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Leadership Journal

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Befriending the Darkness

Befriending the Darkness

The psalms of lament shone God's hope into my manic depression.

I can't remember much of the conversation in that consulting room. Just two words lodged in my mind: manic depression.

Until I began to respond to a sense of call to Christian ministry my life had been directionless and mostly "gray," but it was not until I was a theological student that depression began to take a hold. I had a driving job, delivering photographic equipment to retailers. I would be driving from one delivery to another weeping. I was scared. I didn't know why I was crying. I wasn't consciously unhappy about anything (I had just gotten engaged to the woman who would become my wife). I wasn't consciously worried about anything. I was just weeping uncontrollably.

After seeing a number of general physicians, I was prescribed anti-depressants and referred to a psychiatrist. Once a month, I saw the psychiatrist to ensure that my moods were stabilizing. I am one of the fortunate people for whom lithium works. Lithium is not a "cure" but an effective means of limiting the extremes of mood swing. When the lithium "kicked in" and my mood stabilized, life became manageable. Imagine the horror of my physician when, after barely two years of continuous stability, I announced that I wanted to stop taking the tablets. They made me feel truncated.


A while ago, Stephen Fry presented a series of television programs on the subject of manic depression. One of his interviewees described being on lithium as being "letter-boxed." When some films shot in wide-screen format are shown on television, the top and the bottom of the television screen are blanked-out. That is precisely what it feels like to be on lithium: the extremes of mania and despair have gone, but so has a third of your personality. You feel temperamentally castrated.

All but one of those interviewed did not wish to be other than they were. I'm sure this is incomprehensible to those peering in from the outside: who would want the despair of depression; who would want the embarrassment of mania?

While I would do anything to be rid of the numbing desolation of despair, but I note in puzzlement that, while I can write rhymes at any time, I can only write poetry of any approximation to quality when I am depressed. And without the mania, I never feel enthusiastic or completely engaged. For all the pain of it, I would rather be as I am than live with the unremitting grayness that was life on lithium. As is true in so many aspects of life, that for which I am most grateful is inextricably bound up with that which I most regret and loathe. I would welcome healing if I could lose the despair without losing the insight and sensitivity, if I could lose the mania without losing the enthusiasm and passion.

But since I'm not convinced that these things can be so easily distinguished, I'm not sure I want to be "healed." I would rather, with the apostle Paul, cling on to the promise that God's grace is sufficient in my weakness, and even that God is glorified in and through my weakness rather than by its removal. The one who is risen remains the one who was crucified. The glorified Jesus still bears the wounds of his crucifixion.

Liturgies of lament

Of all the psalms of lament, Psalm 88 is the bleakest. It seems entirely devoid of hope. All that is left is despair and desolation. But even this psalm, for all its despair, is not entirely hopeless. It is, after all, a prayer. It is addressed to God even though it offers no assurance that God is listening. And what a strange and enigmatic way for the psalm to end: "The darkness is my closest friend." Can it really be that the darkness itself can become a friend?

Through the Psalter, the traditional liturgy of the Church has been rich with lament and thereby remained pastorally pertinent. Sadly, one must seriously question whether this remains the case within the churches with which I am most familiar. No collection of hymns or songs has ever been flawless, and every generation of the church has managed to produce its fair share of poetic and musical dross. But it is fair to say that the majority of contemporary songs are up-beat in tempo and that the balance between the affective and the confessional and declaratory has swung in favor of the former. This style of worship focuses almost exclusively on praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, with clapping and other expressions of exuberance.

This form of worship renders it difficult to opt out, to observe, to sit, and to pray quietly while the performance proceeds. For the person who comes as this psalmist comes, for the person wrestling with any form of clinical depression, for the person tortured by the breaking down of relationships, for the recently bereaved, all this is unrelieved torture.

Any liturgy that does not include regular and broad engagement with the Psalter could, in these respects, be similarly faulted. Time and again the psalmists put into words, with disarming candor, feelings and prayers that most of us would struggle to express but echo nonetheless.

Am I angry with God? There are psalms that name this anger. Am I isolated and opposed? There are psalms that express this loneliness. Am I despairing of justice in human society or international relations? That same despair finds voice here. Am I fearful concerning the future for myself and for those I love? There are psalms that reassure me that I am not alone in such fears.

I believe that the Resurrection overwhelms the Cross, but not in a way that negates it or obscures it. It is the crucified one who is risen just as it is the risen one who was crucified. The risen and ascended Christ still bears the marks of slaughter.

Despair is not the last word

I have not taken lithium for almost thirty years. As my closest family and friends will tell you, I have certainly not "recovered." I've just spent thirty years developing strategies for coping.

In some respects the depression has eased—I am rarely rendered completely numb and incapable. I rarely now descend to uncontrollable weeping (though it still can happen). But in other respects it is worse; it is more continuous. There used to be periods when I felt entirely "normal," but now, even in the best of times, the darkness is a lingering presence on the margins of my mind, never wholly absent, always threatening. Is this darkness truly unending? Will it endure forever?

In Psalm 22 the psalmist cries out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But he also confesses God's faithfulness while knowing no relief from his distress, no light in the darkness, no break in the silence. Christ's cry of dereliction on the cross echoes the psalmist's cry, but we know that his cry was not the last word, nor the end of the story. Our cries can similarly echo the psalmist's cry, and when we struggle to express our anguish, we can make his words our own. But we cannot pray his prayer without coming to his confession, without knowing that, as an outcome of Jesus' unique suffering, our suffering and distress is not the last word. We do not suffer alone and our suffering cannot possibly be final or ultimate.

The Son of Man has suffered, and nothing, not even our despairing desolation, can ever be quite the same again.

Excerpted from Why Have You Forsaken Me? (Cascade, 2012)

John E. Colwell is Minister of Budleigh Salterton Baptist Church, Devon and Honorary Research Fellow at Spurgeon's College, London.