A life grounded in the reality of our own nature and our right relationship to the world allows us to stumble and fall, get back up.
When I was in my 40s, struggling to survive a bout with depression, my therapist said, “You seem to image what’s happening to you as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as the hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it’s safe to stand?”*
My first thought was I need a new therapist. When you’re depressed, it seems insulting, even insane, for someone to suggest that the soul-sucking Spawn of Satan that has sunk its teeth into you is your BFF. And yet, as time went by, the image of depression as a befriending force began to work on me, slowly reframing my misery and helping me reclaim my mental health. Something in me knew that my therapist spoke the truth: Down is the way to well-being.
During my first 40 years, I’d been driven by the notion that “Up, up, and away” was the right direction to go. I had worked hard to achieve altitude because … Well, because higher is better than lower, right? Wrong. Living at altitude is dangerous. When we fall, as we regularly do, we have a long way to fall, and the fall may kill us. But a life on the ground—a life grounded in the reality of our own nature and our right relationship to the world—allows us to stumble and fall, get back up, brush ourselves off, and take next steps without doing ourselves great harm.
The altitude at which I was living came from my misuse of four human capacities that, when rightly used, can serve us well:
• Intellect. As an academic, I’d been trained not simply to think—a capacity I value—but to live mostly in my head, the part of the body farthest from the ground. Learning to think with my mind descended into my heart—integrating what I knew intellectually with what I knew experientially—was not part of the program.
• Ego. We all need ego strength, a viable sense of self. But I’d been borne aloft on an inflated ego—an ego that led me to think more of myself than was healthy so as to mask my neurotic fear that I was less than I should have been.
• Spirituality. The spiritual yearning to connect with the largeness of life can powerfully enhance one’s experience. But the spirituality I’d embraced was more about flying above life’s mess than engaging with it on the ground. How did the Christian tradition in which I was raised—one centered on “the Word made flesh”— become so disembodied?
• Ethics. I’d tried to live by the precepts of an impossibly out-of-reach ethic—an ethic framed by other people’s images of who I ought to be and what I ought to do. What I needed was honest insight into what is true, possible, and life-giving for me, just as I am, broken places and all.
Those external “oughts” had long been a driving force in my life. When I failed to live up to them—see how often “up” sneaks into our talk about the good life?—I judged myself as weak and faithless. I was stuck in that stage of moral development where one has high aspirations and equally high levels of guilt about falling short. It’s a formula for the good life, I tell you: Aim high, hit low, and feel lousy about yourself as you go.
As I took on various issues and causes, I never stopped to ask, “Does such-and-such fit my sense of who I am?” Or “Is such-and-such truly my gift and my calling?” As a result, important parts of the life I was living were not mine to live, and thus were bound to fail. Depression was, indeed, the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand—the ground of my own being, with its messy mix of limits and potentials, liabilities and assets, darkness and light.
Eventually, I developed an image that helped me understand how depression can have a “befriending” intent—and how my failure to “listen to my life” had left me in a place of deep pain. Imagine that for many years a friend had been walking a block behind me, calling my name, trying to get my attention because he wanted to tell me some hard but healing truths about myself. But I—afraid of what I might hear, or arrogantly certain I had nothing to learn—ignored his calls and kept on walking.
So my friend came closer and called my name louder, but I walked on, refusing to turn around. Closer still he came, now shouting my name. Frustrated by my lack of response, he began to throw stones and hit me with sticks, still wanting nothing more than to get my attention. But despite my pain, I kept walking away. Since calls and shouts, sticks and stones had failed to get my attention, there was only one thing left for my friend to do: drop the boulder called depression on me. He did it not with intent to kill but in a last-ditch effort to get me to turn toward him and ask a simple question: “What do you want?”
When I finally made that turn—and began taking in and acting on the self-knowledge he’d been waiting to offer me—I was able to take my first steps on the path to well-being.
* People sometimes ask if I’m “for or against” antidepressants. In all three of my depressions, I was on meds for six to twelve months in order to get some ground under my feet, but some people need to be on them for life. I’m for whatever brings genuine relief from misery and allows us to live our lives as fully as we can.