I have a confession to make. I spent most of the winter, and now the first bit of spring, sliding down into a situational depression. Just when I was launching this new ministry, just when I most needed to be able to write inspiring pieces that would nourish people for the hard work ahead, I fell face forward into a pit of despond. It is a soft, pillow-lined pit—I have food and shelter and clothing and medical care and the love of family and friends—but it is nevertheless a pit. And it is proving hard to climb out of. Partly it’s the weather: where I live, down in a hollow in a cedar forest, it has rained over 90 inches, more or less continuously, in the past 6 months, and there is no sign of it stopping anytime soon. Anyone would get depressed in these conditions. But mostly it’s because the state of the world is so wretched that I am having a hard time finding hope.
For several weeks I thought that I should not write about this because it would be bad for general morale. If my job is to help give people hope, how would it look if, instead, I shared my own fear and despair? How could I give people hope if I have none myself? How would it look if a person who purports to offer wisdom and strength for healing admits to being all out of wisdom and strength herself? And then just sits down in the middle of the road and cries, like a toddler who wants to be carried instead of having to walk? So I thought, I can’t write anything until I feel better.
But then several things came to mind.
First, this happens to a lot of people, even the most wonderful people. Even the most gifted spiritual teachers, even those whose teachings sparked the beginnings of whole new religions, and the greatest leaders of social change: the Buddha, Muhammed (pbuh), Confucius, Hildegard of Bingen, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day. All the great spiritual teachers and leaders have had times of fear and despair. Even Jesus. He went out into the desert alone to wrestle with his fear and his faith. At his life’s end he is said to have cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Quoting Psalm 22, one of the most gorgeous descriptions of spiritual desolation ever written.)
And not only the great spiritual leaders, but anyone sensitive enough to be what my brilliant friend Rev. Theresa Ines Soto calls a “full-time human,” is going to experience situational depressions and periodic losses of hope, because life is hard. The long dark night of the soul is just part of it. Life is also spectacularly wonderful, but it is damned hard a lot of the time. (I love Glennon Doyle Melton’s blending of “beautiful” and “brutal” into “brutiful.”) And when you add on what is happening now in our world, well, life is even harder.
Second, where did I get the idea that my job is to give people hope? What is hope, anyway, and is it necessarily a good thing? There are many definitions. One is the simple idea that good things are possible. I like this definition because this kind of hope is clearly applicable and useful in any situation. Good things are always possible, even in the worst situations. Another, in more common currency, is the belief that the outcome we desire will come to pass if we only work or pray or try hard enough. I don’t like this one at all because a) it is magical thinking, b) it is colonizing thinking (who says the outcome we desire is really what’s best?), c) it puts the whole burden on just our own self, d) so many other reasons. Alas, it is the working definition for a good number of activists, and not coincidentally why so many (especially privileged ones) burn out. As an alternative, Margaret Wheatley, Thomas Merton, Paul Rogat Loeb, and a number of other activist writers suggest that it is more effective to release our attachment to particular outcomes and continue doing the work because it is the right thing to do, and the people doing it are the people we most want to be in relationship with. In this way activism can actually be nourishing rather than exhausting.
Still, if we can agree that we like the definition of hope as the idea that good things are possible, is it my job to give people hope? All the time?
Actually, ministers, and full-time humans, have many jobs. Sometimes our job is indeed to be a purveyor of hope. Other times, our job is to witness, and to accompany. To witness what is really going on, to name it as best we can, and to accompany those who are in the midst of it—whatever “it” is. It might be something entirely joyful: a student graduating, a couple falling in love, the election of leaders who will devote themselves to the flourishing of all beings. But it also might be something terrible: the death of a beloved child, domestic violence, the ascendance of white male supremacy, irreversible climate change and mass extinction, the bombing of poor countries.
Witnessing and accompanying mean helping people know they are not alone, however terrible things are or however wonderful. They are not alone, and they are held in a whole that is larger than anything they can imagine. This whole might be our whole starry universe, or it might be God, or it might be something else entirely, depending on one’s spiritual orientation. So even if you are feeling hopeless, even if you are afraid for your life and the lives of those you love, even if you are in anguish and despair over racism and misogyny and homophobia and ableism and climate change and extinction, you are not alone.
Third, and related to the above, if there is one thing I have learned as a minister it is that ignoring grief, not allowing ourselves to feel our real feelings, causes depression. It is essential to grieve what we have lost and what we are continuing to lose. Our grief wakes us up to our connections. If we are experiencing the worst crisis in the history of the world, we need to be able to grieve what is being lost. Only if we can allow ourselves to grieve will we be able to move into effective, loving action, whatever that action may be.
Joanna Macy says that we cannot know, at this time in the world, whether we are witnessing the end of life as we know it, or bringing to birth a new and better age. Either way we are midwives, in the old sense of the word: a midwife was in the middle between birth and death, bringing new life into the world and seeing the dead out of it. Whether we are witnessing the end of everything, or bringing to birth something new, or some combination of both, what is required of us are the same qualities of being: deep, unflinching presence to what is, and deep compassion for all beings.
Finally, to heal a personal depression and then widen the circle of healing into the world, we need meaning and beauty and connection. We sometimes also need a little medical help. I find it very hard to seek connection and help when I am depressed, and then the more isolated I become, the worse the depression gets. Last week, in desperation, I did two things: first I went to my doctor and got started on a low dose of a mild antidepressant. Then I spoke to my spiritual director, Rev. Cathleen Cox. and she gave me a sentence to write down and repeat to myself until I believe it. Because I was dubious about the first sentence, she gave me another, and another, until there was a whole paragraph. This may help you, too:
“It is a contribution to the well-being of life for me to reach out to others and share with them my feelings and needs. Everyone needs connection now. I serve others when I model reaching out for connection and give others the opportunity to feel good about giving. If we all speak our feelings and needs together, who knows what positive things may happen.”
What are your feelings and needs right now, during these very difficult times? Are you able to reach out for connection and the help you need? What might happen if we all speak our feelings and needs together?
Let us speak them and find out.