The Soul in Depression
Andrew Solomon is a journalist and writer of epic books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, and Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
Anita Barrows has translated three books of Rilke’s writing with Joanna, in addition to Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, In Praise of Mortality, and A Year with Rilke. Anita is a psychologist and poet. She was a voice in the On Being episode, “The Soul in Depression.” Her most recent poetry collection is Testimony.
Parker J. Palmer is a teacher, author, and founder and senior partner emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His many books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, Let Your Life Speak, and On the Brink of Everything. He's also a contributor to the book, Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet.
Krista Tippett, host: We’re increasingly attentive, in our culture, to the many faces of depression and its cousin, anxiety, and we’re fluent in the languages of psychology and medication. But depression is profound spiritual territory, and that is much harder to speak about and can only be traced years onward. It is the shadow side of human vitality, and as such, teaches us about vitality.
Depression may be possible, as Andrew Solomon says, for the same reason that love is possible. This is important reflection for our common life. Like many millions of people, depression is an essential thread of the life that is mine. And I think “depression” may be one of the most inadequate words in our vocabulary. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
The voices of this hour span rare, brave, and helpful perspective on depression and life. I spoke with them all more than a decade ago, and they feel resonant and important to resurface now. Anita Barrows is a psychologist and poet. Parker Palmer is a Quaker author and educator. Andrew Solomon is my first guest: He’s a journalist and author of epic books. His book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression received the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Andrew Solomon: And when I was going through the depression, I had the sense that many of the qualities by which I had defined myself were abandoning me, and that I was no longer the person whom I had previously been. And yet, there was something within me that seemed to stay the same. Something essential remained at the core. And I thought, “What is that essential thing?”
Tippett: Andrew Solomon first went public, writing about his depression in The New Yorker magazine, in 1998. He described his breakdowns in excruciating detail and his extreme immersion in the then brave new world of antidepressant pharmacology. That article elicited over 1,000 letters from New Yorker readers.
After the article and his subsequent book, Andrew Solomon was interviewed widely. What struck me as I listened, as a survivor of depression myself, was how Andrew Solomon’s questioners tended to focus on his physical collapse and not on his eloquent insistence, between the lines, that depression, for him, was also a spiritually revealing experience. And Andrew Solomon is not a religious person.
His mother’s death, when he was 27, triggered his first major depression. As he’s recounted, she died by a planned suicide in the presence of him, his father, and his brother, to end a bitter struggle with cancer. He now traces the onset of his depression from his incapacity to grieve the death of his mother.
Solomon: The passage from grief into nothingness was very alarming and very strange. There was a sense — I still would have said, “I’m terribly upset that my mother died,” and so on and so forth, but the feeling went out of it. And I think that’s why, when the feeling comes back, you think: Oh, this is a soul. This is a spirit. This is something profound and alive, which returned to me after taking a leave of absence.
Tippett: I think what I found really refreshing about your book, and something that I don’t think is out there enough, is what depression really is and what it really is not. It’s not sadness, really. I think you say that the opposite of depression is human vitality.
Solomon: It’s an experience, I think, overall, of finding the most ordinary parts of life incredibly difficult: finding it difficult to eat, finding it difficult to get out of bed, finding it difficult and painful to go outside; being afraid all of the time and being overwhelmed all the time. And frequently it’s quite a sad experience, to be afraid and overwhelmed all the time; nonetheless, those are the essential qualities of it. It isn’t, I think, primarily an experience of sadness. And it teaches you how big emotion is. The profundity of the inner self, I suppose, would be the best way of putting it.
Tippett: Are passions, maybe, in a real classical sense of that word, also a way to talk about the largeness of emotion that you’re describing?
Solomon: I think passions are the only way to talk about it; the passion which is the essential motivator for all human activity. In a sense, after you’ve been through a depression, it gives you a different relationship to the world. It gives you a different sense of how your interior monologue really determines everything, and you’re left mystified as to where that interior monologue originates and where those passions come from, and why they’re so mutable, and what it is within them that’s immutable.
Tippett: To keep going on this idea of what you learn and what it is and what it isn’t, it seems like you also make a very clear case that this is not about — depression is not simply an escape from pain; that one thing you learned to appreciate is the fact of pain in life as one of the experiences of life that means — that is a sign of being alive.
Solomon: I had a very interesting conversation with a priest who’s a friend of mine and was a teacher when I was at university, and I was talking to him at one point about the purpose of suffering. And he said to me, “It’s a very narrow-minded idea that comes out of religion, that all suffering has a purpose. Suffering is just suffering. And after you’ve been through the suffering, perhaps your relation to the world is changed, and perhaps it isn’t, but suffering shouldn’t be glorified.” And I sort of quite strongly hold to that idea. I think there is something that’s come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition that says there is a nobility in suffering in silence.
Tippett: Yes, and you also write about how the battle against depression is, in some sense, a battle with or against yourself. Do we — yeah, go on.
Solomon: Well, you do feel hideously betrayed by yourself. You feel as though you know who you are; you know what your mechanisms for coping are; you know when they’re pushed to — and suddenly, they vanish. And so there is a sense that you think, “What can I lean on within myself?”
And I think that’s one of the particular forms of anguish of depression, is, I think depression is above all an illness of loneliness; I think the sense that you are unable to do things and that no one can help you. Eventually you go to a doctor, and he gives you some kind of medication, or you go to another kind of doctor and he gives you psychotherapy, or, in fact, you go to a priest or a minister or a rabbi or somebody like that, who tries to encourage you and to keep you going, through philosophical and theological argument. But you lose the sense of the inevitability of your own being alive. And that’s the most lonely, isolating feeling.
Tippett: I’d like to talk about medication. You are still on medication, I believe, and I suppose will be forever, which is becoming the advisable way for people who’ve suffered multiple depression. So I wonder if people ask you, “How do you know that this person you are now, and these observations you have to make, even this wisdom that you have, that this is really you, when you are so influenced by chemicals?”
Solomon: I think the idea that there is a “real” self and that changing it in any way with medication is artificial is like the idea that you “really” have teeth that fall out when you’re 30 and that you’re artificially changing them by using modern dental care. [laughs] I just think the“authentic” thing goes through periods of flaw and illness and problem and that you have to address those problems. Taking these medications brings about effects, which are also brought about by certain kinds of talking therapies and external experiences, and I’m a great believer in those therapies and also continue to work in those areas and arenas.
There’s a lovely passage from The Winter’s Tale, which I quote toward the end of the book, beautifully phrased, and I wish I had it in front of me; I’d read it aloud.
Tippett: Here’s a sentence I think may have been from that passage, or your commentary on it: “If humanity is of nature, then so are our inventions.”
Solomon: Yes, exactly. And it ends, that passage, with the line: “That art itself is nature.”
Tippett: You also quote the poet Jane Kenyon: “We try a new drug, a new combination / of drugs, and suddenly / I fall into my life again.” And from my own experience, I remember that. And I think that, again, is so hard for people to imagine, who haven’t been through this; that it is not like you are changed into someone new, but you fall into your own life again. It’s so mysterious.
Solomon: I feel that very strongly. I’ve talked with people some of the time — and I think I relate this anecdote in the book. But there’s somebody who I used to know. And I was at a party; then was on my way home and ran into her in the street. And I said, “How are you doing?” and Jane said, “Well, I had a very serious depression.” And I said, “Oh,” I said, “are you taking medications? Have you been in therapy?” She said, “No, I just decided it was the result of stress, and so I eliminated the stresses from my life. I broke up with my boyfriend, because that was difficult, and I gave up my apartment to just live in a one-room place, because I thought that would be less demanding. And I don’t really go out to parties anymore, because I find being with people is just very difficult for me.” She went on and on with this catalog, and I thought, “That is not true to yourself. I’ve known you for years, and you were a different person.”
I feel as though I’ve made, in effect, the opposite decision. I have the personality that is consistent with the personality I had when I was 10 and 20 and 25, and that then began to fall apart a little bit later on. And I have the strong sense that the medications have returned me to myself.
[music: “G tintinabulum” by Chapelier Fou]
Tippett: Andrew Solomon. His award-winning book The Noonday Demon is at once a memoir and a compendium of the many nuances of depression, described from medical, scientific, and social perspectives. He also delves into historical attitudes, including religious ideas, which have formed modern attitudes in the West.
Many ancient classical thinkers did not understand the psyche as detached from the body. By contrast, the great fifth-century church father, St. Augustine, labeled depression a disease not of the body but of the soul, and a mark of God’s disfavor. This Christian stigma, Andrew Solomon says, has endured in modern America even when the theology behind it has not. I asked him what, if any, religious literature he had found to be helpful.
[music: “G tintinabulum” by Chapelier Fou]
Solomon: I think I would say that I found a particular comfort in the harder rhetoric of Judaism, though I vastly appreciate the more forgiving nature of the New Testament. But the Old Testament had a certain doctrine of acceptance and law and endurance; that these terrible things happen, and you just stick it out, and maybe they get better, and maybe they don’t get better. But there’s a kind of hardness in it, which — one would expect, in a depression, that what one needs is softness, and I think one does need softness from other people. But I found those basic lessons, which I had absorbed in those Sunday school lessons when I was a child — there was a sternness in them that I found very believable, even when I was at my lowest. At a time when I couldn’t have believed that God loved me, I could believe that there was logic and structure in the world. And so for me, as a Jew, I think that was a particularly potent comfort to me and guide to me, through what was happening.
Tippett: I think that’s fascinating, because on the surface it doesn’t sound — I don’t know; you would think that those passages especially might alienate a modern person, a sophisticated, educated city dweller.
Solomon: They’re much easier to believe, if you’re a sophisticated city dweller.
Tippett: [laughs] I think I’d like to end with something that is maybe the first line in your book, that “Depression is the flaw in love.” What do you mean by that? It’s a haunting sentence.
Solomon: It seems to me that, in a way, the most fundamental and important capacity we have as human beings is the capacity for love. And I think the feeling of love couldn’t exist without a range of other feelings that surround it, the primary one being the fear of loss. If the loss of someone you love didn’t make you sad, then what substance would the love have? And I think that, therefore, the emotional range that includes great sadness and great pain is essential to the kind of love and attachment that we form.
It seems to me that the kind of severe depression that we’ve been talking about represents an overactivity of the mood spectrum, but that without the basic mood spectrum of which depression is the extreme end, we couldn’t have the experience of intimacy which that brings.
Tippett: And you also have spoken a lot about how the experience of depression, for you, and also a recovery of the capacity or a deepening of your capacity for intimacy, go together. Does that flow from that same thought?
Solomon: Yes, I think it does. I think the awareness of my own vulnerability has made me more aware of other people’s vulnerability and more appreciative of people who cushion me from the things to which I am vulnerable. So I think it’s made me both more loving and more receptive to love and given me a clearer sense than I would otherwise have had of the value of love.
And I suppose — again, without wanting to get into a suggestion of specific doctrine — that that has also given me a sense that some abstract love in the world, which I suppose we could call the love of God, is essential and significant, and it has been increased in me, both in terms of my appreciation for it and my feeling of being loved or held.
I use that word, “soul,” very advisedly. I don’t particularly mean something that will eventually acquire wings and go off to the kingdom of heaven. I guess, though, if you say “the mind” or you say all of those things that get used in scientific discussions of depression, like “emotional infrastructure” and other phrases like that, [laughs] they seem to me not to capture this essential self.
Tippett: Those are too clinical. [laughs]
Solomon: And it seems to me that who other people are is always mysterious. What I realized, in the wake of depression, is that who I am is fully mysterious to me. And so, since I don’t fully know it and since I can’t fully comprehend it — it’s not simply that I don’t; it’s that I can’t — then there has to be some mystical element in it, and some element that’s obviously present, and yet beyond my comprehension. And that, I think, is what I was trying to characterize when I used the word “soul,” because I think the recognition of that fundamental reality has been much stronger in religious writing and in religious contemplation than it has been in other areas of considering an enterprise.
Tippett: I know that you used the word near the very beginning of your book and right at the end again. I noticed. I’m not sure you used it many other times throughout.
Solomon: Yes. That was quite deliberate, actually. I felt, given that I didn’t want to write a religious book, because I am not in any very mainstream way a religious person, that I didn’t want to adopt the word all the way through. But I felt that it was an important mode of description, and I felt I wanted it to frame all of what I was saying.
[music: “Ventricles” by Moon Ate the Dark Moon]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. In the midst of depression, very little if anything is possible in the way of reflection. If you know someone who is depressed now, or if you yourself are in that state, go gently, seek help, and don’t expect spiritual breakthroughs.
My symptoms were classic: sleeplessness, weight loss, fear, anxiety, and a devastating inability to concentrate. In depression, I found body, mind, and spirit to be shockingly, maddeningly inseparable. As I was gradually emerging, I read an essay by the author Parker Palmer, which echoed this experience of my own.
But the article surprised me. I knew of Parker Palmer as a guru of the soul, a wise Quaker thinker whose books and speeches had helped people integrate their deepest spiritual values into their lives and work. And yet here was a revelation by Parker Palmer that he had suffered two episodes of depression in his 40s.
Parker Palmer: People walk around saying, “I don’t understand why so-and-so committed suicide.” Well, I understand perfectly why people take their lives. They need the rest. Depression is absolutely exhausting. It’s why, day by day, for months at a time, I wanted to take my life. What I don’t understand is why some people come through on the other side and reclaim life with new vividness and with new intensity. That is the real mystery, to me.
Tippett: When Parker Palmer experienced his depressions, he was the revered leader of a Quaker spiritual community. At first, because of this, he felt ashamed. But ultimately, he says, depression forced him to reconsider the core of his understanding of spiritual life itself.
Palmer: Going into my experience of depression, I thought of the spiritual life as sort of climbing a mountain until you got to this high, elevated point where you could touch the hand of God or see a vision of wholeness and beauty. The spiritual life, at that time, had nothing to do, as far as I was concerned, with going into the valley of the shadow of death, even though that phrase is right there at the heart of my own spiritual tradition; that wasn’t what it was about, for me.
So on one level you think, “This is the least spiritual thing I’ve ever done.” And the soul is absent, God is absent, faith is absent — all of the faculties that I depended on before I went into depression were now utterly useless. And yet, as I worked my way through that darkness, I sometimes became aware that way back there in the woods, somewhere, was this sort of primitive piece of animal life, just some kind of existential reality, some kind of core of being, of my own being; I don’t know, maybe of the life force generally, and that was somehow holding out the hope of life to me. And so I now see the soul as that wild creature way back there in the woods that knows how to survive in very hard places; knows how to survive in places where the intellect doesn’t, where the feelings don’t, and where the will cannot.
Tippett: So where is God in all of this?
Palmer: Well, Tillich described God as the ground of being. I no longer think of God as “up there” somewhere. I think of God as “down here,” which I think is — in my own Christian tradition is pretty consistent with incarnational theology, with the whole notion of a God who journeyed to Earth to be among us compassionately; to suffer with us; to share the journey.
Tippett: I love this — there’s a sentence from your book: “I had embraced a form of Christian faith devoted less to the experience of God than to abstractions about God, a fact that now baffles me: how did so many disembodied concepts emerge from a tradition whose central commitment is to ‘the Word become flesh’?”
Palmer: That’s a baffling question, to me, to this day. But I take embodiment very seriously, and of course, depression is a full-body experience and a full-body immersion in the darkness. And it is an invitation — at least, my kind of depression is an invitation — to take our embodied selves a lot more seriously than we tend to do when we’re in the up-up-and-away mode.
Tippett: So let’s dwell with that for a moment, because I think — one critique I’ve heard of how Christian tradition does not help people who are suffering from something like depression is that suffering itself — by some interpretation, it would be said to be glorified. But you’re turning that image around, in terms of the way you’ve come to apply it.
Palmer: I am. I think there’s a lot, unfortunately, about suffering in Christian tradition that’s hogwash, if I can use a technical theological term. It’s awfully important to distinguish in life, I think, between true crosses and false crosses. And I know, in my growing up as a Christian, I didn’t get much help with that. A cross was a cross was a cross, and if you were suffering, it was supposed to be somehow good.
But I think that there are false forms of suffering that get imposed upon us — sometimes from without, from injustice and external cruelty, and sometimes from within — that really need to be resisted. I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death. I believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live life fully and well. Now, is that going to take me to places where I suffer because I am standing for something or I am committed to something or I am passionate about something that gets resisted and rejected by the society? Absolutely. But anyone who’s ever suffered that way knows that it’s a life-giving way to suffer; that if it’s your truth, you can’t not do it, and that knowledge carries you through. But there’s another kind of suffering that is simply and purely death. It’s death in life. And that is a darkness to be worked through, to find the life on the other side.
[music: “Long Forgotten Future” by Grandbrothers]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Parker Palmer.
[music: “Long Forgotten Future” by Grandbrothers]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today exploring the spiritual territory of depression.
The Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer experienced two episodes of depression in his 40s. I’ve come back so often across the years to a question he shared from a therapist, which helped him reclaim his life. The therapist said, “Parker, you seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend pressing you down onto ground on which it is safe to stand?”
Palmer: I think you could make a case that — as a friend of mine once did; I actually went to a friend at one point; she happens to be a member of a religious community, a sister. And I said, “I’ve been on this wonderful Quaker journey, and I’ve been sitting in silence, and I’ve learned to pray, and I have been feeling so much closer to God than I ever did when I was just clinging to doctrine. Why am I now feeling so full of death?” And she said, “Well, I think the answer is simple: The closer you get to the light, the closer you also get to the darkness.” And it was another one of those phrases, like the one that my therapist gave me, that I didn’t understand right away, but right away I knew there was some kind of truth in it that I needed to try to understand.
Tippett: Well, how do you understand that phrase now?
Palmer: I understand that to move close to God is to move close to everything that human beings have ever experienced. And that, of course, includes a lot of suffering, as well as a lot of joy.
Tippett: And again, just getting back to the subject of this show, the fact that, I think, the thing in the midst of a depression that feels so absent, I would say, is your very soul; the ground of your being has dropped out. I don’t even think I could think about God one way or the other. I had to put the idea of God to one side. And yet, some of the most profound observations that you’re making and that you’re saying that can be possible out of some depression, are precisely about those aspects of human experience.
Palmer: Right. And as I said earlier, as best I can reconstruct it — and a lot of it’s hard to reconstruct, because you’re so out of it that I don’t entirely trust my capacity to reconstruct it. But as best I can reconstruct it: Like you, the thought of God, all of those theological convictions were just dead and gone during that time. But from time to time, back in the woods, that primitive wildness was there. And if that’s all God is, I’ll settle for it. I’ll settle for it easily and thankfully.
[music: “Flute Sonata, Op. 77: III. Modere,” composed by Joseph Jongen]
Tippett: When you were talking about how Quaker tradition — just that people know how to be silent, I was recalling that passage in what you’ve written about your depression, about the friend who helped you the most, who would just come be with you.
Palmer: I’ll just tell that story quickly, because it’s such a great image for me. I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know, intellectually, that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day. And then other people would come and say something along the lines of, “Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person. You’ve helped so many people, you’ve written …”
Tippett: “You’re so successful.”
Palmer: “You’re so successful, and you’ve written so well.” And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, “I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.”
There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about 4 o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks, and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything; he was a Quaker elder. And yet, out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, “I can feel your struggle today,” or, farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.” But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report, from time to time, what he was intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just — in a way that I really don’t have words for — kept me connected with the human race.
What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became, for me, a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering, but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.
[music: “Traveler” by Jacob Montague]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Depression runs through the literature and poetry of every culture. From ancient Greece to the medieval Arab world and into the modern West, it was often approached with the term “melancholia.” The psalmist of the Hebrew Bible wrote repeatedly of the “pit of despair.” The 16th-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross penned the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” And there’s a growing Buddhist literature on such themes. My next guest, Anita Barrows, has been a practitioner of Theravada Buddhism for most of her adult life, alongside her Jewish tradition. And she has lived with depression as far back as she can remember, first of all through life with her mother.
Barrows: My mother would say things like, “I talk to God. I talk directly to God, and he answers me.” And I always sort of had the image, when I was a child, [laughs] that God was this old man, half-shaven, in a bathrobe, who had a direct phone line to Sylvia, my mother, but didn’t do very much to help her. [laughs] I thought, “If she has such a direct line, why doesn’t he make her better?”
And what I was told about my mother being in bed so much was that she had warts on her feet. It was kind of an odd thing to have been told. And the warts had a wonderful name. They had an Italian name; it was “verruca,” which, to me, sounded kind of like a Hebrew prayer, “Baruch atah.” [laughs] And so I was sort of fascinated with the word. But I would sit outside the door to my mother’s bedroom, and I would hear her crying or just wait for her to wake up. And that was very much the experience of my childhood.
I remember, even, a very strong sort of sensation, walking through the door. We lived in an apartment during that middle part of my childhood, from the time I was about seven to ten. And I remember walking through the door and really feeling a change in the atmosphere from the vivid outside world, where I loved to be — whatever the weather, I loved to be outdoors — and I would walk inside, and I would feel a kind of permeable darkness. And that was my mother’s depression.
Tippett: That’s an amazing image. You’re already getting at something that I want to try to bring into the light, which is, depression is something many of us have experienced, either ourselves or through others, and we talk about it from a medical standpoint and from a psychological standpoint, but [laughs] “permeable darkness” is really — it’s really a good description of the wholeness of that pall it casts.
Barrows: Yes, permeable in that I could sort of walk in and out of it myself, and put my hand in it and feel what it felt like. And I think that it was certainly something that my mother lived with all her life, and it’s a state that’s familiar to me, as well, although I have lived it differently from the way my mother did.
[music: “Tokyo Ghost Story” by Arovane]
Tippett: Anita Barrows had her own first struggle with depression at 17, after she left home for college. Then, after the birth of her first, much-wanted child when she was 31, she suffered a major collapse. That depression had an organic cause, an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, and after many false diagnoses, it was easily treatable. But like all of us who’ve been touched by depression, whatever its trigger or form, Anita Barrows remains marked by the presence of this illness in her life, and she embraces it actively.
As a psychologist, she cautions that the Buddhist embrace of inner darkness can be terrifying and even dangerous, in the depths of clinical depression. But, like Andrew Solomon and Parker Palmer, she honors the interplay between darkness and light as a commonplace feature of life. She has explored this through writing poetry and translating the work of others. Together with Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, Anita Barrows created a stunning — and my favorite — translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours. And as a psychologist who is also a lover of language, she complains that the word, “depression,” itself does not do justice to this human experience.
Barrows: It almost becomes a way of dismissing it. I see it much, much more as a kind of a minor-key chord that is a constant accompaniment to one’s life.
Tippett: To any life? Or to the life of a person who’s —
Barrows: To many lives — well, I think to the life of a person who is inclined in that direction. Rilke loved the darkness, and there are many poems where he speaks about darkness in a way that really, I think, was what drew me to these poems. Can I read one?
“I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.
Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.
So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots
a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.”
“I love the dark hours of my being,” he says. I think that there have been times, certainly, in my life when the “depressed” mood — it’s such a terrible word — the “dark” mood … [laughs]
Tippett: I know. [laughs]
Barrows: It’s a word that has taken on so many rotten connotations. It’s sort of a medical term now. I want to redeem it from the medical and the clinical.
There is a point in depression that is so devastating that only in retrospect would anyone want to say, “Well, I am glad I touched bottom, because now I know what that is.” But this other kind of living with darkness, which is so familiar to me, I think is a very spiritual place. There is a kind of ripening that goes on in that place; a quieting, a listening; a place of non-activity.
Tippett: Well, and also a loss of illusions about what activity will get you.
Barrows: Exactly. All you can do in that place is sit and listen and be, and be very simple. Rilke, again, says: “Be modest now, like a thing / ripened until it is real, / so that he who made you / can find you when he reaches for you.”
[music: “The Winter Day Declining” by This Patch of Sky]
Tippett: Here is Anita Barrows’ reading of a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, which she translated with Joanna Macy.
Barrows: “You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.
The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power when you plucked the fruit;
now it becomes a riddle again,
and you again a stranger.
Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.
Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.”
[music: “The Winter Day Declining” by This Patch of Sky]
Suddenly, in depression, you are ripped from what felt like your life, from what felt right and familiar and balanced and ordinary and ordered. And you’re just thrown into this place where you’re ravaged; where the wind rips the leaves from the trees, and there you are — very, very much the soul in depression.
Tippett: And the word “stranger” in there, which is the complete alienation, not only from others, but from yourself.
Barrows: Ah, from oneself, exactly. That’s the worst of it.
Tippett: I don’t know; there’s just this paradox here that’s running through all the conversations I’m having about this subject and thinking, and you’re bringing it up again, which is that depression eventually can yield maturity and growth and a kind of spiritual insight, and a bigger soul, is the way some people might say it. But in the moment, in the depth of that experience, that is what is completely out of the question, that kind of reflection. What does that mean? What is this? [laughs]
Barrows: Exactly. No, I think that’s absolutely right. And I think that all of the talk about, “Oh, well, this will be really good for your soul or your character. This will make a better person of you,” feels like absolute rubbish when you’re in the midst of the wretchedness of depression. But I think that, in a way, it almost feels sort of physiological. If the soul were material, I think depression works on it the way you could work a piece of clay, so that it softens, and it becomes more malleable, it becomes wider, it becomes able to take in more.
But that’s only afterward. In the fire, what you get is the fire.
[music: “G tintinabulum” by Chapelier Fou]
And this is a poem called “Questo Muro.” It is a phrase from a passage in Dante’s Purgatory. Dante has been in the depths of depression, in the depths of the inferno, and he’s now working his way out of it toward Beatrice, who is — you could call her the soul, or the anima. And he and Virgil are climbing the mountain, and all of a sudden they get to a wall of fire. And you can’t go any further, unless you go through it. So this is my poem, and it really is a poem, I think, about finding the courage to persist; to go through that fire. “Questo Muro”:
“You will come at a turning of the trail
to a wall of flame
After the hard climb & the exhausted dreaming
you will come to a place where he
with whom you have walked this far
will stop, will stand
beside you on the treacherous steep path
& stare as you shiver at the moving wall, the flame
that blocks your vision of what
comes after. And that one
who you thought would accompany you always,
who held your face
tenderly a little while in his hands—
who pressed the palms of his hands into drenched grass
& washed from your cheeks, the tear-tracks—
he is telling you now
that all that stands between you
& everything you have known since the beginning
is this: this wall. Between yourself
& the beloved, between yourself & your joy,
the riverbank swaying with wildflowers, the shaft
of sunlight on the rock, the song.
Will you pass through it now, will you let it consume
whatever solidness this is
you call your life, & send
you out, a tremor of heat,
a radiance, a changed
[music: “Baby Saige” by The Album Leaf]
Tippett: “Questo Muro” by Anita Barrows. Her most recent poetry collection is We Are the Hunger. With Joanna Macy, she translated Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Here, in closing, are the final lines of one of Anita Barrows’ poems, titled “Heart Work.”
that had been stopped
is beginning to move: a leaf
driven against rock
by a current
frees itself, finds its way again
through moving water. The angle of
is low, but still it fills
this space we’re in. What interrupts me
is sometimes an abundance. My sorrow too,
which grew large through summer
feels to me this morning
as though if I touched it
where the thick dark stem
of it is joined to the root, it would release itself
whole, it would be something I could use.”
[music: “Baby Saige” by The Album Leaf]
Tippett: Earlier in this hour, you heard Parker Palmer and Andrew Solomon. Parker writes about depression in his book Let Your Life Speak. His many other books include On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old. Andrew Solomon is the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. His award-winning writing also includes Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
The kind of reflection and learning that these humans have attained by way of depression is a gift of time. If you or someone you know someone is depressed now, go gently and seek help. The National Institute of Mental Health has a website, nimh.nih.gov. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, offers information about local support and resources. Their number is 1 (800) 950-6264; 1 (800) 950-NAMI.
[music: “Sky Could Undress” by Balmorhea]
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
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