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The Nature of Human Vitality

Thomas Moore an author and psychologist in New York says that "the soul presents itself in a variety of colours, including all the shades of grey, blue, and black. To care for the soul, we must observe the full range of all its colourings, and resist the temptation to approve only of white, red, and orange - the brilliant colours. The "bright" idea of colorising old black and white movies is consistent with our culture's general rejection of the dark and the grey. In a society that is defended against the tragic sense of life, depression will appear as an enemy, an unredeemable malady; yet in such a society, devoted to light, depression, in compensation, will be unusually strong."

Krista Tippett has said that we’re increasingly aware in our culture of the many faces of depression, and we’ve become conversant in the language of psychological analysis and medical treatment for it. But depression has a profound spiritual effect that is much harder to speak about and can often only be traced years onward. Still, like many things that are difficult to speak of and given the epidemic scale of this illness in our society, this is important reflection for our common life.

Tippett goes on to say that “depression” is one of the most misleading and inadequate words in our vocabulary. "When I try to describe the experience, I find myself grasping to say what it is not. Depression is not essentially about being sad, or down, or blue, though these may be symptoms. In the illuminating language of Andrew Solomon in this week’s episode of On Being, the opposite of depression is not happiness — it is “human vitality.” It can have purely physiological origins. It may be triggered by old sadnesses grown unbearable or anger turned inward, as one saying goes. But it becomes a way of being in, and moving through, the world."

Ignatius Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuit order, spoke of “desolations” — a better word than depression maybe —— that “lead one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love. Depression was not so much about being without faith or hope or love; it was, rather, not being able to remember knowing those things, not being able to imagine ever experiencing them again.

After depression there is a particular solace in the voices of others who’ve been marked by this disease and lived to reflect on its contours. When I finally began to emerge, I found a kind of comfort in the scriptural psalms of lament and imprecation — mourning prayers, cursing prayers. Suddenly the “pit” of which the psalmist so often writes was real to me. I also returned to the poetry of Rilke, who like many great thinkers and creators, had an intimacy with “darkness.” Anita Barrows has luminously translated some of his poetry. Personally and in her work as a psychologist, she has also grappled with depression during her life. She traces a difficult but ultimately hopeful line between the illness of depression and the darkness that is a part of human vitality and that we can embrace.

But a cautionary word is necessary. In the midst of depression, very little if anything is possible in the way of spiritual reflection. Insights are all hard-won and came much, much later, after a period of recovery and healing. If you know someone who is depressed now, or if you yourself are in that state, go gently, seek help, and don’t expect spiritual breakthroughs. In a story that many people describe as helpful, Parker Palmer tells of the friend who helped him most during an episode of depression. The friend came and sat silently with him, day after day, and “merely” massaged his feet. In such simple human gestures we find the most essential comfort.

This is so true. In my own experience during times when I could only see things in different tones of grey the basic necessity of the compassionate presence of another person was vital however many people can not visit this place of silence with another person - of non doing, advising, and fixing. We want we made a "visible" difference but as we know healing work is invisible and will only be revealed long after the process. Providing a vital, non judgemental presence for someone going through a depressive episode, whether for a moment , an hour or a week, requires maturity and a willingness to go beyond the words we so readily access in order to "fix"and advise. We need to realise that only offers something for ourselves, it validates the need to constantly "do" rather than give something as intangible as our grounded presence.

Parker Palmer’s two bouts of paralysing depression came, in fact, while he was a leader of a spiritual community. In the end, that experience reframed his whole understanding of spiritual life. And I’ll leave the last words of this reflection to him — on the important question of the role and presence of God in the suffering of depression:

“I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death. I believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live life fully and well. Now, is that going to take me to places where I suffer because I am standing for something or I am committed to something or I am passionate about something that gets resisted and rejected by the society? Absolutely. But anyone who’s ever suffered that way knows that it’s a life-giving way to suffer — that if it’s your truth, you can’t not do it. And that knowledge carries you through. But there’s another kind of suffering that is simply and purely death. It’s death in life. And that is a darkness to be worked through to find the life on the other side.”

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