Spirituality & Depression

Presented at New Directions Delaware, Inc.
by: Rev. J. Thomas Ledbetter, Pastoral Psychotherapist
December 21, 1998

I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you tonight and speak to you and hopefully with you about spirituality and depression. This is a topic that perhaps many of you could speak to from your own experience and I hope you will do just that later on as we share our thoughts about utilizing your depression for your own spiritual growth.

As we are now in the heart of the "season to be jolly" and some aren't, it is an appropriate time to take a look at spirituality and depression. Tonight I want to first look at the nature of spirituality and see what I am and am not talking about when I talk about spirituality. I mean by spirituality the somewhat simplistic idea of "the patterned ways that we relate to what is ultimate in our lives." So each of us has a spirituality or is a spiritual being since we each hold certain things, ideas, beliefs, practices, to be ultimate in our lives. For example, if consumerism is truly ultimatethat is, if it is of ultimate value -- the most valuable thing to you, not in your professed beliefs but in the recesses of your heart and in your practice, your daily living -- then this is your time of the year. The mall or the glossy catalogs are your worship centers if you hold to a consumerist spirituality. Or you may hold technology to be of ultimate value and worship at that altar and then you will have your patterned ways that you relate to what is ultimate for you. Now this may be too narrow a definition of spirituality and it may offend some that it makes of all persons spiritual beings, but I believe there is some truth here. If you will indulge my understanding of spirituality for a short while then, with this understanding it would be important to evaluate spiritual options and we have plenty of them. And it would be important to evaluate spiritualities to determine if they are helpful and hopeful, if they are reliable means for dealing with the difficult and painful realities of living. Some may not be and may actually be harmful to us as we deal with depression, with grief, with sadness, with pain.

First, it seems to me that a spirituality that will help us must be one that helps us move toward wholeness, not fragmentation or brokenness. Wholeness, healing, becoming whole persons needs to be a by-product of our spiritualities or else we can be hurt by what we hold to be of ultimate value. If the spirituality of your minister or friend or colleague is one that results in your persistent guilt or feeling badly about yourself, then it is probably a spirituality that does not have wholeness as one of its ends. There are religious faiths, religious people, and religious practices that do not have wholeness as a value or goal though they may present themselves that way. Some religious people and sermons have only inappropriate guilt and controlling people as their goal and they hurt people and make people feel badly about themselves and their being and that is a harmful spirituality. They do not have a movement toward wholeness as a vital ingredient in their spirituality.

Secondly, a spirituality that can be of help to us in the here-and-nowness of our lives must be one that is not only focused or grounded out there, but one that knows immanenceright here, right now, in this place, as the arena of the Spirit. In other words, it must be an embodied and concrete spirituality, not just ethereal and transcendent. It is an immanent, embodied, concrete spirituality that knows the present, not just the past, as where God is. God is here, now, not just back then, out there. This spirituality knows sex and the flesh as good and sacred and to be used creatively. It knows every living thing to be of value and it knows every occasion to be one that is pregnant with sacred possibility. We live here, now, in a concreteness that must have a spiritual expression. Spiritual practices can be earthy, sensual, delight-full, awe-full, and in this concrete world of embodied persons, not just other worldly.

Thirdly, our spirituality that can be of help to us in the hard places of life is one that has consciousness as its goal. Here I am not talking about the stereotypical meaning of expanded consciousness, but simply the ability to be aware of who one is, what one is doing and the ability to choose to change. I do not mean a harsh self-blaming, judging consciousness, but I do mean one that is willing to step up and "take the hit," that is, to be conscious enough and courageous enough to take oneself on and choose to undergo difficulties in order to grow. When I am doing something injurious to my wife and my marriage, I need to be involved in a spirituality that prizes the willingness to change, to make amends, to apologize, to redress the wrongs, one that allows me to drop my false pride, to take myself on in an open and honest way. It is this kind of consciousness that involves all of me, and requires me to know myself and actually can only really be done by people who love themselves enough to admit being wrong, having failed, and needing to change.

Yet, for a spirituality to be of help to us through the "dark night of the soul," it must also help us be transformed. We must not only see our need for change but be able to push through and do it. Transformation lies at the heart of all the great religionsthe ability to start over, to be forgiven, to change from what we shouldn't do to what we should, to experience death, then resurrection, to know newness of life, to be transformedthis is a spirituality that does not have itself as its own end, but rather moves continually toward change and transformation.

For a spirituality to be life-affirming, not death-dealing, it must also place a premium upon presence. Presencethe ability to be with another, for another, to give of self to another, to be willing to be present, fully present with another who hurts and who needs, this is a spirituality that knows the value of presence of persons with persons, that knows the crucial importance of one human being being present with another human being. A spirituality that is "from a distance" caring, that is well-wishing, but far off, what I call a "Christmas-basket" caring or one that is only full of rules about this and about that, this is not a spirituality that will sit through the dark with another soul. Presence is crucial, for it signals care for persons, not just talk about caring. Presence is crucial, for it gives the lie to religions and religious people who are so focused upon correct theology that they are not present. They are more interested in control than in being with, more interested in right beliefs and correct practices than in serving, more interested in appearance than in substance. It seems to me that there is much in modern spiritualitymore specifically, organized religions to be cautious of since it has taken us so long to move from the dark ages in our views of mental illness. Some are not life-affirming, some are stigmatizing, some are about control, not life-givingness. We need to all be cautious.

I want to turn from looking at spirituality per se to looking at some examples of growth through adversity so as to see how we might be able to use depression as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Not all of these examples involve depression, but they all do involve woundedness.

I think first of a dear friend of mine who is living with and dying of cancer. Mark would probably never say that his cancer is a gift. That stretches the imagination and credibility far too much. However, by the way Mark is living his life, by what he is doing with the cancer, he has become a gift for others. Death will eventually take him from us and we will be the lesser for it and will mourn his passing from us, but we will be immensely richer because of how he has taken something that befell him, that he would never have asked for, that he has cursed and screamed at, but he has turned being consumed by this stalker-of -the-living called cancer and into a spiritual journey that is life-affirming, that is a movement toward wholeness even while it is a journey toward death. He will die living! If he can turn cancer into something to be used creatively and life-givingly, then what can we do with depression, with pain, with loneliness, with sadness? No, I could never call cancer or depression a spiritual gift, but I could say that since you have this illness, what are you going to do to turn it into something that has meaning beyond itself, that promotes life, and that affirms spirit and love as being ultimate in our lives. More about that later.

When I was a seminary student I had a fellow in homiletics, a professor's assistant who was a promising minister and seminary professor. I had not heard of Welton Gaddy for many years, but just several years ago I came across a book he wrote entitled A Soul Under Siege: Surviving Clergy Depression. It is the story of his depression, his hospitalization, his besieged soul, and his recovery. It is a remarkable story, one filled with his story of darkness, questions, doubt, and of his courage. He took his illness and eventually made use of it to help many others, especially clergy and churches that nurture clergy. It is an honest confession that lives out the advice that it is time to stop being so nice and start being real. Hear his questioning and a very important answer he found about the meaning of his illness in his life:

"Well before I left the hospital, I wanted the doctor to answer a nagging question: "Do you think I can function as a minister again?" At that time, hearing someone else's opinion, especially from a doctor, the positive one which I heard was very important to me. Later, though, I became more concerned with my own response to that inquiry. Fortunately, clarity on that issue has prevailed. The product of months of careful introspection, reflection, and anticipation is a staunch conviction that I am better prepared to function effectively as a minister at this point in my life than at any previous time. .... "After enduring a period of subjection to battering questions, disturbing doubts, and draining considerations of other possibilities, I know I am a minister. That identity is independent of any institutional position, specific professional possibility, or other person's (or persons') opinion. Functioning as a minister has legitimacy apart from the source of one's salary. My ministry holds more promise than ever before in terms of a capacity to address profound human concerns and to help people who hurt. My own hurts serve as important sources for ministerial acts of healing." (pp. 140,141) Do you know the story of Dan Gottlieb? Dan is host of that public radio show "Voices in the Family." In her book, The Gifts of Suffering, Polly Young-Eisendrath tells Gottlieb's story. A bright young man in a promising career, Gottlieb says he remembers that fateful day:

"At the age of thirty-three, just when I thought I was a pretty powerful guy professionally running two drug clinics and supervising thirty people and teaching at the Family Institute of Philadelphia, I encountered the most transformative event of my life. I was driving on the expressway on my way to pick up a Thunderbird to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. "We both had always loved those cars, and I was driving up to meet my Uncle Irv, who was a car dealer near Harrisburg, to get the car. It was December twentieth. I was listening to Donna Summers on my eight-track, feeling really good, a great sunny day. All I remember is seeing a black thing flying through the air. I saw it for a millisecond before it hit me. The truck wheel (from an oncoming tractor-trailer) hit the top of the car and just flattened the car out. People came around and the only thing I remember is saying, 'Call everybody I know and tell them to come here right away.' "That moment I was a quadriplegic. But I didn't know it for twenty-four hours, although everyone was telling me. It just didn't register. My body was paralyzed and traumatized and so was my mind, I became, in many ways, like an infant, and it would take me eight years to grow up again." (pp38-39) Listen to an event several years later that reveals some of how he has dealt with what life dealt him:

"A couple of years after his accident, Dan Gottlieb learned to drive a specially designed wheelchair van, which is his magic chariot, allowing him freedom and the feeling of being a regular guy. After I started driving, I had trouble paying my tolls, I was clumsy and I would drop the quarter. Yet I was very self-conscious and still struggling to be independent. I went over this toll bridge from New Jersey and I'm fumbling to get the quarter in the cup, worried that all these people behind me are going to blow their horns. A toll taker saw me and came over. Can I help?' he asked. No, I'm okay.' The message was I'm fine, leave me alone. "I finally get my hand out and throw the quarter and I miss it. It hits the street. I feel like a failure. So I say to him, I'm going to need hour help after all.' He says, No problem,' and puts up his hand to doff his hatexcept he had no hand. We smiled at each other . We knew. We knew about being different and about suffering. And aloneness. And that's what I teach and what I want others to see.' " (p. 133) Dan Gottlieb's story is one of enormous pain, utter darkness, eventual divorce, deep and fierce anger and resentment, but he has gone on to turn his disability into a means for helping others. It informs his life but does not define him. He has turned an utter disaster into a means for loving and caring for people. Now I am certain Gottlieb would never say that he is glad that he became a quadraplegic. That is crazy. But he does say that he has learned how to live, to really live, to be fully alive and he has turned this tragedy into a means for helping others. If spirituality is the patterned ways that we relate to what is ultimate in our lives, his ultimate is living and loving, no small spiritual matters.

I also want to share with you an example of compassion, woundedness, and transformation, of using wounds to help others and this example is from a story in the Bible. This is probably a familiar story for those of you in the Christian tradition and perhaps not so familiar to those of other traditions. It is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I prefer to call him the compassionate Samaritan, since we do not know that he was good, only that he did good. We know he was compassionate in his treatment of the wounded man. The story reads like this:
"On one occasion, a legal expert stood up to put him to the test with a question: "Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "How do you read what is written in the Law?" And he answered, "You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your energy, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said to him, "You have given the correct answer; do this and you will have life." But with a view to justifying himself, he said to Jesus, "But who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied: "There was a man going from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead. Now by coincidence a priest was going down that road; when he caught sight of him, he went out of his way to avoid him. In the same way, when a Levite came to the place, he took one look at him and crossed the road to avoid him. But this Samaritan who was traveling that way came to where he was and was moved to pity at the sight of him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring olive oil and wine on them. He hoisted him onto his own animal, brought him to an in, and looked after him. The next day he took out two silver coins, which he gave to the innkeeper, and said, 'Look after him, and on my way back I'll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had.' Which of these three, in your opinion, acted like a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him compassion." Jesus said to him, "Then go and do the same yourself." (Luke 10: 25-37, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, translation by Funk, Hoover , and the Jesus Seminar) Now to help understand this story, I need to give some background about the Judaism of Jesus' day. Early in its history the People of God heard God calling them to be "holy" which they interpreted to mean "pure" or clean. You are to be holy or pure. So rules were written about being pure. One could be born pure, such as Priests and Levites, and one could earn purity through behavior and keeping the purity laws. Some were more pure than others. For example, men were pure and women were impure or unclean. Women became pure or holy only through their menfirst their fathers, then their husbands. Those who were physically whole were pure while those who were maimed, blind, lame, leprous, were impure. Those who were Jews were more pure than Gentiles and so on so that a purity map was established.

In the story, the Priest and Levite passed by on the other side because the wounded man -- probably Jewish himself, since Jesus tells this parable to a Jewish attorney -- is bleeding and therefore unclean. The Priest and Levite would have been rendered unclean had they touched this fellow. Religion can prevent compassion. But the Samaritan stopped and helped him, put him on his animal and took him to the inn. He showed compassion. Now who was a Samaritan? Samaritans were hated by the Jews because they were half-breeds and therefore impure, unclean. And Samaritans hated the Jews because they were always kicking them around. Here as the Samaritan stops to help, impurity looks upon impurity, woundedness looks upon woundedness, hate looks upon hate. But now the hate has turned into compassion. What changes, what transformations have happened inside the Samaritan for him to be able to stop? And what did that Jewish man in the ditch, half dead, feel when he looked up and saw this hated half-breed looking down and starting to help him? Now, who would be hardest for you to be helped by? As you look up from your wounded place, who would be hardest for you to receive life-giving help from? What does it take to learn to love an enemy? What does it take for you to transform your wounds, like this Samaritan, into the ability to healas a wounded healer? You surely did not ask for your illnessand it matters not to me whether your depression is biological or psychological in originyou can utilize it for your spiritual growth and that of others in how you learn to transform your wounds into the means of grace and the means for helping others and to make this world a better place. How do we do that? Let me suggest several simple means for seeing your depression as a catalyst for spiritual growth:

First, just as I have said, let your wounds be the basis for being a wounded healer. Your depression can be a "wake-up call" for using your woundedness as a source of healing for others. Actually, your being here is a reaching out for help and to help others and that's exactly what I'm talking about. In your statement of beliefs you say in number 7: "But there is always something available for us that gives our lives meaning. We just need to know where to look." Again that's what I'm talking about and that "meaning in our lives" is also a spiritual adventure so that in your words "A full life awaits us."

Second, your depression can be a catalyst for your spiritual growth in that it can help you to reevaluate the images of God and of yourself that you have lived with. For some, depression can be a crisis of faith and some of us may need to re-examine, in light of our woundedness, what we were taught about God and what we were taught about ourselves. Some of those beliefs of childhood may actually hinder your recovery and hinder positive beliefs and positive behavior. Some old images of God may not carry you through the tumultuous times of life and some images of yourself that were transmitted through your faith may be pathological and harmful to you on your journey through your dark night of the soul. This can be a spiritual awakeningto discard yesterday's images of God and of yourself and to grow into new ones.

Next, in the dependency of illness, sometimes we have to look at and deal with how difficult dependency is for us, how difficult it can be to ask for and receive help, and it can be a valuable part of our spiritual journey to learn about our need for others, our need for help, our need to speak our truththe truth of our lives, and to know about what John Yungblut means when he describes his Parkinson's disease as the "hallowing of my diminishment." It takes too much energy to be bitter about our need for others and that energy that goes into bitterness can be redirected into our healing and recovery and into presence with others. All this is deeply spiritual, though not akin to stained glass religion, but deeply spiritual.

And some depression is spiritually appropriate in this world. When a young gay man is tied to a fence in Wyoming and killed because he is gay, we will experience some appropriate anger, some appropriate depression, some appropriate pain. When an airliner crashes, when we see starving people on our TV screens, when unspeakable horrors happen to people we love and even to people we don't know, we should feel some depression, but we, as spiritual beings, cannot be the containers of all this pain or situational depression. We have to feel it and we may need to take some action, but then let the feelings pass through us into the center of spiritual reality that we call the heart of God. We cannot bear all this alone.

Last, I believe deeply in an energy called love. I believe that love exists at the heart of this world, that love and compassion are the essence of what we call God, not purity or appearances or laws or "being somebody". And I believe that when we allow it, we can feel, experience, tap into, share in, be a part of, this great energy, this great love that is who God is. We do not have to be defined or stigmatized by any illness; we do not have to be contained or constrained by our past, we can move on; we do not have to stay the same but we can grow and be transformed, we can use our wounds, our dark night of the soul, to continue to grow spiritually and make a difference in people's lives. We can use our own faith in creative ways, not destructive. In this "season to be jolly" though many aren't, we can continue to overcome darkness with light and hate with love and we can come to love ourselves and our enemy as we look face-to-face into their face and into our own. In this season of giving what a great gift! What a great gift indeed!

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.
    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
    over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

    "Wild Geese," by Mary Oliver
    from Earth Prayers, Ed. by Roberts & Amidon