Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 40) transports me to the depths of a slimy pit, mired in the mud with nothing to do but pray and wait for help to arrive. When I read today’s passage and its description of where the Psalmist David was at that stage of his life, it struck me what an apt description this is of what we now call depression. I count myself among the one in ten Americans who at some point in life find ourselves mired in that muddy disease. One of my favorite radio shows is “Being” (formerly called “Speaking of Faith”), and one of their programs that I found really helpful a couple of years ago was one devoted to the spiritual aspects of depression. I have gone back to the archives to listen to it again more than once. It’s well worth checking out if you or someone you know has suffered or is suffering in the pits of depression. On this show Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression described how depression is not the opposite of happiness, but the opposite of human vitality. It can rob you of the capacity to experience the entire range of human emotions, including love and purpose in life. (After hearing the program I read this book and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to have a deeper understanding of the melancholic malady). Educator and author Parker Palmer talked about how he experienced depression as a living death, and he described his faith in the God who does not desire anyone to live such a living death. The poet Anita Barrows said that in depression, you are ripped from what feels like your life.
The Psalmist lived in a land of troubles without number that threatened to rip him from life, where the mud and mire of slimy pits threatened to swallow unsuspecting seekers. David said he waited patiently in this overwhelming pit – we don’t know how long – before the Lord heard his cry and he could then change his tune to when nothing else could help, Love lifted me. It is reassuring to me to know that biblical giants of faith like David experienced bouts of depression. And I am certain that in the day and age we live in, it is essential that we know as much we can about this particular brand of suffering, in order to understand more fully how to respond in compassionate ministry. Pat answers won’t do the trick. The muck and mud have developed a pretty strong resiliency against easy fixes.
This season, while we are contemplating the suffering of the Man of Sorrows, who was well acquainted with all our griefs, I keep reflecting on the meaning of an old hymn, What Wondrous Love is This. Its haunting melody and repetitive lyrics set a melancholy mood appropriate to the darkness of depression: When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down, when I was sinking down, sinking down, when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul. Christ laid aside His crown for my soul. I’m also reflecting on the lyrics of a more contemporary psalmist, one who, like David, seems to know how to capture the full range of human experience. Bruce Springsteen writes of the nightmare of depression this way: There’s a river runs through this valley, cold and deep and black, comin’ like a tombstone shadow across my back. Trouble river, six foot high and rising, Trouble river, I can’t keep from cryin’. I woke up last night shakin’, shakin’ from a dream, that all I seen was smiling faces staring back at me. Snakes crawling in the house, I’m stuck in muddy ground. . . Like the Psalmist David, Springsteen ends his song on a hopeful note of escape from the pit: Tonight I’m gonna shed this skin, and I’ll be breathin’ free air now. May all sufferers who are stuck in muddy ground claim such hope.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Matters of Life and Death.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.