This is the second in my Lenten series of posts reflecting on my reading of Monica A. Coleman’s book “Not Alone.”
“My God, my god why have you forsaken me?” These last words of Jesus, Monica A. Coleman reminds us, were not a random cry of disillusion, pain, and misery. When Jesus cries out on the cross, she tells us, he was quoting the psalms (Psalm 22), the music of his people. Coleman places this observation in a discussion of how important music is to her struggles with depression, especially spirituals. These are songs, she reminds us, that grew out of the songs of slaves in the fields. This is music that was born out of depression and lament.
I’ve always taken refuge in my music. Many people do, but when your affect is tied to so many seemingly random things such as your diet, sunlight, exercise and brain chemistry run wild, music’s ability to touch one’s emotional center seems magnified. At least that’s my experience, and so it seems it is Coleman’s as well.
Music helps us get right to our emotions, our feelings, and as a depressive, I, like Coleman, have learned to not trust my own emotions. This is not always a good thing. Coleman writes:
” I can’t always trust my feelings. Many days, weeks even, I see all events through the opposite of rose-colored glasses. Everything seems dismal, even when it is not. I can convince myself I have no friends. I am sure that I am completely unlovable. Nothing seems to go my way. This is not based in evidence. In fact, evidence to the contrary can usually be found without much effort. But I don’t feel loved. I don’t feel secure. I don’t feel successful. I feel alone.”
As she often seems to, Coleman seems to be speaking of my own life, not hers, the experience of depression is so similar in many ways. Perhaps it is for you as well. One particular comment she makes goes right to the heart of my pondering how I can be the best minister I am capable of being when God Herself seems to play hide and seek with me at times.”
It becomes tiring: to write and teach and preach about God without feeling God. To pray and sing and worship without feeling God. While depression probably makes this more acute for me (since I can’t feel anything good in these times), I understand that this is also part of the spiritual life. There will be winters when the only evidence of life is deep below ground. (Renita Weems writes beautifully about this in her book Listening for God).”
And yet we carry on in our quest for God, both for ourselves and others. Perhaps this is why and how we minister – because the search for God, the struggle to see God, the quest for whatever God is, has been placed by calling or condition on our plate and we can do nothing else.
What do you do when you can’t feel God?
The first thing I do is that I stop my prayer practices. I stop sitting in silent meditation every day and I stop walking quietly in a secluded spot every day. When I notice that I’ve stopped (more than two days without practice) I know I have to admit to both feeling more depressed again and that I feel an absence of a saving presence again. Then I have usually been able to recommit to my practices. There was a time I went through a depressive period during my spiritual direction training and I had to force myself to show up on the meditation cushion every day. They don’t call them “desert” times for nothing.
When I am going through a desert time, I often turn to music and poetry. Depending on what may have triggered a depressive episode, I may need music with inspiring lyrics, music that speaks to my desolation, or music with no lyrics at all.
One of my idiosyncrasies is that I often do what I call “soundtracking” my life. It’s as if my life were a movie (sometimes a good drama, sometimes a romance, sometimes a horror flick, sometimes the coolest indie film ever, sometimes a B movie, and sometimes some made for TV crap that no one should have to suffer through) and I was the music director selecting songs to emphasize mood and action and plot development. As part of this patten, I am always collecting and making song lists, before the term “playlist” was more or less everyday language I made playlists to soundtrack my life. My depression has a soundtrack. It includes:
U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I ‘m Looking For” (the gospel version from Rattle and Hum, not the Joshua Tree single.
- Prince of Darkness by The Indigo Girls
- One Step Closer to Home by the Alarm
- Everybody Hurts by REM
- Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkle
- Land of Hope and Dreams by Bruce Springsteen
- Better than a Hallelujah and Takes a Little Time by Amy Grant
- Verge of a Miracle by Rich Mullins
- Shine the Light by Sugarland
- Half Acre by Hem
- Roll Away Your Stone by Mumford & Sons
- It Hurts Here by Gary Rand
- Hold On by Wilson Phillips
- Don’t Give Up – Peter Gabriel
Find these songs on my Spotify Playlist “Blogging Not Alone.” If you are on Spotify, feel free to add your own suggestions.
What can you actually do even when you don’t feel God?
I what I do, and what I truly believe has saved me from the darkest depths of depression, is find some type of work to do for the Misseo Dei – the mission of God: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring release to those in captivity, be it a physical or spiritual or emotional captivity. I dragged myself, frightened and shaking, out of my worst (and first) serious depressive episode in 1987 by volunteering for Amnesty International. It began with writing letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience, led to starting a student chapter of AI at Fitchburg State College (named student organization of the year 1989-90, thank you very much and yes, I am still quite proud of that) and ended up with my being on staff in a regional office for a summer following my college internship there. Over the years, I have been politically active, volunteered at church, and even studied to become a spiritual director in order to better see God in others, especially others suffering and who are victims of various injustices, and try to do something to help. Perhaps, it is because it was during that first depressive episode I read etensively writings both by and about Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Oscar Romero in order to inspire myself to get back out in the world. It didn’t “cure” my depression. It couldn’t, but that reading and studying of these great lives of service gave me a way to live in spite of the depression.