April 16, 2012

DEPRESSION: Churchill's Black Dog. We All Have One. Use It!

Writing last Friday about depression, the frequent companion of Parkinson's, sent me back to my files to reread a favorite sermon preached by my treasured friend John C. Harper, the long-time rector (1963-1993) of St. John's Church, Lafayette Square ("the Church of the Presidents"). First delivered on April 23, 1989, it speaks for itself.

The sermon this morning is about the “Black Dog.” We all have one. For some of us he is more of a companion than for others; some people give him a name while others of us only know what he looks like, know how large he is, and what he feels like. Winston Churchill named him, and it was the name he gave for depression.

Most of Churchill’s life was lived in companionship with his Black Dog, although on the whole he was successful in coping with his depression. It recurred periodically however and was never very far away, and until he died at ninety Churchill suffered bouts of depression for which he had the sense of humor to give a nickname.

Although his heart was full of despair in 1940 when he took office as Prime Minister, he nevertheless rallied a nation to greatness. As someone who studied his moods and understood their depths has observed, “Only a man who has known and faced despair within himself could carry conviction at such a moment…. It was because all his life, he had conducted a battle with his own despair that he could convey to others that despair can be overcome.” (Anthony Storr: Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice)

Now I have quoted that passage for several reasons. One is to show that great men are like the rest of us and are subject to depression; another is to point out that some people have used their weakness in order to achieve strength, giving hope and courage to others because their own has been dearly won; and the third reason for holding up Winston Churchill’s example is to remind you and myself that before we can help others to achieve hope we have to learn it within ourselves.

For many people the Black Dog never goes away. Yet it is what we make of him, how we use him and not how he uses us, that in the end matters. Despair and depression can be constant and in the end keep us from being anything other than despairing people. Or they can be used as means for understanding and accepting ourselves in order that we can learn to understand and accept others.

It was the great theologian Paul Tillich who said that “He who is able to love himself is able to love others also; he who has learned to overcome self-contempt can overcome his contempt for others.” He who knows where his demons are, accepts them but doesn’t let them devour him, can reach out in freedom in his relationships to other people, a healthy man or woman who can share ourselves in positive as well as hopeless situations.

You can’t really love someone until you love yourself; you can’t help another person until you yourself have been helped; you can’t add a dimension of hope to someone else’s troubles until you have squarely faced your own. In the words of the AA prayer, you and I can learn to change the things in our lives that can be changed, accept the ones that can’t be changed, and most importantly know the difference. We grow enough inwardly to “take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess” (Hymn 652) to others a serenity both they and we seek more than anything else.

The Christian Gospel tells of a new commandment about loving one another as God has loved us, loving in such a way that it comes from within rather than without. Love, like depression, begins within a person, but it can radiate out to others when it is used for some good. By this, St. John declares, “All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35) For as someone has added, “We must not only give what we have; we must also give what we are.” (Cardinal Mercier)

The Christina learns to share rather than to preach, to let people enter his or her life and take us for what we are. The Christian learns to come into the presence of another person or of a family or a group of people and say I am not afraid to tell you who I am: I hope you will take me for what I am because it’s all I have. But this much I give you: myself.

By this, Jesus declares, people will know we are his disciples. Keep your Black Dog on a leash, let him follow you if he insists. But be sure he doesn’t rule your life. Don’t let him lead you in the direction he wants to go. Let your Black Dog – your depression, your coldness, your fears, your whatever – be part of your life if you can’t get rid of him, but like the “little shadow that goes in and out with me;” say “What can be the use of him is more than I can see.” Keep him in his place.

Let me back up and remind you about Winston Churchill’s life. He was virtually rejected by his parents; he was thought in his younger years to be a lightweight who had no judgment or inner strength; he was physically unattractive; and most of his political life until 1940 and then following World War II was hardly a success, arrogant and seemingly impervious to others around him. He once said of himself however on one of his birthdays, “I have achieved a great deal to achieve nothing in the end.”

Yet this was the man, unstable and deprived in many ways, who inspired a nation and stands today as a symbol of courage against tyranny. In spite of his aristocratic birth, he knew so little love and in many instances of his life gave so little in return. He was truly a flawed individual, hounded by the Black Dog, often lacking in consideration for other people’s feelings, concerned with his own needs and objectives. He wanted to be loved, but he never learned to love or be loved perfectly.

Complex though he was, he accomplished more than even he would admit. Hungry for adulation and fame and power though he remained, one wonders, as Anthony Storr suggests, whether he would have achieved so much if he had been less egocentric and so inspiring if he had been more self-disciplined.

The point of this is to remind ourselves that maturity comes in many forms, just as love takes many shapes. Yet love, which is the highest form of maturity, is not lightly or easily given but is the result of our own struggles to be who we are, using what we have, the gifts we have been given and making the most of them. We can be undisciplined and still learn to share with others; we can be full of dark thoughts and still radiate that darkness into warm feelings; we can be insecure and yet allow others to look honestly within us, and gain courage from them because we have shared what little we have.

There can be a creative use for depression and loneliness and fears, but they are only useful when they allow us to learn the true perimeters of our inner lives and, building on them, move out into a healthier air where we can rejoice in our uniqueness.

Use whatever gifts you have for others, the dark and the lighter ones. Let them be the means of fulfilling you and me as true children of God, imperfect though we may be. Take your love and let it be shared with people around you. Sooner or later people will see that we are really disciples of a Lord of the light and not of the dark, the God who allows the worst to happen but never lets it become the final word.

1 comment:

TheJewell said...

So much of our lives are accidental in that we do what we are capable of or what we are able to do in that circumstance and at that point in time, thinking little of implications or consequences...we all have dark times, but most of us eventually rise above them into the light.