The Texture of Depression

What does depression feel like? I am learning about mindfulness and meditation, and I found an exercise that asks this question. I decided to try it. I slowed down, focused on my breath, and pictured myself in a vast room, all alone, with a lit candle at the center.

I ask into the room, “What does my depression feel like? What is it? What are you?”

In answer, I feel a presence come into the room from all sides, slowly, quietly crawling up walls that I hadn’t even known were there. It is like a film clinging to these walls, everywhere but nowhere. It is dark grey and gritty, slowly turning this room into something that feels like a dungeon. I reach out to touch one of the walls, but I pull back immediately. It feels wrong; my fingers are too sensitive to its touch. I am reminded of a problem I have in real life…an aversion to terracotta. I am repulsed by touching anything like terracotta. I hate touching flowerpots. I have a hard time holding chalk. It sends a shiver through my whole body. I have this strange fear that it will creeping under my fingernails. The feel of the walls in this dungeon image is similar. A creeping, cringing feeling. I pull my hand away. I sit back down and remind myself of the candle in the center. It is still there. I feel alone here, but on one level I know I am not. This candle represents my relationship with God, my relationship with other people, my relationship with my true self. My depression is a film that covers everything, but it is not me. I look up, and see that the walls are dark, far away…the candle’s light doesn’t quite reach them. I instinctively know that this is because the walls are not real. The film of depression makes its own wall…it’s a chimera: beyond it is not an impenetrable barrier, but rather an open field. A field filled with light, the same light that shines from this unquenchable candle. One day soon, I will see that field. One day soon, I will get up the nerve to poke through the flypaper mirage. One day soon, I will see that this dungeon isn’t real. But not today. Today I sit here in melancholy contentment. It’s okay. I’ve got my candle.

A Little Diversion

Pinewood Men Studios (which is my friend Pete and myself) present a quick film that might offer some hope in these scary times. At least we know that our cities will be able to properly defend themselves in the case of extraterrestrial invasion.

Behold…EarthDefense!

EarthDefense! from Pete Barry on Vimeo.

Anointed

This morning I attended an Episcopal church. They offered laying on of hands and anointing with oil for healing this morning. I took advantage of the opportunity.

The priest asked my name, and laid his hands on my head, saying something like, “Michael, I lay my hands upon you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ to sustain you with his presence, to drive away all sickness of body and spirit, and to give you that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him both now and evermore.” He then dipped his thumb in oil, and anointed my head with the sign of the cross.

Liturgical Christians anoint with oil in several circumstances. The three I’m most familiar with are: to signify the “seal of the Holy Spirit” at baptism, to offer healing, and to anoint for service. I experienced all three this morning.

Baptism has been on my mind for a while now, particularly since the experience I had last week, described here, an extraordinary vision of what baptism looks like to me. I’ve been hoping to receive some further insight into what the “Lighthouse” church in that vision could mean to me.

This morning, I felt in the moment of anointing that my baptism was being renewed. The gift of life, the gift of hope that I’d received forty-one years ago was being renewed once more. This oil was spiritually the same oil used for that gift then. The gift I didn’t understand at all in 1976, because I was just an infant, was being made new to me. And I felt this morning that it was God’s will that I be healed. The priest knew nothing of me but my first name, but the God he invoked knows me, the God who had given me a new name forty-one years ago: the name “Beloved Child.” And today, the priest prayed that God would bring me healing. He could pray that with confidence because he knows that it is God’s will that all of God’s children be healed, and in that moment, I felt that truth. And the specific words the priest used, from the Book of Common Prayertold me another truth. These words are different from the words in the Lutheran rite of healing, the words I have said to so many people over the years. The words I heard this morning including these:

…and to give you that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him both now and forever.

And wow…it hit me powerfully: God wants to heal me not just for my sake, but for the sake of God’s work. God wants to heal me so that I can be a faithful, effective servant. God wants to heal me for the sake of the world. That was powerful to me today, because it helped me to remember that I have a place in this world, that I have a role to play. That God’s not done with me yet. I don’t know what that role is exactly…there are still lots of questions. But today I can feel that there’s a place for me, even me. Despite my illness. Despite my anxieties. Despite my doubts. There’s a job for me to do.

And that means there’s one for you too.

Darkwater

This is a semi-fictional account of two events: a spiritual quest I went on in Schuylkill County yesterday, and a session with my spiritual director this morning. There’s no need to try to discern how much of it is “true.” In a way, it all is.

Continue reading “Darkwater”

I’m Published!

I recently wrote an essay called “When Being a Pastor with Depression is a Complicated Combination,” and it’s been published on TheMighty.com.

You can read it here.

Battle of the Grown-Ups

I will own this: I am politically left of center. I’m not sure I’d call myself a liberal, but maybe. I am definitely sad and scared about the election results, and the candidates I voted for for president and senator were not elected. I am definitely not happy about federal legislation I expect to see in the next 2+ years.

But I am also very saddened by the childish bullying, sarcasm, and demonizing that I am seeing happening on both sides right now. I am sick and tired of being called a “libtard.” I am sick and tired of jokes about orange skin and small hands. This whole brouhaha about attendance at the inauguration is sickening to me. Saying that attendance was low because “Trump supporters actually have jobs” is a childish response. Saying that a white area in the middle of one of the inauguration photos was actually people in Klan outfits is a childish response. Making an issue about the size of the inauguration crowd is, quite frankly, childish. Liberals are doing it, conservatives are doing it, the media is doing it, and the president’s press secretary is doing it. This is not a helpful focus for us to have.

Claiming that the Women’s Marches were just a bunch of people complaining and whining is a childish response. That said, some of the signs that were carried were also childish: “super callous fascist racist extra braggadocious”? “I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA”? These don’t help.

I would like to learn how to have discussions with people whose thoughts and opinions differ from mine. But that is so hard. Because here’s where we seem to be right now:

  • If you disagree with me, you are STUPID.
  • If you disagree with me, the media you pay attention to LIES to you and IS FAKE. And you are STUPID for paying attention to them.
  • Only people on my side are patriotic. The rest of you either hate America, or hate what America truly stands for. Definitely, if you disagree with me, you are a HATER.
  • The people on my side are the real VICTIMS here. YOUR PEOPLE have been victimizing us, and we’re tired of you telling us you’re the victims.

Both sides are saying all these things! And none of it is helpful! We’re all dividing the country into two categories: STUPID HATERS vs. PATRIOTIC VICTIMS. And we aren’t recognizing that the other side has divided it the exact same way, but with the labels switched.

I don’t know. It’s like watching a baseball game. At a baseball game, of course half the crowd is happy when the home team scores, and the other half is happy when the visitors score. Of course, your preferred team is the “right” team. That’s sports. That’s the way it is. But if you’re a huge fan of one team, and you start proclaiming that the other team, or its fans, are stupid and hateful, and that they have victimized you, then you’ve taken it way, way too far. I can remember when my father took me to my very first major league baseball game, in Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The Phillies (our preferred team, of course) lost to the Dodgers. I remember afterward having this daydream of Mr. T going to the Dodgers’ dugout on my behalf and beating them up, because it wasn’t fair that my team lost. I stand by this daydream: this was actually an appropriate thing for me to expect. You know why? Because I was eight years old.

But this isn’t sports. This is our nation. This is about what laws are passed to increase or decrease taxes, how those tax dollars will be used, who is going to receive assistance through them, who is going to have what rights. And we aren’t eight years old. It’s time for us all, on all sides of the political spectrum, to grow up. Not to let go of our values and beliefs. Not to “accept that the other side won, and shut up.” But to find ways to talk about this that don’t devolve to schoolyard name-calling and bullying. To stop saying that any news that you disagree with is therefore “fake.” Fake news is not partisan…fake news is clickbait garbage on the internet, moronic headlines that any adult should be able to see through. Use your brain: Hillary Clinton is not running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop. Use your brain: Donald Trump suppporters did not chant in Manhattan, “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back.” That’s fake news. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News: those are partisan news sources (less so CNN, but certainly the other two), not fake news. Take what they say with a pinch of salt, but don’t throw it out.

I didn’t want to write this post. I am so scared that I’m going to get attacked for it. I’m so scared that someone else will view it as an attack. I find it so tempting to just keep my mouth shut. But that’s a childish response too, running away from things that scare me. And I am trying to do things that scare me. I’m trying to do things I’m not good at. I guess I’m doing this with the tiniest bit of hope that I can find some hope out there that we can actually talk about these things like grown-ups. I’m trying to find the tiniest bit of hope that being a grown-up actually means what I thought it did when I was young. I hope this hasn’t come across smug or self-righteous. If it has, I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention. Feel free to tell me to grow up!

Mindfulness, the gift of Eternity

I guess today is something like Day 16 of my medical leave. The longest vacation I’ve ever taken was two weeks, which means this is now the longest I’ve been not working in seventeen years. (I originally wrote “the longest I’ve been idle,” but realized that that was judgmental.)

Today I started exploring mindfulness, at my therapist’s suggestion. Mindfulness is the Buddhist practice of deliberately staying awake to what’s around you. Seeing the world as it is, and accepting that. I see it as living in the present, not in the past or future like we so often do. I came across a quote a long time ago that goes something like this: “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” As someone who has diagnosed depression and anxiety, I can relate to that. I view that “peace” as something akin to mindfulness. I’ve also often thought that “peaceful present-living” is exactly what Jesus Christ offers to us…that it’s exactly what “eternal life” is. As I’ve told my congregation many times, eternal does not literally mean “everlasting” (though that is one possible interpretation of it). Eternal literally means “out of time,” not in the sense of “running out of time,” but rather in the sense of being separate from time. “God is eternal” doesn’t mean that God lasts forever, not exactly. It means that God is not subject to time. It means that God stands apart from time. And so “eternal life,” which Christ offers to us, is not necessarily “life after death,” and is certainly not restricted to the afterlife. Rather, it means a way of living today, not beholden to time, not stuck in the past or the future like we so often are. In a word, a life of mindfulness.

My therapist recommended that I look into the author Jon Kabat-Zinn. I browsed through his books, and chose to purchase Wherever You Go, There You Are. I just read a bit today. I intend to read it slowly, just a bit a day, to slowly take it in and practice what I learn. Several times today, I stopped what I was doing, and just paid attention to my breath. I noticed where I was, what I was doing, and then afterward made a decision of what I would do next. It was calming and peaceful. However, these were all in the first half of the day, when things were going well. This evening, I learned a few things that I found very frustrating:

  • My computer’s wireless card is acting up, and I’m having trouble with my internet connection.
  • I learned that the hotels around Hopkinsville, KY, where I intend to watch the total solar eclipse this summer, have jacked up the prices of their rooms by something like 500% for that week. (I guess they’re making hay while the sun…err…doesn’t shine.) That has led me to wonder if I should bother. Is this really the best way to spend my money?
  • The kids were rather frustrating at dinner time.
  • I’m annoyed that I still haven’t heard back from a website where I recently submitted a story for online publication.

I had so little patience. I was frustrated and cranky. I was most certainly not living in the present moment. And I forgot to try this new mindfulness trick. Or more accurately, I just decided not to bother trying it. I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel calm, and I didn’t want to try to feel calm. I’ve forgiven myself for this: I’ve been at this mindfulness thing now for all of eight hours. I’ve read about 5% of one book about it. There’s really no reason to expect myself to be an expert yet. But this is now a goal for these next few months: practice mindfulness in the calm moments. Practice it enough so that it becomes a habit, a habit I can then use during the stressful moments when it’s really necessary.