Antidotes to dark times

Last night I saw the legendary Michael Leunig speak. For those not from Australia, Leunig is a cartoonist, poet, and philosopher from Melbourne. Leunig’s work often speaks to the inner child and to finding beauty in dark and unexpected places. In this presentation, Leunig discussed some key themes from his work and how he has often aimed to provide an antidote is his section of the newspaper to the darkness presented in the rest of the paper. So I thought I’d share with you some of Leunig’s musings on his own work that I think can all help us in our pursuit towards better mental health.

Sanity in the face of Insanity
Leunig thinks it is remarkable people manage to keep their head when faced with the insanity our world provides. He provided an example of himself being lost at sea in a storm as a child and how he sat there calmy amongst the chaos of men trying to stop the boat from sinking. He feels this is how many of us live our everyday lives, just barely holding it together. In Leunig’s view, the world is going mad and it is the younger generations in particular who are suffering. I really identified with one thing he said which was ‘the mind we have is not a given’. Insanity or mental illness can happen to anyone, especially when our world is filled with so much chaos. Leunig spoke about how we treat our minds similar to how we treat the planet; like a dump. This self-pollution of the mind and psyche prevents us from ever being the best version of ourselves. Leunig’s work reflects a desire to help counteract the self-pollution and to help his readers maintain clarity in dire times.

Understanding the value of Melancholy
This a theme I have always enjoyed of Leunig’s as it resonates with my experience of Bipolar Disorder. When you have Bipolar, it is useful to try and find meaning and value in your mood episodes. So finding beauty in the darkness and value in melancholy can be helpful. Leunig argues that it is important to move through cycles of melancholia and to integrate the understandings it gives you into life so that you may better appreciate joy. However according to Leunig, melancholy isn’t just useful for appreciating joy but is also sacred in and of itself. There is a pleasure, soulfulness and certain feeling of being alive that comes with loneliness. In relation to my own experience, I have always told people that in some respect I feel blessed to have Bipolar because I will feel depths of human experience that most people never get to reach. And in an odd way that makes me feel alive, to feel empty. The introspection and insight one can gain about life and themselves in these moments is monumental. Leunig does a superb job of illustrating this point both in conversation and in his art.

Embracing all forms of Love
When Leunig first began asking us ‘what is love?’ I thought he was going to make a statement about the recent plebiscite on same sex marriage in Australia. But instead he talked about what I interpreted as forms of self-love; acceptance, kindness, and forgiveness. These compassionate approaches to love can be used with others and with the self. In discussing the diverse meanings of love, Leunig presented his first ever drawing of Mr. Curly, one of his most beloved characters. Mr. Curly, a character with a vertical curl in his head, must learn to accept and love who he is. Leunig described how we all have a ‘peculiar curl within; that we must accept and learn to nourish in order to experience true joy. This self-love Leunig spoke of, a love that allows our own uniqueness to shine through, resonated with how I am choosing to live my life right now. A life of compassion, towards others and the self, is a life well lived.

It may seem odd at first reflecting on the musings of a cartoonist on a blog that largely deals with mental health, psychology and sport psychology. But Leunig’s work has always helped me in my own mental health and recovery so I wanted to share how a few of the themes in his work may help you (and may inspire you to check out his work). If we break these themes down into advice for living well it would come down to this:
-Distance yourself from environments that pollute your mind
-Appreciate the dark times for what they are and learn from them
-Treat yourself and others with compassion, kindness and forgiveness.
In my opinion, these are pretty good words to live by, especially if you are living with a mental illness.

Thank you, Leunig, for a wonderful night of wisdom and for your lifetime of work.

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