The gift of depression
Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going?” – Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
My journey is one of belonging. It is one of belonging because in my human distraction, noise, busyness, frustration, hardness I often forget that I – or a part of myself, or a part of another – belongs.
I was thinking of belonging this evening as my 7 year old son lamented all the frustrations in his life – his fear and discouragement about saving up enough money to go to China to visit the temple of his kung fu master (saving $3000 feels impossible to him); all the ways his feelings had been hurt by some classmates; his frustrations with his family.
As I listened to him, what was interesting to me was realizing that he, too, was speaking of belonging. Here are some quotes: “Since I started kung fu, I don’t play dress up anymore. My friends might laugh at me.”
“Home is where I feel safe, where I feel like I can be myself.”
“When my friend climbed the tree higher than anyone else at school, I got mad at him because people stopped being my friend and became his instead.”
And, “Some people’s houses feel cold and empty, even when it’s warm outside.”
At one point he asked me, “Why should I be who I am when people might laugh at me?” A pretty poignant question. I thought about it a moment and said, “Well, when I don’t feel like I can be myself, I feel empty inside, like I’m missing me.”
Whether it’s our dreams, our hearts, our emotions, our bodies, or struggles, or our quirks, we long to belong – to feel that we can be who we are; that there is room for all of us. Without this invitation, our hearts cry out in longing. We long for an invitation that accepts all of our humanity.
One of my parts that I have hard time including in my circle of belonging is depression. It’s a part of me that I have valiantly tried to overcome and cut out and make disappear. Oh, how I have gone to war against this part of me. Like my sensitivity, it’s the part of me that is most tied to my shame.
I call this part of me the black hole, for when this part of me flares, it touches a deep, hollow, dark, place. It’s one of the loneliest feelings I’ve ever experienced. When I’m in the thick of it, it’s hard to remember that I’m not alone, and because it’s so vulnerable – and because other people’s comfort with my darkness is only equivalent to their comfort with their own – it’s equally hard for me to reach out and reassure myself that I’m not alone.
Today the black hole appeared. I don’t choose it; it arises from somewhere deep in my psyche on its own accord. When it does, it’s one of those moments, of, “Oh, okay there you are,” and then to soften, soften, soften my heart in order to make room for it.
So I called my grandma and listened to her stories of growing up in the depression. (This is a picture of she and I from a few years ago.) I called one of my childhood best friends. I cried. I laid on my bed. I ate the soup I’d made yesterday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (It was fortunate most of my kids didn’t like it, for there were lots of leftovers.) Eating soup feels like getting a hug on the inside, in my belly.
There is something very healing about giving yourself soup and phone calls and – yes, yes – especially tears when you hurt.
Later on, I went to the grocery store while my son was at kung fu. Among other things, I needed a birthday card. While I was looking at the cards, I noticed the gift books nearby.
I flipped through one, read a few lines about gratitude, peace, and finding serenity in God and noticed that my heart felt squeezed and sore. That’s because I was feeling anything but peaceful or grateful or serene or surrendered to God. I felt empty and lonely. And honestly, I felt a tiny bit ashamed because of this.
Then I heard a tender voice, there in the grocery store aisle: “Sweetheart, this belongs too. Everything belongs.” It struck me so powerfully that tears filled my eyes. I felt my whole heart and body soften, and as I drove to pick up my son I felt the same warmth I receive from a bowl of soup: the warmth of nourishment and belonging and rest. Sweet, sweet rest.
Everything belongs. Even my depression. Even my darkness. Even my pain. All of me. All of you.
In the Sufi tradition, one of the basic prayers says, in so many words, that there is no god but God. It reminds me of the Jewish prayer, Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” They both speak to this unity, this Oneness – that everything is included, is dear, is precious, is held: that everything belongs.
There are no outcasts from Love. There is no god but God.
It is good to remind my heart of this. When I forget this truth, I go to war against my darkness, against my depression, against my own heart. Healer, writer and mystic Rachel Naomi Remen says it like this: “We are not a kind culture. We have contempt for the parts of ourselves that are capable of suffering.”
One of the ways that I show contempt for my suffering is when I try to portray it as something that I’ve overcome. I ache and feel a bit (okay, a lot) uneasy when I try to package up my life in a before and after snapshot: this is how bad it was – this is my messed up self before. And voila! Here I am now, all fixed, all ducks in a row. As a writer and teacher, I have at times felt pressured to package up myself in that way. It never feels very good. I suspect it doesn’t make anyone else feel good either.
It also feels off, as if this linear progression of before and after misses the circles and cycles and seasons that feels like a much more accurate description of my or anyone’s actual experience. I look to Nature as a teacher, for it seems to offer a grounded rendering of life as it is and points to the mystery that underlies it. What the cycles of Nature tell me is that there is no before and after, there is only an ebb and a flow, a season for everything.
In my heart, I know there is no before that I have triumphed over; there is only a deeper inclusion, a greater integration of what heretofore had been cut off and fragmented. There is only belonging where there had been separation. Sometimes the instigator of this belonging is my own heart; sometimes it’s another’s; sometimes it’s life itself.
Packaging my journey as a before and after severs my belonging. It separates me both from my wounded parts as well as the wisdom and growth and gifts that have been born through my inclusion of these parts, through my walk with my deepest challenges. Theologian and writer Frederick Buechner says it like this: “If you manage to put behind you the painful things that happen to you as if they never really happened or didn’t really matter all that much when they did, then the deepest and most human things you have in you to become are not apt to happen either.”
The deepest and most human things in me have been borne through my sorrow, through things like depression: “May this suffering awaken my compassion.” It’s how I’ve grown a bigger heart.
In my journey of belonging, I find it and feel it most powerfully not with my strengths or when I’m having a proud parenting moment or on those days when all feels well. I find it on the days when I feel a little tender, a little lonely, a little lost. I find it with the least of these; with the outcasts of my own heart.
Last night, the temperatures here in Texas finally cooled, and we pulled out our sweaters, socks, hot apple cider and a puzzle. Because the summers are so long here, we get as excited about wearing our cozy clothes as we once did about wearing our summer gear in Montana. We even played a few Christmas carols.
Okay, I admit that Christmas carols are some of my favorite music, no matter the season, but something about the cooler weather brings to mind the holidays, so we went with it. As we listened to “O Holy Night,” I was struck – as I always am with this song – by the line “and the soul felt its worth.”
When my black hole parts appear, it is a chance to belong. It is a chance to soften my contempt for my suffering parts, to bow to what is, and to make room for this part of me. It is a chance to stretch my heart.
This heart stretched space is where I feel the worth of my soul. It is where I feel and know that I belong. It is where I feel and know that everything belongs.