This post on Upworthy came to my attention recently. It’s titled “A comic about depression and hard work that everyone should read” by Shing Khor. It’s a short comic about her life, which is funny only because she thinks everyone should read about her life. Granted, I don’t know who exactly came up with the title but I don’t think Shing minds it being what it is. What’s interesting to note here is that the comic is exactly about depression and hard work, not depression causing hard work, which tells me that they have nothing to do with each other and anyway Shing tells us this is the case: “I don’t know what my identity is when I am not working,” the tagline reads. I decided to read this because hey, everyone should read it. Let’s dive in.
“Many of us seem to be trapped in a capitalist dichotomy of our work as the measure of our personal value and the need to express ourselves on our own terms and schedule.”
This is the thesis of the article. What’s important to keep in mind here is not whether or not this statement is true, but rather this is what the author wants to be true. Khor wants three things to be true. 1) that she is trapped in a system outside of her control, 2)that her job is the measure of her worth as a person and 3) she cares about self expression, which she thinks does not come from her job. Note the use of the word dichotomy: two things that are opposed or entirely different. Your job being a measure of personal value is directly opposed to the need to show “who you really are” outside of work IE on your own terms and schedule, which is true if that’s how you see things.
From this perspective, the article/comic has nothing to do with depression and hard work and everything to do with having a crisis of identity and a subsequent attempt at disavowal for said crisis. This isn’t malicious or cowardly, this is unconscious. Reading the comic, we see that this has been a pattern in the author’s life.
“For this one, I wanted to write about how I’ve somehow managed to root my identity in productivity and the corresponding depression that comes when I do not feel I am being productive.”
The identity crisis always means that whoever is experiencing the crisis does not have a strong identity. This is highlighted in the above paragraph. The core of her identity is in “productivity”, though to what end or goal is never explained, and that her depression kicks in when she feels like she’s not being productive. The phrase,”I’ve somehow managed,” is a neat way of saying, “I don’t know how this happened,” which is the manifesting of the disavowal. I’m going to reject this and say that the author knows exactly how this happened, as does everyone who finds themselves agreeing with this sentiment. It is easier to drape yourself in substitutions for identity than having an actual identity.
Three descriptors are given to the tattoo. 1)it’s the most visible 2)it’s a reminder 3)it’s representative of the most important thing to the author. The choice of descriptors is no accident and reveals the truth about her ‘mantra’: she doesn’t believe that herself. If it’s the most important aspect of her life, then why is it a reminder? Yes, this is in fact semantics, but it’s serious semantics. Why would anyone need a physical reminder of the “most important thing” to them? Yes, sometimes people lose sight of what’s important to them, but that’s because what they thought was important was instead what they wanted to believe was important to them. which tells us that that the author more than likely doesn’t actually believe it’s the most important thing to work hard but that she wants to believe that’s the most important thing to her. Case in point, it’s the most visible tattoo. If you don’t think that’s valuable, consider what is equally true about the descriptor but unspoken: it’s the one tattoo everyone she meets will see. People will see it and then believe that she really believes in hard work, and because everyone else will believe this about her, this allows the author to believe it about herself.
The question from here to ask is, “toward what?” What does all the hard work actually amount to? What is the purpose of the hard work? Unfortunately, I’m being rhetorical, because there is no purpose to it. The author tells us this herself in the words, “the most important thing.” Khor values hard work for the sake of hard work; there is no overarching goal to it. Endless activity for it’s own sake, by which I mean there’s a hidden reason of course. The only people who value endless activity are people that don’t wish to understand themselves. Take note, this does not make those people terrible or deficient in any way. Understanding yourself is cripplingly difficult and always comes with a heavy price, as it always demands change. This can then be understood as using endless activity as a defense against change. You know those people that go into therapy and come out saying “I really understand myself now,” and yet they’re still the same person? Can you honestly say they understand themselves?
Here’s where we see the reality: “I’m depressed because I don’t know who I am.” This article should be titled ‘Depression and identity’ not ‘depression and hard work’ because hard work has nothing to do with why she’s depressed and everything to do with why she continues to be depressed. It’s not the lack of productivity which causes her depression, it’s the fact that when she stops being productive, she is forced to confront herself and sees nothing in the mirror.
Once again, I’ll make the clarification that work=job, so the sentence really is, “I’ve tied my own worth and dignity to my abilities at my job. It’s not healthy but there it is.” The problem is that the first statement is totally normal and healthy, at least in partial capacity; you should derive some worth and dignity from your job. The fact that she sees this as unhealthy is because she tells us (read: wants us to believe) that she’s tied all of her worth and dignity to her job, which is a lie. How can you know your own worth and dignity if you don’t know who you are? If anyone can answer that, I’ll retract that assertion. Until such time, this statement is better understood as a disavowal, “I prevent myself from knowing my own worth and dignity by using my ability to work. It’s not healthy, but there it is.” Not healthy indeed.
The tragic part of this is that Khor could definitely come to understand herself better if she allowed the job to become a part of her identity, and instead of focusing on working hard, focused on doing her job well. I’m not saying she doesn’t do her job well, I’m saying that’s secondary to working hard. She doesn’t do this though because of what she wants to be true in the thesis. Her need to express herself (read:form and define her identity) on her own time and schedule (read: impossible all or nothing proposition) cannot be derived from her job which measures her personal worth, as these are diametrically opposed. In other words, if expressing ones self is what can constitute identity, it can’t be found at work.
The justification of the disavowal begins here. Note that the identity of ‘immigrant’ is not something she has formed on her own, but something her parents gave her by virtue of moving her to America. We also now see it’s the same thing with the ‘hard work’ identity. It was something given to her through the identity of ‘immigrant’ which was given to the author by her parents. This explains the lack of self-understanding the author has: the root of her identity is that she is an extension of her parents and not her own person. In this way, she makes the case, “I don’t know who I am because of my parents.” Note the statement “we have to,” as in she doesn’t have a choice, which I will say this: that is exactly what a child would think.
The author believes that she doesn’t have much talent and is never the smartest person in the room. Never mind whether or not that’s correct, the important thing is that she sees these as deficient qualities of her character. She believes natural talent has an important bearing on success, and not just being smart but the smartest person in the room, a sentiment she picks up from her father: “You can be anything you want as long as you work hard to be better at it than anyone else.” Thing is, natural talent is always secondary to drive, which is easy to see that she has an abundance of. Being the smartest person in the room isn’t great either, it tells you that you’re in the wrong room. Regardless, the point of telling you this is to hide the ridiculous nature of the next panel.
Lie. I’m not even sorry about that. That is such an outlandish assumption to make it’s tragic that Khor can believe in it to such an extent. Understand that the author is not being hyperbolic here; this is how she actually sees the world. Whether she is [never] the smartest person in the room or that she [has] to work hard, it’s clear that Khor mostly views the world in terms of extremes, black and white like a child would.
It’s important to point out here that while she says the most important thing to her is working hard, what she is supremely confident in is not her ability to work hard, but her ability to work longer than anyone. No one can tell whether or not she is actually working hard, only that she’s staying late. Note the unspoken implication here. If her dignity and self-worth is dictated by the fact that she believes that she can work longer than anybody, that means she thinks she is actually better than her co-worker by staying later than them. Put another way, she needs her co worker to leave early so Khor can stay late so she can feel better about herself. While I’m sure it’s not her intention to push her ideals onto other people, the sad reality is that in order to sustain her self-worth in this way, she needs other people around her to be worse than her in regards to how long they are willing to work, or in other words, her sense of self is dictated by everyone but her.
The author’s problem is not that she’s depressed (though she is), but that she’s a narcissist. Narcissism doesn’t have to be the stereotypical grandiose sense of self, like Mark in accounting who thinks he’s the shit at everything. It’s also Janice in the back who thinks she is actually shit at everything. The only thing you need to be a narcissist is an isolated sense of the world that only takes you into account. In the narcissist’s world, only they can matter, whether they are self-flagellating or self-congratulatory is irrelevant. Case in point, her childhood idols:
She thinks the trait of hard work (read:work longer than anyone) is upheld by her childhood idols, her father and Laura Wilder, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Her father talks about being better, through which hard work is a necessary action to take. Laura wilder says you should do your best and work hard, which implies that at least to Wilder, the two are not one and the same. The narcissism is found here where the author has whether intentionally or not distorted the meanings of these sentiments to align with her sense of the world. Both of her idols saw hard work as a means to an end (being better than anyone/doing you best), but Khor sees hard work as an end to itself.
“Wait, how is this narcissism?”
She’s distorts the message of her idols to fit her current perspective. She doesn’t try to understand what they were actually trying to tell her and then allow that information to change her perspective IE they don’t actually matter to her. I bet she cares about her father a great deal, but caring about someone is not the same as valuing them. She cares but doesn’t value (read:narcissism), and this is what allows her to ignore the blatant truth staring her in the face: Her father worked hard so they could move to America because he wanted to give them a greater chance at a better life. However, this would imply that her father is his own person with aspirations and dreams, but Khor can’t have that image in her head because it proves to her that she doesn’t actually value him. She can’t value him because he is the reason why she’s depressed.
Don’t forget the narrative she has created. The immigrant identity is coded into her; Khor can’t help but work hard. Even her father tells her hard work is the most important thing, even though nothing he talked about revealed anything about what he believes is the most important thing (hint:his family). Khor sees herself as an extension of her father and the immigrant culture, but that’s the disavowal. Until she can uncouple her identity from her father, she can never actually value him. Expanding, until she can separate her self-worth from the actions of others, she can never value anyone, she can only ever care. Deeply. This is why despite this:
She keeps the job because of this:
When you cannot value but only care, it means you care too much. The emotions are in the driver’s seat and you become addicted to emotional highs and lows as a substitute for value. Like a toxic relationship where you fight with your girlfriend all day and at the end of it you make up, it assures you that you really do love her. I’ll grant that you really do love her, but you don’t value her, which is why you fight in the first place. You fight for the emotional high which then substitutes for value, which I’ve been skirting the connection here, value=identity. The toxic relationship, like the emotional roller coaster of a job the author has is in fact a substitution for identity. “The good days are [so] good.” I bet they are.
If you find yourself identifying with Khor to a large extent, then here’s some advice: Whatever story you tell yourself is the reason why you’re depressed/manic/angry/whatever, stop. It’s probably not the real reason anyway. I don’t know what is, I don’t know you, but if I had to guess it would be: you, like everyone else, is afraid of change. Not only are you afraid of change, but you’re afraid of being afraid, so you do what you can to not feel fear. However, if you want to get out of that hell, then unfortunately the answer is surprisingly simple.
p.s. I’m always amazed at how much people empathize with depression and but completely shut down against narcissism. Narcissism is a psychic defense just like depression. Depression is a response to the overwhelming nature of a given situation, your way of telling yourself to slow the fuck down and figure things out. Narcissism means that you’ve not only been hurt bad, but that you were never taken seriously in regards to that pain. Isolation of that magnitude is a recipe for suicide, so we compensate by distorting the isolation to become self-imposed rather than other-imposed. If it’s about us, we can survive and keep moving forward. That’s just what I think anyway.