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Depression and the Still, Small Voice

Dear interfaith friends,

veteran with depression

A while ago I realized that in my barrel of sermons preached over a period of 30 years there are some that are suitable for interfaith readers, that is, people who honor traditions other than their own; and also, who want to explore how people walking another path deal with universal challenges of living. So, at my Interfaith Reflections blog I began to post what I venture to call interfaith sermons. I continue that effort here, with a sermon about depression, a timely subject, since suicide, an ultimate sour fruit of depression, is on the rise in the U.S. and many other places in the world.

Before you jump ahead though, I need to say something about the texts it cites. My own tradition is big on texts. The authority of the Bible is paramount in Presbyterianism, stronger than that of religious traditions, inspiration from within, or reason. As you read what I’m daring to call interfaith sermons I hope you’ll realize that I don’t expect all readers to revere these texts as travelers in my own tradition tend to do. But if you are to appreciate how the texts have given me strength as I face challenges of living, it will help to read the cited texts, especially the ones that tell stories. Many people across this planet have told stories not just to entertain, but to heal themselves. Please do read the texts in this case. I refer to them as I tell of my own struggle with depression. You’ll understand their importance for this traveler better, I think, if you read them for yourselves.

Depression, and the Still, Small Voice

A Sermon Preached at Hanover St. Presbyterian Church

On August 13, 2000

by the Rev. Thomas C. Davis, III, Ph.D.


1 Kings 19: 1-16

Psalm 143: 1-4, 7-8 and Psalm 40: 1-3a

Mark 10: 46-52

Alice and I just returned from the fourteenth reunion of a Bible study group that began in the early seventies at First Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina.  Eight couples make up this group, called Luke-Acts, after the books we first studied together. We have savored delicious food and sweet fellowship over these years as we met in the mountains or at the seashore or in cities along the East coast.  As we have watched our children grow and discussed the joys and challenges of work and family life, we have come to know each other more and more deeply.

Two years ago, as each one of us was sharing details of his or her spiritual journey, we were shocked to discover that three of the husbands (including me), and one of the wives, had experienced clinical depression.  That’s one quarter of the group measured in persons, or one half of the group, measured in couples . I thought I knew my Luke-Acts brothers and sisters pretty well, but I was floored when I discovered the pervasiveness of depression in this religiously active, and apparently healthy group of people.  

You may have heard depression called “the common cold of mental illness.” The problem with that metaphor, though, is that colds very rarely kill people.  Depression does. The slide from depression to suicide is a leading cause of death among teen agers in this country.  Suicide is rising among the elderly. And did you know that of those Americans who participated in the Vietnam War, more have died by suicide than died in battle?

Alas, some of the effects of depression are not so readily apparent.  You remember Littleton, that all-American, “our town” kind of place, where school boys methodically and ruthlessly gunned down their fellow students.  The country was stunned. What could have gotten into those boys, we wondered. Why were they so angry? What nefarious ideology must have corrupted their young minds?  We kept looking for an explanation in all places but the most obvious: Those boys were phenomenally depressed! But we failed to recognize that, because depression to most people means being sad, and these boys weren’t sad, they were angry.  

Ah, yes, but not all people experience depression the same way.  The statistics seem to show that more women get depressed than men, roughly 20 percent of women, ten percent of men, and five percent of children.  But some researchers believe that these figures aren’t accurate. They suspect that there really are many more depressed men and children than we realize.  Why? Because, to report to a doctor or a counselor that you are feeling very sad, you have to have language to describe that feeling, and because children are relatively inexperienced, and haven’t had much opportunity to talk about their feelings yet, and because men are taught from an early age not to pay attention to their feelings, especially not to cry, not to go for help about feelings,  but instead, just to tough it out, both children and men share this characteristic: that very often they don’t feel sad when they are depressed because they don’t have the language to describe what they’re feeling. So, to put it perhaps over simply, women tend to show their depression by telling how sad they are. Children show a variety of other symptoms, and frequently aren’t diagnosed as depressed.  And men tend to get angry, sometimes violent, or else medicate their pain by drugs and alcohol.

I got clinically depressed in 1988.  I think my depression was triggered by vocational pressures, but it also might have been related to hormonal changes, as I was aging.  I’m grateful to a friend in a support group who listened to me very intently one afternoon. I was complaining of fatigue, soul-wearying fatigue.  I didn’t feel sad, just really, really tired. Mel said to me: You know, it sounds to me like you might be depressed. Maybe you ought to check that out with a doctor.  I didn’t. I just kept toughing it out, and getting more and more tired. It wasn’t until months later that I began to experience sadness, and thoughts about killing myself, and that self-loathing which I now find so hard to believe I had.  I remember riding in the car with Alice one day, aware that I was very sick. Part of me was well enough to recognize that I was sick, but the sick part was really beating up on the rest of me. And the peculiar thing about this was that even though I recognized what was going on, I felt absolutely helpless to change it.  

Fortunately, I had started to go to counseling school, and had learned that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are symptoms of depression.  They don’t give you any reliable information about yourself or the world. I recognized that these feelings were simply epiphenomena of my poor sick brain, whose chemical balance was way out of whack.  But that knowledge wasn’t much consolation. I think there must be no illness quite so painful as depression, because with other illnesses, your core self is still in tact. You can fight most illnesses from that core.  You might be hurting terribly, but with most illnesses the hurt doesn’t reach all the way to your soul. With depression, it does. There seems to be no well part strong enough to fight back.  Another way of describing depression is the feeling of being hopelessly stuck.  Stuck like the psalmist in the miry bog, or fallen into a pit, and you can’t climb out.  Stuck like Elijah, hiding away, cowering in the cave. Woe is me! I’m a loser. Might as well end it all right now.

I love the way God speaks to poor, depressed Elijah.  God doesn’t give him a pep talk. God doesn’t tell him to shake it off, or keep a stiff upper lip.  Instead, God puts a question to Elijah: What are you doing here? That question implies that Elijah has some responsibility for the state of mind he’s in, and also, that there is some meaning in his feeling of being stuck.  God hears Elijah’s complaint, hears his agony, but doesn’t focus on it. Instead, God asks Elijah: What’s this feeling of being stuck, abandoned, forgotten about? Why are you here, Elijah? Or, a more precise way of putting the question would be:  What are you about, being here?

Wow, that approach to depression puts things in a different light altogether! You see, God doesn’t get bogged down with Elijah in the mire of complaint.  God doesn’t treat Elijah like the pitiful looser whom Elijah himself thinks he is. God appeals to that wee small part of the prophet’s psyche which still has some strength and sanity left and asks that part.  What is this about? Why are you here? Why are you stuck? Why are you cowering in this cave?

When I was depressed, the voice of Karl Jung did for me what the voice of God did for Elijah. Jung’s work posed the question to me: Why are you here, Tom? What meaning is there in your depression?  Jung thought that the fatigue of depression results from the tremendous effort it takes for the conscious mind to keep something very powerful from bubbling up out of the murky depths of the unconscious into full awareness.  Thus, depression is a wake up call that something big and important is about to happen in the personality of the sufferer. The reason that people get tired keeping the lid on this welling-up force for change, said Jung, is that it’s scary to see what’s underneath, and it’s also scary to think of all the ways that one will have to change if one honors whatever it is that comes into consciousness.  Understanding depression in this way made me see my illness as the storm before the calm, to borrow again from the Elijah tale. It helped me see that my depression was not simply the result of events that had transpired in my work world, or even in my body. No, my depression was a wake up call to respond to something very powerful in me that wanted out, wanted to come to light, and be honored. When I saw depression that way, instead of just as an affliction, I gave into my sadness, and began to explore its meaning, and began, ever so slowly it seemed at the time, to get well.

A word about depression and medications for treating it.  When I was seeing a number of depressed people in my work as a marriage and family therapist, I tried my best to take the collaborative approach which Jesus demonstrated, when blind Bartimaeus came to him for healing.  Jesus didn’t presume to know what Bartimaeus wanted when he asked for mercy. Instead, Jesus asked: What can I do for you? He placed the responsibility for healing in Bartimaeus’ hands. He let the sufferer tell him what he wanted.  And so, with respect to the healing of depressed people, my practice is to tell them that a doctor’s or a psychiatrist’s prescription of medication could be very helpful in reducing the symptoms of sadness and hopelessness, which can, after all, be life-threatening.  I encourage them to see a doctor for a medical check-up, but I do not insist that they take medication in order for me to work with them in counseling. In other words, I appeal to their own resources for self-healing, as Jesus did. Notice, after Bartimaeus is healed, Jesus says:  It is your faith that has made you well.

That comment raises the question:  What is God’s role in healing? More specifically, vis a vis this sermon, what is God’s role in the healing of depression?  Well, let me answer out of my own experience. I’m not sure how all faithful people experience God’s presence in periods of depression, but I found that prior to my  depression, I had always thought of God as being out there, somewhere, beyond myself. Because of Jung’s writing about God being present in the self, in the core of the person, like an inextinguishable divine spark, I began to entertain the thought that God’s spirit might be involved in shoving that part of me to the surface which wanted out, and wanted to be honored.  Like the Quakers, I began to look for God more within than without. The way I used to read the Elijah-in-the-cave story was to understand the wee small voice as external to Elijah. But after my depression, I read it differently. You see, I think Elijah was looking for a very dramatic, external solution to his problems. He wanted something like a storm or an earthquake or a brush fire to eradicate his enemies.  But after the storm and the earthquake and the fire had all come and gone, nothing had changed. Elijah was still in the same fix. Why? Because his enemies weren’t really the problem. It was his attitude about his enemies that was the problem. After the storm and the earthquake and the fire, what? One translation, instead of speaking about a wee small voice says that Elijah heard the sound of sheer silence. Well, whether it was sheer silence, or a wee small voice, the way I read the story after my experience of deep depression is that God worked from within Elijah, transforming him.  There wasn’t an external solution to his woes. The solution came from within, from that divine spark that wouldn’t go out. My experience is that that spark didn’t go out in me either. My faith is that there is that spark of God in every person, even the sickest, or de-mented, as we say. “If I make my bed in hell, God, You are there,” said one psalmist. Yes, in hell, or the miry bog or pit of depression, or whatever other place we think is God-forsaken. No place is! God is there, even inside poor me, or poor you.

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Quaker author Parker Palmer writes about an inner voice, an inner teacher, which is like the wee small, inner voice of God that I have been talking about in this sermon.  He says: “The teacher within is not the voice of conscience, but of identity and integrity. It speaks not of what ought to be, but of what is real for us, of what is true.  It says things like, “This is what fits you and this is what doesn’t”; “This is who you are and this is who you are not”; “This is what gives you life and this is what kills your spirit–or makes you wish you were dead.”  The teacher within stands guard at the gate of selfhood, warding off whatever insults our integrity and welcoming whatever affirms it.”

All along, brothers and sisters, I have been preaching to you about being real.  If you feel yourself slipping from the blues into depression, listen for that wee, small voice of God’s spirit within that calls you to be real, to honor that part of you that wants to emerge and be recognized and empowered, so that you may grow into your God-self, and experience life abundant.

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