...above all, do not despair.

No. 009 - 18 July 2023
Hello friend,

I'm setting aside my "think ... do" framework this week for one important reason: I'm sharing a bit of personal reflection which I do not presume relates to any one else's experience. So I shall not prescribe a "do" for anyone, nor even suggest a particular way one best thinks about the topic at hand. A "think...do" approach communicates something prescriptive. I am seeking, instead to be only descriptive, of my experience alone. As friends in recovery say, "take what you can use and leave the rest."

Last week we released a sort of career retrospective interview with Parker Palmer, Quaker activist, writer, and speaker. Parker is a remarkable human being, and I was delighted to spend a day with him and his wife Sharon in Madison, Wisconsin on a beautiful spring day. 

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I raised in the interview a matter about which Parker has written and spoken publicly: his struggle with three bouts of debilitating depression. His forthright conversation seemed to me laudable and worthy.

This got me thinking about my own experience with depression, which I have spoken about publicly on a few occasions, but written about very little. So here we are.

This picture is from our show at the Ryman Auditorium, November 2013. You can see my sweet friend Buddy Greene standing there upstage right with his guitar, ready for his set, and that's me standing, talking, downstage center. That night was a great success: the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys, Buddy, Vince Gill, Brother Preacher, and so much more--all was beautiful and moving, with a standing ovation to close the night. In the midst of all that beauty in that picture, I am standing there in a literal spotlight "in the circle," as Ryman lore calls it, appearing so composed, yet I had already slipped, sliding into a hell I had not yet known, an overwhelming depression afflicting me for two and a half years, then intermittently for yet another year or so.

The great burden had begun. I had known periods of heavy melancholy since I was a boy. I've always been sensitive, and in many cases overly so. But I had never known that debilitating heaviness that came upon me that dark winter. It was an education about a too common human experience which, I realized while in the midst of it, that I could never really understand apart from the experience of it. I would never wish that education upon anyone.

I would be hard pressed to tell how I emerged from that hell. I do not know.  I can only, without any sort of feigned piety, say it was grace.

One thing I've learned about grace--and here, allow me to make it clear again I speak only for myself--is that grace has seldom to me, perhaps never, come in any sort of blinding moment of clarity or instantaneous healing or swift deliverance. The graces I have known typically show themselves, as the psychiatrist William James once categorized them (or so I recollect), as the "slow educational variety."  Which is to say that the grace appeared like some tender sprout in a garden, a tendril of life wanting to live, pushing up out of the dirt. But why, finally, and after much too long? I do not know. I do know that I look back on that season as one in which I had to lean into whatever measure, sometimes imperceptibly small, of weed pulling, or plowing, or watering of and in my soul, so that something could, something might spring new.

The clearing, weed pulling in my own soul meant, for a while, taking a little pill everyday. I was reticent to start with the pill. I called a friend who is a psychiatrist, and who's read lots of theology and moral philosophy. I said to him:  "I know you could talk about this at great length, but give me the short answer as to why you think lots of Christians are reticent to take anti-depressants."  He replied something like: "I think that that reticence to take anti-depressants is a holdover of the gnostic heresy which refuses to take seriously the brain as a part of the body." I replied: "thank you, that's all I needed to hear."

So I started taking the pill. Or I did for a while, until it stopped helping me. So then I stopped. I found myself reticent to start back on some other prescribed pill not because I have any theological or medical reason to object to such. I did not and still do not. Instead, I found myself reticent (and perhaps this was irrational) to try other anti-depressants because I was fearful that I might somehow waste my pain. That is, I suspected that there were things I needed to learn. I wanted the pain to be converted into some sort of growth, some sort of maturation. But I retained, to this day, a willingness to take medication if that's what, after all, I seemed to need. 

But meanwhile, I suffered the pain, and sought not to waste it.

I did extensive therapeutic work. Therapy was work that on many days felt simply like a profound and intelligent friendship.  On other days, on the days we did EMDR, the therapy seemed like voodoo. That voodoo one day left me sobbing and cursing and recollecting occasions of being shamed, one event after another--most occurring within the context of church walls--being recollected by my conscious wakeful self like a nightmarish dream, an overwhelming litany of humiliations. The sobbing and cursing yielded a simple recognition: there were too many occasions in which some who should have known better or should have done better didn't, or couldn't. Then, suddenly (maybe this was a moment of rather instantaneous grace, after all), I saw that I did not have to experience my adult world through the lens of that good-hearted boy who was shamed in ways he should not have been. I would no longer, God willing, be imprisoned by the unreasonable expectations, foolish judgments, or mean spirited harshness of others.  I set out on a quest, a pursuit, of a "healthy I don't give a damn." That adjective, "healthy," would be indispensable; but learning not to squander my care, not to squander my emotions, was the first step, even if it was first done poorly.

This quest meant that I had to get better at speaking my mind, and telling the truth as I understood it, as best I was able, and more quickly. (This is the last time I shall say it, but I speak only for myself. Some may need to speak more slowly.) I was rather good at speaking my mind in public, in writing, in teaching, in public speaking. Well, "good" may not be the right word there, because sometimes, looking back, I was being foolhardy rather than courageous. But in interpersonal relations, I was often struck with a mute inability to say what I thought, struck deaf and dumb by the overwhelming irresistible impulse to be nice, afflicted with a cowardly conflict avoidance that stuffed years of unvoiced anger back down into the recesses of my soul, where it had festered and suppurated until it boiled over into the dark heavy hell in which I found myself.

Somewhere along the way, I came across the notion of trying to "do something hard everyday." This was a simple way of practicing courage.  Physical courage--the challenging workout, or screwing up the guts to learn to fly sailplanes--became a translatable skill into moral and inter-personal courage: to tell the truth as I saw it. Like the day at lunch when I knew I had to say something which I thought terribly true which stood at odds with the convictions of the person-with-power sitting across the table, and my voice, Lord how embarrassing, my voice and hands shaking as I said what I thought I had to say, lest I crush my own soul under a searing self-hatred for slinking away without voicing the truth.

There were other searing moments of truth-telling, in those days, that were life defining, with a multitude of graces from friends which I do not deserve.

Those days began to include lots of other mundane daily practices which would clear the weeds in my soul and make space for grace:  Lots more exercise. Journaling and praying and meditating and writing (usually bad, but occasionally some surprisingly moving) poetry. More therapy. Accepting myself. Accepting I was overly sensitive. Accepting things I could not change. Letting go of the illusion of control of others. Practicing gratitude. And more.

It was, in fact, like tending a garden, when on some days it seemed that the very best I could do was the smallest bit of work imaginable, and then came a few days here and there of grace made manifest, unbidden by will-power, when there was light, and lightness, and new smiles, and some laughter, and then occasional moments of acute joy and deep gratitude.

Slowly, life began anew, again.

I can still get the fever, be afflicted with the darkness, but I thank God it visits me seldom these days. But when it does, I treat it like having the flu, needing acute attention.

One day when the depression was heavy, I called a friend, sitting on my front porch. He said: "Lee, above all, do not despair." If I were to be prescriptive for anyone suffering under the affliction I've tried to describe here, I think it would be this word from my friend: do not despair. Look for, make space for, the slightest openness to grace, move toward the most subtle movement, even if imperceptibly small, toward light and life.

Do not despair. Life is often so terribly hard and heavy. But it is also so very good, and beautiful, and lovely.

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Peace to you, friend.Best,


p.s. -- for more of my musings, follow my personal social media accounts:

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