I walked into town one day this week for lunch. It was a glorious, early autumn days that God is inclined to grace us with every now and then. Brilliant blue skies, pleasant temperatures, farm equipment passing by, the farmers on their way to their next field. Autumn in Indiana is an unrivaled gem.
I hadn’t made plans to meet anyone for lunch, but suspected I’d find someone to eat with if I went to Frank’s Place. The out-of-towners congregate at the Mayberry Café, the drinkers imbibe their lunch at the Kickstand Bar, the millennials eat at Two Guys Pizza, and those of us with more refined palates dine at Frank’s Place. The owner of the town’s newspaper was there, so we shared a table. He’s lived in Danville for maybe twenty years and knows a good bit about the town, but not as much as I do, having grown up there. If he needs to know what someone is really like, if he needs to know what he calls “the straight poop,” he calls me to ask about them, and I, being an incurable gossip, tell him.
Some people think gossip is a sin, but not me. I see it as a compliment, as an indication of someone’s interest in you. I have always been flattered when people gossip about me. The day we met for lunch, the publisher was preparing the obituaries for the week, reading from a list he pulled from his pocket.
I knew several of the people on his list and was able to provide their backstory. Obituaries in a small town always mention how religious and faithful someone was, even if they weren’t, and sure enough, he mentioned a man whose widow wanted it said that her husband was a sterling man of faith who attended church every Sunday, which was a big, fat lie, since I knew he spent Sunday mornings hung over. But in a small town, obituaries are aspirational, they brim with hope and praise, describing how we wish people had been, so when the publisher asked me if the man had really been a person of deep faith, I said I was inclined to trust his widow’s assessment. Mostly because when I die, I want that same largesse extended to me. “Philip Gulley was a sterling man of faith, a brilliant theologian, with rugged good looks.”
One of the names surprised me, a woman I had known as a child, who I thought had died years ago. Have you ever had that happen to you? Someone dies and it surprises you because you thought they’d died some time ago. I said, “She just now died? I thought she died back in the 90s.” Which was an honest mistake, because this woman had exuded death, had draped herself in decline and decay for as long as I had known her, one of these persons who dies before they’re dead, who had a pulse but not a presence, no quickening spirit.
It’s a problem in our world, isn’t it, folks dying before they’re dead, the life drained out of them long before their brain gets the message.
I’ve been there. I remember when our boys were little, Spencer was four, and Sam was one, fun ages, my church work was going well, my first book was selling like crazy and I’d just signed a contract to write eight more, but I felt dead inside, or how I imagined one might feel if they were dead. Everything was flat and dark, and lay over me like a weighted blanket, smothering me. I had read about depression but had never experienced it. I felt embarrassed, because outwardly my life was perfect. A wonderful spouse, healthy children, meaningful work, but every day was a chore. I woke up each morning wishing the day was over and I could go to sleep. I was alive, but not really. I was dying before I was dead. I went to see my doctor, who thank God didn’t tell me to cheer up, or pray more, or that everything would work out alright, and instead prescribed an anti-depressant, and a few weeks later, the veil lifted.
But I have since learned that pills aren’t enough. While they ended my thoughts of suicide and took away my despair, they did nothing to fill my life. The doctor told me this would happen. I had referred to them as “happy pills,” and he said, “No pill can make you happy. This pill will chase away the black dog that’s been following you around, but happiness is up to you. You must create a life that brings you joy.” Hearing that did not make me happy. I wanted the pill to do that for me. One pill a day, right before bedtime, with no effort on my part. So I started taking the pills, and still do.
The Roman poet, Horace, in 65 B.C., wrote of “black dog” depression, as if one has a big black dog trailing behind them. When I took the pills, the big black dog went away, but every now and then, if I forget to do the work, I can hear that dog barking. It keeps its distance, but I can hear it. Then I remember to do the work, and the barking fades.
Those of us who gather in religious communities are tempted to see depression as a spiritual problem with spiritual solutions. This is unfortunate, because it has caused us to view medical intervention and psychotherapy with a degree of suspicion. While depression can’t be prayed away, its impact can be reduced by the cultivation of specific habits and practices, which have the potential to fill our lives with meaning and happiness, so we don’t die before we’re dead.
In the weeks ahead, I’ll identify the practices I and others have found useful. I won’t be speaking as an expert, but as one who has struggled through the darkness of depression, was fortunate enough to find a slight and warm light by which to walk by, so share it with you, like one blind beggar telling another where to find bread.