With Depression, the Wolf You Feed Is the Wolf That Wins
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There is a Cherokee legend about an elderly brave who tells his grandson about life.
“Son,” he says, “Within all of us there is a battle of two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego."
He continued, “The other wolf is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
“The same fight is going on inside of you, and inside every other person, too,” explained the wise Cherokee elder.
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”
I feel the wolves attacking each other every day. Every hour. Most minutes.
One wolf is resentful as hell that she can’t eat a piece of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving without suffering the consequence of loud death thoughts for two days after, that the tiniest bit of refined sugar and flour can throw off her limbic system — brain’s emotional center — so significantly. She’s angry that she has to exercise so intensely no less than six times a week in order to escape suicidal ideations. She’s bitter, in general, that she has to work so hard and be so disciplined in order to experience the same serenity that is available to her friends and family all the time.
The other wolf reminds her that, while the rest of the world would like very much to be on a diet but can’t drum up the self-discipline, she should be happy that not eating right has such devastating consequences that she’ll never have to go on a diet, because in order to exist without suicidal thoughts she has to always be on one. The other wolf says, sure, exercise is sometimes a drag, but she should be thankful that she has legs with which to run and arms with which to swim, that there are many people with physical disabilities who don’t get to enjoy the temporary anesthesia from depression that an intense workout can offer.
One wolf believes her suffering is unique, that no one could possibly understand the anguish she feels. She’s resentful of those who have never wanted to die, and wishes she could experience that kind of ignorant bliss. She is tired of telling her story to people who don’t understand. Their puzzled expressions only make her feel that much more alone and send daggers through her heart.
The other explains that everyone is fighting a battle of some kind, that anyone born to this earth has known a type of suffering. This wolf tells her to forget the happy persona most people try to project, that every home has shed its own tears for tragedies and sorrows and distress and fears that are kept hidden from the world, but are nonetheless there.
One wolf believes that if those in her life could listen to her thoughts, they would abandon her for sure. She builds a wall of stone around her morbid world so that she can never be hurt again.
The other reminds her that they didn’t leave her during those moments of bleakness, that they have stood by her during the ugliest hours, and that they are still around. The wolf says that she is safe to be real and transparent, that peace comes with authenticity.
One wolf knows for certain she will never feel better. She has given up on trying to get better. She is tired, disillusioned, and deflated. After opening her mind time and time again to new ideas and strategies, and investing the energy needed to pursue them, she has no more space in her heart for hope.
The other reminds her that her track record for getting through difficult times so far is 100 percent, that there is always room for hope, even if a heart is rock hard from trying and failing and trying and failing and failing once more. She says that although depression feels permanent, there is nothing in this world that is constant, that biochemistries evolve and relationships shift and situations change, and not one thing is the same from moment to moment, therefore there is always the potential to begin again, and for healing to happen.
I suppose I feed both wolves every day.
When I have my hand out to feed love and hope, the other wolf snatches the goodies, and suddenly I’m filled with envy and anger. I try so hard to do all the right things — eat right, meditate, exercise, pray, get support, help people — but the “dis-ease” will present symptoms, and then I have to start over.
But I know about these wolves now.
I know how deceptive the wolf of despair can be, but how powerful the force of compassion and kindness are.
All I have to do is keep trying to feed the wolf of peace and benevolence, to continue to hope and have faith even when good health seems impossible, and the other one will eventually get bored and stop begging for food.
Be sure to check out a collection of podcasts — interviews with authors and thinkers about this Cherokee legend — at oneyoufeed.net. My interview airs Dec. 9 at 6:30 pm EST.
Video: The One You Feed - 133 Parker J Palmer
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