confession to make: I don’t want to do this anymore.

By “this,” I mean being the sole proprietor of a design business. I mean being the one and only person creating revenue in a setting that was never meant to be more than an emergency option. It’s an enterprise for which I have no vision.

This place is dark. Running an unwanted business is an inauthentic half-life, flicker-lit and heavy. It feels like I’m living a lie. I need a change. A major one.

How did it come to this?

June 2015 – Charleston, South Carolina

I’m sitting in my dad’s home office, my remote studio for the summer. The window shows a gentle breeze sifting through tall pine trees and squat palmettos. It rained overnight. The air looks palpable; dappled light and cloud-shadow saunter over the ground.

My family and I came here for the summer to test living full-time in the area. A big part of this test involved me working remotely as a partner and creative director with my company in St. Louis. This had been our plan since we founded the business in 2013. I would establish a foothold for us in a burgeoning town on the East Coast. Though I was a director, I still designed and wrote on a regular basis, and such work is best done in solitude. Thanks to the wonders of Google Hangout, Slack, and frequent flyer miles, I could collaborate when and as needed. This plan seemed sensible, even ideal, at least to this introvert. But it needed to work for everyone involved, and the only way to know for sure would be to try it out.

I came to Charleston to work and possibly plant new seeds. Instead, I found myself reflecting on events and interpersonal patterns of the previous two years with increasing concern and unexpected clarity. I was seeing things in a different light. As my friend and mentor Peleg Top said, “you have to get out of the jar in order to read the label.” A realization crept up from gut to head: I needed to leave that company as soon as possible.

The details don’t matter. Suffice it to say that by late June 2015, it was unavoidably clear that the situation was relationally, philosophically, and morally untenable for me and my family. It had been that way all along, but fear and a perceived lack of options kept me from facing the hard truth.

Well, a new option began to emerge, one that proved to be the catalyst I needed to take the leap. I would create a new, collectible adaptation of Thoreau’s transcendentalist classic, Walden, and fund it through Kickstarter. Walden’s readership was said to be waning, and I believed a slow fade into obscurity would be tragic. Thoreau’s words had a profound impact on my life and I wanted to help them remain evergreen. The larger vision was that the book would be the first of many revitalized classics, and that it would serve as the keystone project for a fine book publishing business. I saw myself spending the rest of my life creating beautiful, sturdy books that would stand the test of time. This is what I was made for, I thought. This is the project that was incubating when my kindergarten-aged self sat alone in the corner, an open book in my lap, an imaginary world unfolding, gazing off into – where? This is why my career had led to a skill set that blends writing and design. Like the writer Nikos Kazantzakis, I felt as if “a canary sat perched on the top of my mind, singing.”

Fine, canary, sing; sing your heart out. But sing from a safe perch and avoid broken branches. Sing about the soul, not the ego. Sing of passion, but only if it’s grounded by purpose. Repair your nest in silence, then sing for all to hear, forgetting yourself in the song. Above all, take your time.

I wish someone had spoken stern words of caution to me as I made the transition from partnership back to self employment. Perhaps they did, and I couldn’t hear. I wish I’d known how unwise it is to spring immediately from something that feels like a divorce into a brand-new, bootstrapped endeavor. I wish I’d known that starting a new venture with feverish passion and a tenuous connection to purpose is a recipe for disaster. I wish someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and told me to hold my horses until I had recovered from a place of emotional and financial weakness.

I wish I’d consulted with literary experts about the merits and challenges of adapting a classic, rather than relying on advice from friends and family. (Who am I? What gives me the right to edit Emerson’s peer?) I wish someone had told me that I was naive, despite good intentions. I wish someone had told me that to put yourself in a public fishbowl for 30 days (also known as a Kickstarter campaign) with a controversial project – when what your soul truly needs is a sabbatical – is to invite total meltdown. I wish, I wish, I wish.

The wall

I’ve written elsewhere about lessons learned from the Walden project. Was it worth creating a new hardcover edition of Thoreau’s book? Yes, and I still intend to finish the project as a slow-burn, break-even affair. Was it ready for adaptation – even gently, minimally, and with editorial assistance? Probably not, and certainly not by a starry-eyed designer with a short writing resume. Okay then: does a new illustrated edition of Walden have the makings of a viral Kickstarter campaign? No, said the public.

This truth only became clear after my campaign manager and I decided to take a risk and change scope mid-campaign from full adaptation to mere redesign and republishing of the original text, with annotations tailored for today’s reader. The controversy went away, but so did any sort of newsworthiness. We lost about $2,000 in backing, which wasn’t too bad. We recovered that backing and then some, but it wasn’t enough. Barring some sort of miracle, it became obvious by week three of four – this was early March 2016 – that our campaign would not succeed. Sure enough, we crossed the finish line with less than a third of our fundraising target. In Kickstarterland, this means we walked away with zilch.

That was when I hit a wall, and I hit it hard. I had left my previous post on a Friday, full of anger and sadness. I had begun working full time on Walden the next Monday, full of hope and energy. In March, the pain finally caught up with me, collided with the disappointment of a failed campaign, and I sank into depression.

For some people, depression looks like an inability to get out of bed for weeks or months on end. That wasn’t me. I could still get up. Perhaps it was because as a husband, provider, and father of school-aged children, I had no other choice. I could still muster the odd smile. Constant prayer, regular exercise, leaning on loved ones, and writing kept me from total despair. Even so, dark thoughts crept in. I began to wonder if my wife and kids would be better off if I was out of the picture. I had some life insurance that could float them for a few years in the event of my death. Maybe my existence was more trouble than it was worth.

Love held me back. I confessed these thoughts to my wife, Leslie, one day while she prepared lunch. She fixed me in her gaze and said, “No. Never. We need you. We want you. I won’t let you go there, and I will never give up on you.

In order to help make ends meet, Leslie had gone back to work part time while I was sprinting to prepare Walden for launch. God love her, she had faith in my vision and was willing to do everything in her power to help us survive. (Our situation became even more stressful when, to our great surprise, we discovered that our fourth child was on the way.) Leslie believed in me then, and she still believed in me when I was left empty-handed and heartbroken. A lesser woman would have ridiculed me or withdrawn into a self-protective cocoon. She did none of those things. She stood by me, encouraged me, and even defended me when others questioned our decisions. What had I done to deserve such devotion?

So. I struck those dark thoughts from my mind, but the shame, heaviness, and anxiety persisted. For me, depression came from deferred pain and anger turned inward. Some of that ingrown anger, I found, went all the way back to the dissolution of my first business, a loss I had never properly mourned. Depression for me also meant insomnia. It meant low energy. On a good day, I managed to eke out two or three hours of work. With only a couple small clients in the queue, I knew I needed to hustle, but I couldn’t muster the strength for it. For someone who had always been hardworking, it was a terrifying place to be. My heart and body were revolting against my mind. My internal critic, that old devil, scolded me constantly for being so lazy. And every time I looked at my children’s sweet faces, a cold fear wrapped around my throat and squeezed.

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Ian Maclaren

Creativity came in fits and starts. I hacked and heaved my way through completing a new brand identity and content platform for my design business in less than three months. My hope was that the efforts would start to pay off, and that I could find some consolation in consulting, even if it was my fall-back option.

This was a bad idea. I’m awful at pretending.

By late June, despite several beautiful weeks with my family in Charleston the depression was still very present. I realized it was impossible to build a business I didn’t want. I still wanted to design, though. And I wanted to write more than ever. What to do? What really mattered? Practically speaking, I was running out of time and new business wasn’t coming in fast enough. We were living on a shoestring and running out of options. Everything felt enormous and unwieldy. Even small decisions cast long shadows.

A funny thing happened: I died. Or rather, the part of me that identified itself as a business owner, and would rather peel moldy potatoes than work for someone else – that part went tits up. The part that remained was ready for someone else to run the show. 

I had begun my journey as an entrepreneur in 2009 with a hunger for autonomy and freedom. In 2016 I discovered that owning a creative service shop was no longer my path to independence; and perhaps certain kinds of independence were overrated. This business had become a millstone. Two jobs for the fluctuating price of one. Some people can do work they don’t love. I envy them, I really do. For me, if there’s no love there’s no vision and no energy. And if I had no energy for writing, what was the point of this so-called freedom?

When I lost the desire for ownership, working for someone else became very attractive. A third way, a blended path of passion and purpose, began to open up. Things didn’t seem as dualistic as before. By giving up a certain kind of autonomy, I might gain another. By doing good work with good people, letting others shoulder the burden of ownership, and collecting a regular paycheck, I might actually have the energy to write on mornings and weekends. Leslie and our kids could receive more of my attention.

Good work is good medicine

I took a deep breath, put together a resume for the first time in seven years, and hit the job market. Unsteady and out of practice, I felt like some kind of shriveled man-baby tumbling into a new world – think Benjamin Button.

Over the next few months, I applied for dozens of jobs and interviewed with five companies. One intriguing job post was for a creative director position at a small branding and design agency in Gainesville, Florida. They work primarily with clients in higher education, conservation, and technology. In the first paragraph, they said, “We have a special culture … one that doesn’t buy into the belief that we have to burn our people out to have a viable business. We work … normal hours and support a work/life balance, but when we’re here, we’re 110% here.”

Even though I needed a job, I had no interest in trading relationships, health, and sanity for 60-hour weeks offset by the dubious rewards of happy hours and shiny toys. I’d been through burnout and had no desire to return. See, I still actually enjoy making things for a living, and I want to keep doing it till I die. I don’t want to flame out, and retirement doesn’t interest me. I’m in it for the long haul. 

Workaholism is a global epidemic, and the creative industry is no exception. Aside from matters of health and quality of life, overworking is shortsighted and foolish. So when someone claims to be different from the masses, I sit up and take notice.

I had to check out these people and see if they practice what they preach. I sent them my stuff, and the next day the principals invited me to speak with them and get acquainted. By the end of an intensive two-month process involving phone calls and two days with the team in Gainesville, I was convinced: they were the real deal. They work hard and enjoy each other’s company. They are accountable to their clients and each other, which on rare occasions means putting in a few extra hours. But they almost always leave the studio in time to enjoy dinner and downtime with their families. Like me, they’re designing a sustainable life where work, rest, and play coexist in harmony. This agency, nestled in a small city near a huge university, is called Parisleaf.

I noticed many encouraging signs in my conversations with the team at Parisleaf, but there were two events in particular that sold me. The first was a meeting to discuss a project they were bidding on, and develop ideas around scope and process. The fact that they invited me to participate showed a healthy openness and trust. Ideas bounced around and then flowed. It felt good. It felt familiar. At one point, I glanced out the window of their conference room. A brief Florida rain had come and gone. Dappled sunlight filtered through Spanish moss and hovered over the patio. The words “I am home” crossed my mind and gently echoed over the next few hours.

The second sign came over dinner with Chad and Alison, the principals. We were talking about strengths and weaknesses. They deserved to know what they would be signing up for if I were to come on board. I described my tendency toward perfectionism; that while I have a wholesome desire for excellence, I can get bogged down in minor details and become overly critical or lose sight of when the work is good enough. No problems there. They were willing to work with me. Cool, that was easy. But then came the hard part: I told them about my fight with depression. I didn’t want to bring that sluggishness into their company. I needed a place where I could heal, but I also needed to be effective and earn my keep. I told them that I’m on the mend, though I’m not out of the woods yet. 

I’ll never forget Chad and Alison’s response. They actually thanked me for being honest, and said, “If you continue to struggle with depression, that’s okay. We’ll walk alongside you and help you get through it. We want this to be a place where you can heal. And we can see that this pain is shaping you into a more empathetic and courageous person.”

Two days later, I accepted an offer to become the new creative director at Parisleaf. I’ll start work in October, and will help them manage all creative output from branding to web and video. Their team is small enough that I’ll still be able to roll up my sleeves and make things on a regular basis. They have a solid track record of success, but there’s ample room for growth. Together, I am confident that we can create work of lasting value. I believe it’s within Parisleaf’s reach to become one of the most prestigious creative firms in the Southeast, and I’d like to help them get there.

Given that the role of creative director for a small yet driven firm is a demanding job, how might I rise to the occasion after months of depression?

I see at least two means of healing: work and solitude. Good work is good medicine, particularly when there are appropriate levels of extrinsic motivation. A full workday ennobles the worker, and good rest only comes after good work. I’ve been intrinsically motivated my whole life, but a bit of managerial accountability will help me get back on my feet. And for the past year, I’ve been overburdened and underemployed. As someone who is naturally active and productive, I believe that the work itself will lift my spirits.

I have a voracious appetite for solitude and introspection. This is how I recenter; this is how I draw near to God; this is how my well of creative energy replenishes. As Wendell Berry says in the wonderfully titled What Are People For?, “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”

Over the next few months, I’ll have abundant solitude and time to revel in nature. In order to minimize disruption, my bride and babes will move down in December during the break from school. The separation will be hard but constructive. During that time, I’ll wander the forests and swamps (mind the gators); I’ll go surfing and soak up the sea; I’ll read and write and pray.

From desolation to consolation

I’ve been through the fire this year, but in the immortal words of Eddie Vedder, I’m still alive. It’s been a long and winding road, but I am full of hope and could not be more excited about this new beginning.

I’ll keep writing. This website will not go away. If you’re a Love Letters subscriber, you’ll still receive monthly emails. By shedding the burden of self employment and going to work for someone else, I can create a regular schedule that allows the time and energy I need to write, and write from the heart without concern for keywords, clicks, or shares. If you like it, great; if not, fine. It doesn’t matter if the results are one hand clapping or a standing ovation. I’ll keep writing.

I’ve been coming to see that every important decision must be made by weighing consolations and desolations, clarity and confusion, light and dark, and that these things cannot always be separated from each other. We cannot savor joy until we’ve known pain. We cannot have compassion until we’ve suffered. The world is not a checkerboard of black and white, nor is it a picture with many shades of gray. It blazes with color and dimension and infinite gradations. Good is good and evil is evil; but in this broken and beautiful life, light and darkness are blended. We live by dappled light. The choice before us is not between pure light and total darkness, but whether there is enough light to see and walk the true path.

I’ve also learned to embrace a fact that Frodo Baggins discovered after returning to the Shire: some wounds never fully heal. And that’s okay as long as those wounds don’t fester, and as long as they bring grace in the aftermath. Our scars can become our crowns. Like the elves of Middle Earth, and like Frodo the lowly hobbit, our grief and grace can mingle to form a piercing beauty that is almost too wonderful to behold.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4 (KJV)

I’m reminded again of Berry, and a connection he draws between pride and despair in What Are People For?. Both are driven by ego; in fact, he sees them as two sides of the same coin.

“There is the bad work of pride. There is also the bad work of despair – done poorly out of the failure of hope or vision.

Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much.

The shoddy work of despair, the pointless work of pride, equally betray Creation. They are wastes of life.

For despair there is no forgiveness, and for pride none. Who in loneliness can forgive?

Good work finds the way between pride and despair.

It graces with health. It heals with grace.

It preserves the given so that it remains a gift.”

I couldn’t agree more. Good work heals. Pride grows like a weed when ego is overfed; despair grows like a fungus when ego is maimed. Depression, whether chemical, circumstantial, or both, is the state of entrapment in despair. Both pride and despair are spiritual infections, and both lead to death. As the ego heals and shrinks to a manageable size, despair and pride dissipate in proportion. Once I see that I am not, in fact, that big of a deal, life becomes lighter. 

This truth is taking root in my heart. Thank God!

When I look to a future at Parisleaf and in Gainesville, I see challenges; I see shadows; but mostly, I see light. And I carry my own light wherever I go. That is, in fact, who I am in essence: a being of light, spun from the original Essence of light, no more and no less. The same is true for you, right now, whoever and wherever and however you are.

I’ll end with a brief passage from the novel Island of the World by Michael O’Brien. The following is a conversation that takes place in the dim basement of a hospital in communist-occupied Sarajevo during the 1940s. The characters are two convalescents, a boy named Josip and a fisherman whose name is unknown.

“Look, Josip”, says the man of the sea. “Look at the wall.”

With his one good foot he nudges Josip, pushing him gently, making him turn to face the opposite wall. The bar of light is climbing higher now.

“Do you see?”

Josip shakes his head.

“Surely you see”, says the man.

“I see the light, but the walls imprison it.”

“The light has entered the prison. Nothing can keep it out.”

“If there is no window, the light cannot enter.”

“If there is no window, the light enters within you.”

Amen. May the light enter within you and me and spill through us all.

· § ·

By writing about my pain, I hoped to write about your pain as well. If you have battled depression or are battling it right now, know that you are not alone. You are seen, you are known, you are loved. Your life is worth living, and any voice within or without that suggests otherwise is lying to you.

If you’re feeling stuck in the valley of the shadow of death, or if you have a personal history with depression that you’d like to share, I invite you to get in touch. I am not a counselor or a psychiatrist, but it would be an honor to simply listen and offer a little solidarity. You can reach me via email: matt at mattsteelmakes.com.

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