Pressed to the Ground: A Theological Re-Frame of Depression

In my continuation on the topic of depression, especially male depression (here and here), I wanted to share something with you by Parker Palmer. In his wonderful book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (a must read), Parker has one of the most insightful, haunting, painful, and beautiful glimpses of someone who suffers from depression that I have ever read.

Parker begins the chapter with an excerpt from a book that we all read in high school, but that perhaps we might re-read differently all these years later — The Inferno of Dante:

“Midway on our life’s journey I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough.

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring; death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell you what I saw…
–From The Inferno of Dante, Robert Pinsky trans.” (pp. 57)

Parker picks up after the quote with a gripping statement:

Midway in my life’s journey, ‘way closed’ again, this time with a ferocity that felt fatal: I found myself in the dark woods called clinical depression, a total eclipse of light and hope. But after I emerged from my sojourn in the dark and had given myself several years to absorb meaning, I saw how pivotal that passage had been on my pilgrimage toward selfhood and vocation. Though I recommend it to no one–and I do not need to, for it arrives unbidden is too many lives–depression compelled me to find the river of life hidden beneath the ice.” (pp. 57-58)

At some point in all of our lives we may experience some form of depression as we also find ourselves “midway in life’s journey.” But it is Parker’s account of his own depression that can help offer us a different way to look at it. In a sense, he offers us a paradoxical take on depression that sets up a paradigm through which to view depression that is so foreign to our culture. Most of us want to do anything we can to avoid the difficulty in life, while if at all possible numb out any painful experience we have with medications, alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. But perhaps mental health problems like depression and anxiety are the catalyst to help us see life in a new way.

Of course, this is not a paradigm that is easily seen in the midst of the “dark night of the soul“, but I am thankful for Parker’s words as it has helped me, help clients view their own depression from a different angle.

And so as I close, here is the theological re-frame that was offered up to Parker by his therapist:

“After hours of careful listening, my therapist offered an image that helped me eventually reclaim my life. ‘You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to the ground on which it is safe to stand?

Amid the assaults I was suffering, the suggestion that depression was my friend seemed impossibly romantic, even insulting. But something in me knew that down, down to the ground, was the direction of wholeness, thus allowing that image to begin its slow work of healing me.

I started to understand that I had been living an ungrounded life, living at an altitude that was inherently unsafe. The problem with living at high altitude is simple: when we slip, as we always do, we have a long, long way to fall, and the landing may well kill us. The grace of being pressed down to the ground is also simple: when we slip and fall, it is usually not fatal, and we can get back up.”

“The grace of being pressed down…..” Perhaps in our darkest nights of depression it is the hand of God that is pressing us down…an act of grace that leaves us grounded and more whole.

[Interesting aside: Parker was reticent to write about his depression until he was asked to contribute an article on the theme of the “wounded healer” in memory of his friend Henri Nouwen who had also suffered at times from depression and wrote about it in several places]