Depression, darkness and following a star

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

The story says the Magi found the baby Jesus by following a star. The thing about stars is you can only see them at night. The darkness frightens people because evil can lurk in the shadows where you can't see it until it's too late. 

That's what the Enlightenment was all about, i.e. shining the light of reason on everything so we could see clearly what is really there. That's one kind of truth, of course — seeing what is "really" there.

But what the Enlightenment thinkers did not understand is that in the clear light of day, you can't see the stars. In the clear light of day, you can see "exactly" what is around you, but that doesn't help you figure out in what direction you should proceed to get home — and I mean "home" in the most profound sense.

Wise men and women, in my experience, aren't afraid of entering the darkness. Even though they are well aware they're more vulnerable when "they can't see everything," they also know they can't see the star that is trying to guide them unless they look for it when the sun isn't shining.

One alcoholic put it this way: Reaching my bottom [read "darkest part of the night"] was the most significant spiritual experience in my life. God has come into my life and raised me up from this bottom. What was most important spiritually in my life was putting my knees on the floor on Jan. 29, 1999, and I said to God, 'I can't live this way anymore. Help me.' It's as if He said, 'OK, finally you're being honest. I'll help you.' And He did."

Here's a summary of a Bill Moyers interview with Parker Palmer, who draws on his own experience with clinical depression. Parker believes depression — for the society and for an individual — presents an opportunity to find a workable reality. 

"I got tremendous help," Palmer said, "from a therapist — in one of my depressions — who said to me, 'Parker, you seem to keep treating this experience as if depression were the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to re-image depression as the hand of a friend trying to press you down to ground on which it's safe to stand?' Well, those words didn't mean much to me immediately because when you're there, you can't hear that kind of counsel. But they grew on me, those words did." 

Palmer believes that for the United States, as himself, illusions lead to dark moments, and Americans must take this moment to ground themselves: "Reality won't let you down. It is what it is. And we have to learn to deal with it. So I think there are dramatic parallels. And I would say to us collectively — to the extent that I have any right to do that — what my therapist said to me.

"Embracing the mystery of depression [read: "nighttime when you can't see everything clearly"] does not mean passivity or resignation. It means entering into a field of forces that seems alien but is in fact our deepest self. It means waiting, watching, listening, suffering, and gathering whatever self-knowledge we can — and then making choices based on that knowledge, no matter how difficult. We gain the slow walk back to health by choosing each day that which enlivens our selfhood and resisting that which does not."

From my experience, when I dare to venture into the darkness, I get both courage and comfort from holding the hand of a friend who is searching for the same star I'm looking for.

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