A few friends have picked up on the depression I have been feeling the past few weeks. But it wasn’t one of these that has been most helpful. Another friend gave me a book that speaks a lot to depression while he knew nothing about what I have been going through. In fact, I will have to ask him why he thought I would appreciate it. The book is one by Quaker writer, Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. The two themes he deals with are depression and leadership. He deals with depression so pointedly that it was like having surgery as I read.
Depression, he says, “demands that we reject simplistic answers, both ‘religious’ and ‘scientific’. And learn to embrace mystery, something our culture resists. Mystery surrounds every deep experience of the human heart: the deeper we go into the heart’s darkness or its light, the closer we get to the ultimate mystery of God.” He goes on to say: “Embracing the mystery of depression does not mean passivity or resignation. It means moving into a field of forces that seems alien but is in fact one’s deepest self. It means waiting, watching, listening, suffering, and gathering whatever self-knowledge one can – and then making choices based on that knowledge, no matter how difficult. One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.”
Other thoughts: “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection – it deprivers one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.” Concerning this state of disconnect, he speaks about friends who try to help by saying, “I know exactly how you feel.” “…no one can fully experience another person’s mystery.” This effort of friends to be empathetic, “paradoxically….made me feel even more isolated, because it was oversimplification. Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connections.”
One friend, however, moved Parker to a new place when he said, “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to the ground on which it is safe to stand?” This reminds me of the now famous poem, Footsteps in the Sand.” It is important to see that the person who walked through pain saw that Jesus was walking alongside only after the journey was over. Depression, in my mind is that lonely walk. Palmer is suggesting that, not only is Jesus the invisible friend, but the depression itself is a friend.
“Amid the assaults I was suffering, the suggestion that depression was my friend,” Palmer says, “seemed impossibly romantic, even insulting. But something in me knew that down, down to the ground, was the direction of wholeness, thus allowing that image to begin its slow work of healing me.”
Palmer suggests that God has a purpose in this suffering of depression: “It is the self that is planted in us by the God who made us in God’s own image – the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be.” Who God created us to be, I have learned, is a far cry from what I wanted. But God is patient and waits for me to find my true self because God knows that this is the only way to true happiness.
“…the self is not set apart or special or superior but is a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light where we can finally embrace the humanity we share with others.” He says that coming out of depression was like coming home “to my own skin” for the first time. He felt whole for the first time, he said. “Embracing one’s wholeness makes life more demanding-because once you do that, you must live your whole life.”
I found disconcerting a statement Palmer makes near the end of his chapter on depression: “I made in the midst of depression (the discovery) that a part of me wanted to stay depressed.” I used to believe that there was something sick about people who hang on to their sadness as though it defined them in some way or afforded them an excuse to get attendtion or to shirk responsibility. I think I see what Parker is saying. There is a dark hole in each of us where our inner teacher dwells. When we don’t listen to that inner teacher, it will eventually start shouting at us. For the inner teacher is God who wants our happiness and sometimes we have to face some dark truths about ourselves for happiness to come. If I can see depression this way, I can learn to live with its presence in my life. Most of my life, it has lain dormant. It is only when there is something new for me to learn that it seems rise up and take over for a while.
I am so grateful to be blessed with friends who will stand by me and can help me look into darkness with courage. They are the other footsteps that I used to look back upon…but now I can see them as I walk.
One more thing. I am aware that clinical depression is often the result of chemical imbalance. The blog addresses the kind of depression I myself have experienced over the years.