A few years back, while traveling in South Africa, I stumbled upon a village nestled among a thousand green rolling hills along the Indian Ocean coastline. It was surrounded by raw, immaculate beaches, empty except for the cows and donkeys that strolled along the shore. Perfect waves peeled back from the flawless sand. Each day, I explored the area and surfed until I was so tired that I couldn’t paddle anymore. The people of the village lived in traditional mud huts called rondavels, and they welcomed me with open arms.
The connection I felt to this place was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was like a taste of heaven. The way it resonated with me made it fell, in some mysterious way, like home. After leaving, not a day passed that I didn’t think about going back there.
Not too long ago, I had an opportunity to return. For several months, my wife and I lived in one of those traditional mud huts perched right on top of a lush green hill overlooking the sea. We could see whales breaching from our front yard. We surfed those same perfect waves each day and got to know the community. I was back in paradise.
I felt spectacular for the first few weeks back in the place that had pulled on my heart so strongly. But as time wore on, something shifted. I began to feel isolated and lonely. The language barrier was extremely difficult and navigating the vast cultural disparity was frustrating. Physical illness came. The romance of being in an exotic setting wore off. Before long, I found myself being swallowed up by the dark cloud of depression. The insidious voices of shame and self-contempt began hurling messages about my worthlessness. There I was, back where I had felt an incredible sense of connection, delight, and pleasure—a place that had represented paradise just a few years earlier—and it all had been transmuted into an experience of darkness.
Much of my remaining time living in the village was spent reflecting on these opposing experiences and talking openly with my wife about them. Shakily and with caution, I began wrestling with how to hold together the opposites of light and dark, connection and disconnection, depression and joyfulness. Paradox, I came to learn, is a part of the transformational journey.
Nothing exists without its opposite—winter and summer, day and night, death and rebirth. Living a full life while battling depression has meant accepting the invitation to embrace this paradox, which is often confusing and always challenging. Personal transformation for me has had everything to do with learning how to hold my light, beauty, and strength together with my experiences of depression and anxiety. Transformation has involved seeing myself more truthfully, with more grace and compassion, seeing that the darkness is not the deepest truth of who I am. Alongside it, there is goodness, love, strength, purpose, and worth.
Now, when I walk into new places in the world and risk entering the unknown spaces within me and around me, I continue to be surprised by the light I witness. It calls to mind another journey, in a place far different from the South African shore. I was spending some time in a remote village along the banks of the White Nile in South Sudan, working for an organization that implemented a variety of healthcare and clean water projects in a region that felt like the ends of the earth. One evening, as the setting sun fought off the descent of dusk, a mother arrived in the village carrying her 15-month-old baby boy. He was severely malnourished and fighting for his life. Later that evening, with nurses surrounding him on the floor of the medical tent, he drew his last breath. I was filled with anger and grief that this child was snatched away at the dawn of his life.
Then, a few evenings later, another woman, this one pregnant, arrived in the village on a makeshift stretcher made of tree branches. She was having severe medical complications during labor. Several nurses and a midwife tended to her inside the medical tent—and later that night, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, in precisely the same place as where another had died a few short days prior. I was witness to the mystery of new life arriving in what had been a place of death. Light entered into the very space that had once held only darkness.
The birth of this baby girl did something to me. With her arrival into the world, hope and light was born inside of me too.
As I continue to travel across the globe, depression and anxiety are still there, residing inside of me. The feelings of shame and worthlessness still creep in. The voice of depression is tricky that way; it uses sneaky tactics to make us think the darkness is all there is, and worse yet, that the darkness is who we are. It can blind us to light and beauty. But there is hope found in moments of community and wonder. It continues to draw me forward into living a full life, pursuing that which is most meaningful to me.
And in my mind’s eye, I glimpse a thousand lush, green, rolling hills and remember paradise.