The title for this sermon comes from a book of essays by twenty two writers who tell us about their experience with depression.
We sang the old African American spiritual to set the stage for this sermon on depression. Each of the writers in Unholy Ghost could have said, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” so why bother. But each chose, instead, to try to articulate the trouble they’ve had with one of the most pernicious problems we humans have–depression.
I didn’t know, for sure, why I picked this book up from a table of current non-fiction books at Barnes and Noble. Just an intuition, I thought, as I read it.
In retrospect I smile- it’s so obvious. It was a good book to read during my recent sabbatical because it’s a book about depression, and I finally admitted to myself that I’ve been wrestling with an undefined type of depression in response to the September 11 attacks, and the ongoing insidious war in Israel- among other world atrocities.
Recent revelations of Catholic priests’ sexual abuse and the ongoing scandal about the manner in which the crimes were ignored, covered up, or denied has added fuel to the internal fires that have been raging since September 11.
The topic of depression isn’t new, of course, but the struggle in the aftermath of September 11 is different from anything I’ve experienced.
A discussion of religion and spirituality worth its salt must acknowledge the emotional component to what we loosely call spirituality, which we locate under the bigger umbrella we call religion.
So I want to dig in, take at least a shovel full of soil that covers the roots of religion, the source of spirituality, and the difficult-to-describe thing we call depression.
The old African American spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost to the ground…”
What about you? What has your experience been, so far, since September 11? I assume you have been ‘down,’ to some extent, and I assume you are here, in part at least, to get back up.
I want to talk out loud about those ups and downs. Some lines from Mary Oliver’s Morning Poem put it this way:
If it is your nature to be happy
You will swim away along the soft trails for hours…
And if your spirit carries within it the thorn
That is heavier than lead-if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging
Is it in your nature to be happy? Does your spirit carry within it the thorn that is heavier than lead? Is it all you can do to keep on trudging?
My working assumption is that both of these aspects of life are going on simultaneously: we have it within our nature to be happy, and we carry the thorn that is heavier than lead.
Let me read some lines I’ve edited from Psalm 40:
I waited patiently for the Lord; and he…heard my cry.
He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and
set my feet upon a rock…
Do not withhold thy tender mercies from me;
let loving kindness and truth preserve me.
…deliver me, O God, and help me.
Let those who seek to destroy me be ashamed and driven backward (let
those who desire to hurt me be turned back and brought to dishonor…)
(As for me I am poor and needy…thou art my help and my deliverer; do not
delay, O my God!)
Since September 11 we’ve been focused on the pit at ground zero, and we’ve had our own experience of the pit the Psalmist wrote about.
It has been a difficult, soul-wrenching and soul-searching time. The attack on September 11 came crashing into our collective psyche as we sat stunned and watched in horror and disbelief. We said, ‘Everything has changed.’
Immediately we went on high alert, feeling a deeply disturbing sense of our vulnerability- we were fearful of more attacks, and we were ready to retaliate, both to protect ourselves and to punish the perpetrators of those savage deeds.
In a flash, we lost our sense of security. We became aware of a strange, ill-defined enemy; we focused our attention and anger on Afghanistan; we felt a sense of participation in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and company.
We have sometimes taken our country for granted- the freedom and security we’ve enjoyed. Then, on September 11 we were startled out of that comfortable coziness and we woke up to the dangers of terrorism.
We had watched terrorism in Northern Ireland for decades; we had witnessed it on nightly news from Israel, but now we experienced that terrible sense of vulnerability.
The suicide bombers are a new and different breed, determined to destroy more than the people they kill, determined to destroy our sense of well being, our sense of security, our very way of life.
We quickly developed a renewed sense of appreciation for our country and our ability to respond to the terrorists.
We experienced a sense of unity not felt so deeply and almost universally since the Second World War when our nation was shattered by the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The difference is that we knew, immediately, who the enemy was and what they were out to do.
But the attack on September 11 was very different. First of all, it was an attack on civilians. Second of all, the terrorists turned our own planes into the bombs by which they brought down the World Trade Center. The World Trade Center is symbolic of the global consciousness that has emerged in recent years. Thirdly, we didn’t know the enemy- the terrorists- they were not a clearly defined group of people, known to most of us as our enemies.
We needed to learn who they were and why they did what they did, and what else might they do.
We went back to the books to learn about Islam’s idea of Jihad, the holy war, and to search for answers that would help us to understand our unanswered questions.
During the days and weeks that followed the attacks we listened to a lot of God talk, from all sides. We were reminded of religion’s tendency to say that ‘God is on our side,’ and we cringed and wanted to distance ourselves from that kind of foolishness, while at the same time we asked how we could be on God’s side by asking, “What’s the right thing to do, now?”
During all of those terrible days, that turned into difficult months, we kept looking at ground zero, at the devastating body count and the colossal physical damage We listened to stories of heroic deeds, and then we began to learn about the behind-the-scenes stories of those in the towers who talked to loved ones for the last time, and the plane that was purposefully crashed by truly heroic passengers in Pennsylvania to prevent it from hitting another target- probably the President’s home.
Day after day we read the ‘portraits of grief’ that the New York Times told about each of the victims and the families and friends they left behind, and the hopes and dreams that were shattered on that dreadful day.
We experienced a common, collective grief, and out of that grief we felt a deep sense of unity: “We are in this together.”
The general characteristics of grief include denial, bargaining, guilt and anger.
The first response we felt was disbelief- it was too much to take in, too horrible to believe. Denial is an important defense mechanism, but it doesn’t last very long.
The few seconds of denial was quickly followed by a sense of outrage. We experienced a collective sense of anger and a determination to retaliate and do whatever is necessary to preserve this great nation of ours.
So, in the weeks and months after September 11 I decided to scrap the sabbatical that had been planned since the spring. It didn’t feel right to be away.
Then I changed my mind and decided that I could do a modified sabbatical. Barbara and Ed and I got together and made a general plan for me to preach once a month during the scheduled sabbatical time, to keep connected.
It worked. I kept connected- but disentangled. I want to tell you how that time was spent.
First, I completed a paper I had promised to write for my Greenfield Group, a study group of 30 Unitarian ministers. I’ve been a member of the Greenfield Group for 29 years- there are only two members left who were there when I arrived in the spring of ’73.
The paper I wrote is titled ‘The Uses of Poetry in Ministry,’ and I’ll deliver it at our convocation at the end of this month.
The next writing project on my sabbatical to-do list was to take the anthology of poems I called Natural Selections, which I recorded on two CD’s, and write a book that would explain what’s religious or spiritually nurturing for me about each of the poems in the collection.
That’s when I was stabbed by ‘the thorn that is heavier than lead,’ and found myself sliding into that slippery pit from which the Psalmist cried out for help.
I went to Barnes and Noble and found the book, Unholy Ghosts.
One of the essays in the collection is from Susanna Kaysen who wrote the book Girl, Interrupted, which I had read and appreciated. She talks about one form of depression as a ‘natural sadness’ that comes to all of us from time to time. Sometimes it comes as grief, as a natural and necessary response to a loss, and sometimes it just comes as a function of being human
She says, “I think melancholy is useful.” She goes on to say talk about her own experience with a certain kind of depression she had as a writer, and what she had to say fit what I was experiencing to a T:
“Here are the characteristic feelings: It’s all wrong. I did it wrong. I’m no good at this. This idea stinks. That paragraph doesn’t mean anything. I can’t ever seem to bring anything I start to completion. Why bother?”
How did she know? It was as though she had been sitting next to me for the weeks when I wrestled with my writing thinking, quite clearly, “This is all wrong, I’m doing it wrong, I’m no good at this, this idea stinks, these pages don’t mean anything.”
My sabbatical time provided an opportunity for me to dig into this kind of feeling, which I’ve basically been able to avoid by keeping busy.
I want to remind you of those famous lines from Henry David Thoreau: “I want to live deep…I want to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it and publish its meanness to the world, and if it’s sublime then to know it by experience and to be able to give a true account of it.”
So I drove this feeling into the corners of my mind and reduced it to its lowest terms, and I was glad when it was over- when the sabbatical time was over and I could get back to what works for me.
I’ve written some things elsewhere about the sabbatical time, but let me add two more things:
A highlight for me was a long weekend I spent with my grandchildren. I planned it. I gave my daughter Sue and her husband Chip a Christmas gift–a weekend away; they could choose where. And part of the deal was that I would stay with Alex and Hannah, (and the dog, Ginger, and Molly the cat.)
Two things about that weekend stand out for me. First, it was a wonderful opportunity to just ‘hang out’ with them. Usually I’m trying to pack meaningful things into our time together, trying to do things to create ‘quality time.’
There were hours when I sat and did some reading and even some writing while each of them did their thing- both spent time reading, and they spent time on the computer and had friends over, and I was just ‘there.’ I loved it.
The other thing that stands out in that weekend was the two movies I convinced them to watch with me. First, one of my all time favorite films, The Elephant Man, the story of human suffering and the healing power of compassion. And the other one I got them to watch was To Kill a Mockingbird.
During the final week of my sabbatical I went on a three-day retreat in Narragansett, Rhode Island, at a catholic retreat center, Our Lady of Peace. I’m familiar with the place because that’s where our Greenfield Group meets, but I had never been there alone, in the Hermitage. It provided the perfect opportunity for me to reflect on the sabbatical, and to prepare for re-entry on Easter.
Back to Unholy Ghost
In addition to Susanna Kaysen’s timely comments, the thing I appreciated most about the collection of essays on depression is that each of them was unique. No one tried to say, “Now this is what depression is like,” or “These are the characteristics of depression.”
There are, of course, two basic categories of depression: the nastiest one is biological or chemical: clinical depression.
The other is ‘reactive depression,’ and it’s the result of the experience of loss and separation.
There’s an old Russian proverb that says, “Why should we be happy when there are so many beautiful things to be sad about.”
It reminds me of the line in the song that says something about “…more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee…”
There’s another line-not Russian, as far as I know, that says, “Most people wouldn’t be so unhappy if they didn’t have such an exaggerated idea about other people’s happiness.”
The United Nations environmental prayer suggests some things about which we do, indeed, feel sad: ‘the land is barren, the waters are poisoned, and the air is polluted.’ But this is not a sermon about President George W. Bush’s assault on the environment, which is, in and by itself, very depressing.
My intention this morning was to tell you about my sabbatical and to acknowledge my personal struggle with a kind of low-level depression that has been haunting me since September 11.
I want to conclude the sermon by asking you to join voices in singing one of my favorite songs with me: Tell Me Why:
TELL ME WHY THE STARS DO SHINE
TELL ME WHY THE IVY TWINES
TELL ME WHY THE SKY’S SO BLUE
AND I WILL TELL YOU JUST WHY I LOVE YOU
BECAUSE GOD MADE THE STARS TO SHINE
BECAUSE GOD MADE THE IVY TWINE
BECAUSE GOD MADE THE SKY SO BLUE
BECAUSE GOD MADE YOU THAT’S WHY I LOVE YOU