A story is told of a man who, while traveling for his job, became overwhelmed with depression. This was not new for him, as he had lived with serious depression for most of his adult life. The man went to see a local doctor to get help. He said to the doctor, “My depression has recently become worse and I am having trouble doing my job and functioning in general.”
The doctor listened closely and then asked the man to come with her over to the window in her office. She pointed to a group of tents in the distance and said to the man, “There is a circus in town this week and I just went and saw the show last night. There are so many great acts, but the highlight of the show is a clown named Paparella. He had all of us laughing the entire night. I recommend that you go to the circus tonight and let Paparella help lift you out of your depression.”
The man looked at the doctor and said, “Doctor, apparently you don’t recognize me. I am Paparella.”
The doctor in this story makes two mistakes that are common when it comes to understanding depression. The first mistake is thinking that depression is something that people can somehow just lift themselves out of if they simply do something different or try harder. Depression, like many diseases, is exceedingly complex. There are no simplistic solutions and advice is rarely, if ever, helpful. What is helpful is when a friend or loved one offers his or her accepting, faithful presence. And because many people who suffer from depression deal with it off and on throughout their lives, offering that accepting, faithful presence over the long haul is very important. It can make all of the difference for the person who is suffering and may even be a lifesaver for him or her.
The second mistake the doctor makes in the story of the clown, is that she assumes that a person with depression would not be able to have a happy public persona, like that of Paparella. Many people this week have said the same thing about Robin Williams. They have wondered how a person with serious depression could be so publicly funny and entertaining. Robin Williams, through the way he lived and the way he died, reminds us that we are all exceedingly complex and it is not uncommon for a person who is hurting inside to present a different image of himself or herself to the world.
One result of Robin Williams’ death is that people are truly talking this week about depression and suicide. Many people are courageously lifting the veil of silence and sharing their own experiences with depression. One hundred years ago virtually no one talked about cancer in public, as it was considered a taboo subject. My hope is that we will continue to make as much progress raising awareness and talking about suicide and depression as we have made in talking about cancer.
One person who now talks openly about his struggle with depression is Parker Palmer, one of my favorite authors. Palmer, a Quaker writer, has written many profound books on spirituality and everyday living. I had been reading his books for years before I learned that he suffers from depression. Since learning that I have developed an even greater respect for him as he writes and talks about the spiritual dimensions of his depression.
I cannot improve on something that Parker Palmer wrote this week in his weekly column, and so I conclude with his profound words. I pray that his words will help us to plow new ground and plant new seeds in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, as we all seek to better accept, talk about, understand, and treat depression, the disease that can impact any of us, at anytime.
Here is what Parker Palmer wrote this week, including his poem “Harrowing.”
Millions of people suffer or have suffered from depression, and I’m one of them. In the past 30 years, I’ve made three deep dives into the darkness. As I’ve worked to integrate those experiences into my sense of who I am, I’ve found it important to write and speak on the topic. “Going public” this way is not only therapeutic for me. It also gives me a chance to stand in solidarity with others who suffer, to let them (and those who care for them) know they’re not alone.
My writing on the subject includes chapter IV in my book Let Your Life Speak and the poem below. The poem came to me during a time of deep depression when I was out in the country walking past a recently harrowed field.
Writing the poem “Harrowing” was a healing experience. It helped me understand something I’m glad I know: the hard times we all go thru plow up our inner ground and turn it over, giving us chance after chance to “plant a greening season” in and through our lives.
The plow has savaged this sweet field Misshapen clods of earth kicked up Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view Last year’s growth demolished by the blade.
I have plowed my life this way Turned over a whole history Looking for the roots of what went wrong Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred.
Enough. The job is done. Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be Seedbed for the growing that’s to come. I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons-
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.