Cook: This is not a sad column

Cook: This is not a sad column

September 4th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

By now, you've probably heard the news: Ben Friberg made it.

Earlier this summer, our own Friberg became the first to stand-up paddle board from the shores of Cuba to Florida. Ninety-some-odd miles, entirely on his paddle board, with plenty of sharks under his feet and a hurricane brewing somewhere to the east.

"The first time I got scared was when it was completely dark and it was really choppy and I could not read the chop any more with my eyes. I could not feel my feet underneath me," he said.

Less well known is the journey of my pal Chris Janda and Gene Haman, two regular-guy Chattanoogans who earlier this summer rode their $100 off-the-big-box-store-shelf bikes from Colorado all the way back home.

Like Friberg, they made it, too.

Listening to them stirred up something in me, namely this: I wanted an adventure. Talking with them, I heard a half-plea in my voice, like the tag-along cartoon dog: hey Spike, whatcha doing next? Spike, hey Spike, can I come, too?

Ye ask and ye shall receive. Turns out, organizers are re-creating the Spanish tradition of running with the bulls. This October, in a park outside Atlanta, $50 lets you run alongside 24 big burly bulls, just like in Pamplona, Spain.

"Grab life by the horns," invites the Great Bull Run of Atlanta.

That was it, the adventure to be had. I ever-so casually mentioned my plans, between spilled milk, at dinner.

"Noooo!," screamed my daughter, who then spilt her milk again. "You'll die!"

(Note to organizers: change your prepositions a bit. Rather than running with the bulls, how about calling it: running after the bulls. Running behind the bulls. Running somewhere close to the bulls. It would ease my daughter's mind, picturing as she was her dear-old-dad getting gored like a toothpick through a squishy, middle-aged, green grape.)

"Dad," my diplomatic son began, "why can't you do something else?"

Like what son? Fantasy football? Hemingway didn't work in a cubicle. Rocky Balboa was a boxer and meat-packer, not pencil pusher. A man is meant to ... to ... well, what exactly are men supposed to do?

What does it mean to be a man in 21st century America?

Long ago, Thoreau warned us about leading lives of mass desperation, a clock-in, clock-out blandness that snuffs out any possibility of excitement, joy and meaning.

Men feel this greatly these days. We want a life worth living. Shouldn't we run with bulls? Swim with Cuban sharks? Bike the Rockies? Yes, by Jove, we should.

Then I saw this report from USA Today: "A new study finds that depression may be far more common in men than had been thought."

Researchers, using new forms of diagnosis, suggest that one-third of all men have been depressed.

Is that what it means to be a man? Depressed?

Years ago, a head-locking depression came that was so profound, it left me near-paralyzed, sad to the point that tears came and wouldn't stop coming. Getting out of bed was heroic.

Like the tap-out moment in a cage fight, surrender was my only choice. It was then that a door appeared, and a new sort of adventure and journey began. I had to descend into a place I had long tried to avoid: my own interior.

"Major depression is the startling collapse of a whole structure," wrote Andrew Solomon in "The Noonday Demon."

Collapsing depression felt like the belly of the whale, wrestling the angel at midnight. One friend called it the barroom of the soul. The bitter cup kept getting refilled.

But structures can be rebuilt; the work of my depression was to confront the monsters, to find ways to paddle among the sharks in deep water, to ride up the long mountain at midnight. Unforgettable friends came to help, but the work was mine and mine alone.

"Depression claims more years than war, cancer, and AIDS put together," wrote Solomon. "Other illnesses, from alcoholism to heart disease, mask depression when it causes them; if one takes that into consideration, depression may be the biggest killer on earth."

If one-third of all men suffer from depression -- the biggest killer according to Solomon -- then it is time we finds ways to face the dragons. It is, of course, more complicated than this, but a truth remains: the most important journey we can take becomes the one we take into ourselves.

And sooner or later, we reach the far shore. This column then is encouragement. Loving, bolstering encouragement to those on the slippery, scary edge of things.

We can make it too.

"Don't count out the human spirit," Janda said when he returned from his bike trip. "It's a lot more powerful than nuclear bombs. It's enduring."

There out in the great ocean, Friberg, afraid in the night, looked up.

"A zillion stars," he said.

There in the darkness of his journey, a beautiful light.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.