Hiding Depression

hiding depression and shameA friend recently shared disturbing news of a somewhat-related-by-marriage 23 year old who attempted suicide.  My friend described her as a genuinely nice and polite girl, the cheeriest in her family.  She is still in the hospital, so please join me in prayers for her healing.

The story struck a chord in me, because a young man somewhat-related-by-marriage to me recently took his own life at age 20.  There are no words for the gaping painful void experienced by those who survive him.  I recently had dinner with someone who held him as a newborn and loved him.  This person is a medical doctor who specializes in end of life care.  She was a Hospice doctor for years.  For all her experience and insights on death and dying, this death undid her.  It seemed to make her question bedrock things she thought she knew.  So, please join me in healing prayers also for his family and friends.

These revelations instigated a conversation about the depths of depression, how some people send signals for help, and how others hide it.  One friend commented:

Having suffered depression, I can empathize with those who find themselves at such a low point in their lives. It’s a prison that is very difficult to escape. For many reasons, those who suffer from depression find it almost impossible to talk about their feelings. I think there’s a certain feeling of shame associated with depression. I know I felt like no one else would understand, I must be unworthy of love or happiness, and I couldn’t complain when everyone else seemed to be able to deal with life. It felt like huge and insurmountable failure on my part and the loneliest feeling.  That first step is so hard and such a relief, as well, to finally be able to talk and be heard.

The invitation to explore depression as a source of shame is too compelling to pass by.  The stakes are too high.  As recent posts have explored, shame arises from false messages we believe about ourselves.  For one in the jaws of depression, the false messages include:  I’m different.  Everyone else can deal with life.  I alone am a failure.

Rather significantly, the women sharing these feelings all found Buddhist teaching to be the salve that saved them from the depths.  I wondered if it is because the first Noble Truth—life is suffering—meets us where we are with no apology, no facade, and no reason to hide the truth.  Everyone who experiences life experiences suffering, so I am not different, I am not alone, and I have nothing to hide.  I am alive.  Another friend responded that Buddhist teachings about releasing attachments to ideas, especially ideas about self-identity, helped her shed layers of past hurt, guilt and conditioning.

Our self-made culture conditions us to hide suffering, but it also conditions us not to see it.  If we notice too much, we might expose or embarrass someone or we might intrude uninvited on someone’s private matters.  Or maybe we just tell ourselves we’re respecting another’s privacy when the truth is we’re afraid to encounter another’s suffering.  Airbrushing suffering paints an unreal picture, and it costs way too much.  How much better would our world it be if we all had the courage to encounter suffering—our own and each other’s?

Join the conversation.  Do you have a friend that needs to talk and to be heard?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Remembering Hurts: Part 2

There’s a verse in “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” that goes, “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again.”  Sometime nearing New Years, I find that sentiment not entirely alien.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts by Br. Curtis Almquist offers thoughtful readings for the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany.  In contrast to the marketing promises rampant in the uber-commercial Christmas season, Almquist raises up spiritual gifts that truly fulfill and satisfy, gifts like love, forgiveness, joy, hope and companionship.  The chapter on companionship comes along on the 9th day, right about when I find myself humming that particular verse of the aforementioned carol.

I have enjoyed this little book repeatedly for several years, but the first time I read it, I was in particularly ragged shape approaching day 9.  My husband had left me to handle our three pre-teens solo while he took a football trip with friends, and upon his return the seemingly unrelenting stream of requests and complaints had me in a state of mind for retreat.  On the verge of tears, I barricaded myself in our bathroom and turned on the shower in hopes of being left alone long enough to read the short chapter.  I was not especially receptive, however.  Companionship was the last thing I wanted at that particular juncture.

Imagine my relief, then, when the company Almquist served up was that of Mary, mother of Jesus.  As one chosen to carry an inconceivably great mission, she knew fear.  As a low born unwed pregnant teenager, she knew disgrace and the humiliation of being misunderstood.  As a courageous companion to her son in his suffering, she knew grief.  When I pondered how profound her suffering, my woes seemed small.

Moreover, when I pondered her suffering, it revealed itself to be on the very same ground as her extraordinary blessing.  The inextricable interlacing of suffering with blessing that Mary represents opened my heart in that moment to the blessing of children tangled up with my suffering exhaustion.  Without even leaving the sanctuary of my bathroom, spending time with Mary that morning soothed my angst and filled my heart with gratitude for the people I call family.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God: Pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.

Join the conversation.  How do you encounter the interlacing of blessing and suffering in your journey?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Feeling Pain for the Last Time


“Who dares to suggest this pain could be felt for the last time?  What an audacious assertion.  Maybe your pain.  Not my pain.   Not with what I have been through.”

It’s a radical idea, bidding adieu to pains that have followed us through life.  Many of us learn empirically that ignoring them doesn’t really make them go away.  Some of us have grown accustomed to our pains, and perhaps, have let them seep into our identity, making them difficult to release.  How many of us have honestly tried confronting our pain, though?  Looking deep into our pains—staring down our demons—mines hope for healing.

To be successful, we must be thorough.  There are no shortcuts.  There is no advantage to wallowing, either.   If it’s a feeling you have been repressing, allow yourself to experience the feeling.  Is it as bad as you feared?  Is it worse?  Stay with the feeling and find out.  Conversely, maybe the feeling is extremely familiar, a feeling that you have slid into repeatedly through life without ever realizing its origin.  What kinds of situations lead you to this same old chestnut?  What connects these situations?  Is there an underlying belief that gives way to this feeling?  When examined intellectually, does the magnitude of pain you have experienced measure to the magnitude of its origin?  Allow yourself to be fully present with the pain until you feel a small emptiness where the pain was.  Pain will do this.  It will empty you.

Although arduous, there is something very important to remember when journeying through painful remembrances.  If you are open to change, you can feel this particular
pain for the last time.  You can be healed.

Search yourself.  Is there more pain you want to feel for the last time?  Turn over every rock and search it out.  If pain is lying under there, give it as much feeling as it is due.  Be reflective about how this pain has affected you and if you have given it more than its due.  Know that when you are healed, you will reflect on this matter as a fact, devoid of raw emotion.  The reason you are feeling it for the last time is that you are leaving this place, propelled to a new place and a new way of being.

Dutch priest and revered writer on the spiritual life Henri Nouwen offers, “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope. “  When we are able to recognize our expressions of despair in this broken place as a sign of hope that a healed destination awaits us, we have fuel for the journey.

Join the conversation.  Do you believe a pain long buried can be healed for all time?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Pain: Fuel for the Journey

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves offers a sobering choice:  a broken heart or an irredeemable one.  Fortunately for those inclined towards the former, a broken heart’s byproduct, pain, is extraordinarily useful.  The pain we encounter is not some kind of punishment for wrongdoing.  Pain is not something that God exacts or something from which God could choose to spare us.  Rather, it is an extraordinarily useful gift that arrives amid suffering.   How is pain useful?

First, it can serve as a warning.  Martin Smith in Reconciliation offers, “God refuses to soften or neutralize the painful effects of sin because we need the pain to warn us the acts are destructive of life.”

Second, it can serve as a teacher.  Painful consequences can steer us towards better choices.  Toddlers learn disobedience has consequences.  Though it pains parents to see children suffer the consequences of their bad choices, good parents don’t deprive their children of this learning essential to survival.  Where is God in our pain?  Like the parent, teaching, hoping, loving, infinitely sensitive and compassionate.

Third, it can serve as an impetus.  Few people seek radical life-changing transformation when they are in a comfortable rut.  It’s when the fruitless rut becomes uncomfortable that we open ourselves to another way.  The pain encountered when we look inward for where we have veered off course is the seed of the new way.  If tended to, the seed can grow into a magnificently fruitful tree.

Most compelling to me, pain is fuel.  Japanese poet, author and social activist Kenji Miyazawa (1896 –1933) famously said we must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.  Picking something specific to visualize is going to help in the heat of painful moments.  It could be coal that powers a locomotive you ride to another place or liquid hydrogen in a rocket that blasts you the heck out of here.  Be creative and be visceral.  What does jet fuel feel like? Does it give you a metallic taste in your mouth? Do you smell it?  Evoke all your senses when pain arises, and level your eyes with determination on the destination.

Destination is the key.  At first it may suffice simply to cry, “Beam me up, Scotty,” and evacuate.  Many times I have cried, “My eyes are ever towards the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.”  (Psalm 25:15)  Eventually, though, what we’re propelled from only gets us so far.  We have to give vision to what we’re propelled towards.

Join the conversation.  How has having a clear vision of your destination helped you work through painful but necessary life changes?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Charting a Course: Remembering

Studies on American consumerism and happiness reveal money can buy happiness if you spend it right.  The happiness we gain from buying stuff is short lived, though.  No sooner have we acquired stuff than our attention turns to new stuff.  By contrast, spending on experience, a reunion or a special trip, for example, has a longer lasting effect because we can relive the experience and feel happy all over again.  The converse is also true.  Remembering a painful experience hurts.  Recalling where we have been, however, is essential to charting the course to our destination.  We’re liable to repeat the past if we fail to examine it.

Navigating painful memories is easier when we don’t do it alone.  “Con dos, no peso un
muerto.”  My friend Marja is a chef and learned this wonderful expression from her grateful line cook when she stood in for an absent prep assistant one day.  It means,
“With two, even death isn’t heavy.”  Scripture offers companions.

Spend some time in Isaiah 53.  Isaiah here foretells of one to whom the Lord is revealed but who goes without any form of majesty.  He endures astonishing rejection and injustice.  While Jews see a suffering servant representative of the house of Israel in this prophesy, Christians see Jesus (an interpretation that does not agree with the context of the preceding songs of Isaiah, by the way, but is suggested in the gospel of Luke nonetheless).  Both interpretations find a fellow sufferer.  The injustice borne
by Jews through history may put one’s own suffering into sharp relief.  If we can appreciate the juxtaposition of extremes that the person of Jesus embodied—condemned by the ones he came to save, champion of justice treated unjustly—we find someone well acquainted with pain.

The Psalter is a fantastic companion for walking through painful memories.  This book of poetry offers words to capture the full range of human emotion and experience.  You will have no difficulty finding verses that voice your ill-will for the one who wronged you, for example.  My personal favorite is Psalm 63.  Here is the ending:

9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be food for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Visualizing a group of jackals sitting around, gnawing on a pile of my tormentor’s bones bearing little teeth marks was a salve to my wounds.  When you find a Psalm that gives voice to your emotion, pray it with vigor.  The honest exhortation to God will give you some release.

Some Christian faith traditions embrace remembrance of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a
companion.  As one chosen to carry an inconceivably great mission, she knew fear.  As a low born unwed pregnant teenager, she knew disgrace and the humiliation of being misunderstood.  As a merciful and courageous companion to her son in his suffering, she knew grief.  The suffering interlaced with blessing that Mary represents is captured beautifully in the prayer we know as the Hail Mary.  This prayer can bring the interlacing of our own blessing and suffering to mind.

Join the conversation.  How has confronting painful memories brought clarity to your destination?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

The Problem of Suffering

The problem of suffering in the world confounds many who seek an understanding of God.   Addiction recovery seekers who have survived childhood trauma struggle to understand a God who is all-powerful and all-good yet permits children to be victimized.  Religious missionaries and hospital chaplains of all faiths minister amid immense suffering and few answers.  The problem of suffering is a central theme in Buddhism.  The existence of suffering is a feature of the human experience that transcends all faiths and traditions.  How do we reconcile the ideas that God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and evil exists?  

One way to approach the problem is to assume God is all-powerful, and in his desire for relationship, God cedes power to beings in the gift of free will.  A free choice is actually a false choice if the outcome is controlled.  Free will choices have consequences that, in the spirit of true freedom, God may decline to control.  Certainly much of the world’s suffering can be attributed to human choices.  That doesn’t answer questions about the physical world, though, such as why an all-powerful God allows the earth to evolve in a way that includes earthquakes and tsunami’s and birth defects.  Certainly those aren’t the product of human choice.  Even acquiescing to the idea that some humans might have some limited ability to choose to avoid those realities does not answer the question of why destructive forces exist.  This reality leads us to question God’s goodness.  

The question of God’s goodness reminds me of a needlepoint canvas.  My grandmother was a prodigious master of needlepoint.  Sitting at her knee, I gazed up at the underside of her canvases.  They had loose threads and frayed ends.  The colors did not form tidy shapes.  Sometimes a pattern could be made out roughly, and sometimes it was indecipherable.  Yarns stretched illogically across the back of the canvas.  Invariably, though, she produced gorgeous works of art, always balanced in color and theme.   

Our suffering might be like that.  We may see knots and frayed ends.  There may be a thread woven through the fabric of life that has inflicted intense suffering or shame.  If viewed alone, that thread is not pleasing or artistic.  It might be an ugly color or trace a broken line.  It does not stand alone, however, and the canvas might not ultimately be as beautiful and balanced without it.  Sometimes from our vantage point, we cannot see how our suffering weaves into life to produce anything good at all.   

Where we cannot see goodness, however, we can have faith in goodness.  No physicist who seeks a deeper understanding of the universe believes his perception is all there is.  There is reality that lies beyond human perception.  There is mystery, and that mystery is a source of hope.  When we cannot perceive the meaning in our or another’s suffering, we can have faith that God is other, not limited to seeing the underside of the canvas as humans are, and that he gathers all the loose and frayed ends and uses them for good. 

Join the conversation.  What inspires hope in the face of suffering for you?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved