Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is one of the people I love speaking to most: Parker Palmer. Parker Palmer is a world-renowned writer, speaker, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change. He’s reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and Healing the Heart of Democracy.
With Sounds True, Parker Palmer has contributed to a new book called Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey through Depression. In this collection of perspectives, there are new insights and practices that reach beyond conventional models, and will help the reader receive depression’s uninvited-yet-singular gifts.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Parker Palmer and I spoke about the potential meaningfulness of the passages of depression that he has encountered in his own life. We talked about why there’s so much fear surrounding depression, and his thoughts of depression as a natural part of the human journey. Parker also offered advice that he might give to people who are caught in a difficult passage. Finally, we talked about his realization that depression can be “a befriending force pushing you down onto safe ground.” Here’s my conversation with Parker Palmer:
Parker, Sounds True is publishing a new anthology called Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey through Depression. I wanted to start off by talking about this idea of “redefining the journey through depression,” and how you see it. How do you see this journey this dark land of depression?
Parker Palmer: Well, I like the emphasis on redefining a lot, Tami, because—well, for a couple of reasons. As a person who’s suffered from three profound experiences of clinical depression in his adult life—two of them in my forties and one of them in my mid-sixties; I’m soon to turn 75—I’m aware of a couple of things.
At the most basic and crudest level, this culture defines depression as something shameful. That angers me a great deal. So, millions of people suffer not only from depression, but from the kind of aura of shamefulness that surrounds it—as if it were some sort of character weakness, or a flaw in one’s personality or makeup. The people who are close to those who are in depression are suffering the same way.
So, that needs to be redefined. I think we’ve come some ways in doing that, so that there’s more open discussion in this culture about depression. Whenever you have open discussion, it’s at least a bit of a sign that we’re moving beyond the taboo state of affairs. So, that’s one way in which it needs to be redefined.
I think another way in which it needs to be redefined is that—like many things—it has been medicalized, if that’s a word. I want to speak carefully here, because it’s not that I want to reject or that I disbelieve in medical approaches to depression. I think there are elements of depression or certain forms of depression that are significantly related to DNA, to genetic makeup, and to brain chemistry. But, the tendency to reduce depression to no more than that [and] the tendency these days for psychiatrists, for example, to engage in no talk therapy whatsoever with their patients, but simply to prescribe drugs and track the impact of those drugs—that seems to me to be unfortunate.
Again, I want to be clear: I’m not against antidepressants. I have personally been helped by them—although I feel lucky that I have not had to be on them long-term. I’ve simply needed for the short term a kind of floor put under my emotional life so that I could get some clarity about what was happening to me and through me and with me and within me.
But, this reductionist tendency that we have in our culture to want to make it all about physical mechanism seems to me not only unfortunate but misguided and ultimately wrong.
So, redefining depression from something taboo to something that we should be holding in community in open and vulnerable ways—from something that’s purely biological or mechanical to something that has dimensions, really, of spiritual and psychological mystery to it—human mystery. Also, redefining it from something that is essentially meaningless to something that can be meaningful. All of that seems to me to be important—and why it is that I applaud your idea of redefining depression.
TS: Now, Parker, you mentioned in your own life three passages—two in your forties and one in your sixties. Could you tell us a little bit in terms of the meaningfulness—the potential meaningfulness in depression—how you were able to make meaning out of those passages in your life?
PP: Well, the truth of the matter is that when I was in depression—and I think this is true of most people, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had this experience. When I was in depression, making meaning was an impossible task. It was something to be endured. As I’ve written elsewhere—in a little book called Make Your Life Speak, where I have a chapter about my experience with depression—there is to me a mystery as to how people survive that deep darkness.
I’ve come over the years to saying that depression is not so much like being lost in the dark as it is becoming the dark. What I mean by that is that in the depths of depression, you have no capacity to step back out of the darkness or a bit away from the darkness [to] say, “Oh, look what’s happening to me. What is that all about?” You don’t have a self that is other than the darkness.
So, you’ve become the dark rather than being lost in the dark. Therefore, you can’t step back or get perspective, and try to make meaning of it. As I say in what I’ve written about depression, I hear people say, “I don’t understand why so-and-so committed suicide.” Well, I understand that perfectly. Depression is absolutely exhausting when you’re in the depths of it, and I think the people who commit suicide often very simply need the rest. They need surcease.
I understand that. There’s no mystery in that to me. The mystery to me is why some people come through to the other side and not only survive it, but thrive in the wake of it. I’ve wondered about that question a lot, and I’ve never come to an answer that fully satisfies me.
But, what I do know experientially is that in my case, I managed to get through the worst of those times and it’s a very lonely journey. In each case, I had some help from the medical side. I had some help from the talk therapy side. And, I had a little bit of help from one or two understanding friends who knew how to be present to me in that experience.
Although, lots and lots of friends and acquaintances didn’t know how to be present to me. They were scared of me, I think. They gave off that fear—they indicated that fear—either by not getting anywhere near me, as if I had a contagious disease, or by trying to offer me what I know was well-intended but ultimately cheap advice that essentially allowed them to leave their version of a little gift in my hands and then get out of the room as quickly as possible. Of course, when that happens, it doesn’t feel a gift at all. It feels like a rejection. It feels like a kind of curse.
So, I’ve often said to people who have asked me, “Well, I have this friend or relative who is depressed. What should I do?” and I said, “Well, I can’t prescribe in detail, but I can tell you this: Do everything in your power to let them know that you’re not afraid of them—that you can be present to them in a way that expresses faith and confidence that they have what it takes to make it through.”
And don’t come to them with cheap advice. Don’t come to them saying—as people came to me saying—”But Parker, you’re such a good guy. You’ve helped so many people. You’ve written such good books. You’ve given such good talks. Can’t you fall back on all of that and pull yourself out of this hole?” Well, when you hear something like that at a time in your life when you’re feeling like a non-entity—you’ve totally lost your sense of self; you’re feeling like dirt; you’re feeling like a worm—the only response you can make to that is, “I’ve defrauded one more person. And if they ever understood that I’m really not a good guy and that all that stuff I wrote and said is really straw—meaningless; of absolutely no utility now—they would reject me. They would cast me into the outer darkness.
Similarly, people came and said, “But Parker, it’s such a beautiful day outside. Why don’t you go out and soak up some sun and smell the flowers, as it were.” That’s ultimately depressing rather than encouraging because while you know intellectually that it’s a beautiful day outside and you know intellectually that those flowers smell perfumed and lovely to other people, you don’t have an ounce of capacity in your own body to really experience that beauty or that loveliness. So, the encouragement to get outdoors and see how lovely it is really turns out to be a discouraging reminder of your own incapacity at that time.
So, having worked my way through on that very lonely journey—where only a very few people were able to offer the kind of presence, and therefore the kind of support, that I needed—as I came out the other side, I think a couple of things happened that started allowing me to make meaning of the experience. One is that I found myself a more compassionate person. I think when you suffer, if you hold it in the right way—in an open heart—you become much more empathetic toward the suffering of other people. Another way to say that is: you become less afraid of other people’s suffering. You’re more willing to be present to it in a faithful, abiding way because you no longer treat it as a sort of contagious disease that you too might catch. You’ve been there. You’ve had yourself hollowed out by that suffering. You know how it feels, and you’re able to exercise an empathetic presence to other people.
You become more compassionate in that sense—at least, that was my experience over time. I think it was aided by a lot of reading that helped me reframe the experience [and] by a lot of solitude and walking in the woods that helped me reframe the experience. In some ways, [I was aided by] becoming a strange attractor. And I just don’t mean me. I mean anyone who’s had an experience like this and who holds it in this open way. A strange attractor of other people who have also taken that journey or who are somewhere on that journey.
So, you start to develop a sense of community that—in an odd way—sort of normalizes the problem. It says to you, “We’re all in this together, and this is part of the human experience.” I’ve always felt—ever since having the experience of depression three times now and emerging on the other side; not only surviving, but thriving. It’s very clear to me that the most important words I can say to someone who comes to me with almost any form of suffering—after I’ve listened to them deeply [and] after I’ve attended to them profoundly. And these words may come after a long period of time.
But, the most important words that I can say to them ultimately are, “Welcome to the human race.” You’ve shared your calamity with me, and there is nothing in me that wants to say, “I can’t bear to hear that,” or, “How could you ever let such a thing happen?” or, “What a marginal person you are to have had an experience like that.” On the contrary, it’s, “Welcome to the human race.” You have now entered the company of those who have experienced some of the deepest things that a human being can experience.
So, you start to make meaning of it, I think, by realizing that this incredibly isolating experience called depression—and it is isolating, to a greater extent than I imagined [was] survivable. But, you start to realize that this incredibly isolating experience called depression ultimately reconnects you with the human community in a deeper, wider, and richer way.
I think the meaning-making goes on, and it probably takes different forms. I’m sure it takes different forms for different people. I think a second kind of meaning-making that I would name—second after this opening of compassion that it can help create—is that it can make you more courageous. I started noticing after each of my depressions that my capacity to put myself in very intimidating or challenging situations had grown.
If I’m standing up in front of 5,000 physicians, for example, giving a lecture on what’s wrong with medical education—as I have occasion to do every now and then—30, 40 years ago that would have been a very intimidating experience for me. And I would have been operating out of a lot of ego defensiveness, I think.
But, once you’ve survived and thrived through one or two or three experiences of depression, you really have to say to yourself, “What could be more daunting than that?” I survived that, and so this thing in front of me right now—these 5,000 highly educated, critical-listener physicians—they really don’t threaten me. This situation doesn’t threaten me. When I’m not threatened, I’m more likely to come from a soulful place in myself rather than an ego-defensive place. For that very reason, what I do with those people is much more likely to be empathetic and well-received, even if the message I have to deliver is critical.
So, that’s another way in which I think you make meaning. Your depression becomes a sort of benchmark experience against which other things just don’t look so bad. Since we have fairly frequent experiences in life of facing stuff that looks pretty tough, that’s an asset. That’s a piece of meaning.
Then I’d name one more thing, Tami. I think you make meaning out of depression—at least I make meaning out of depression—by sharing the experiences as openly as I know how with other people. That’s why over the years I’ve written about it and I’ve talked about it.
I think the first important thing to say about that is that a person has to be sure that the experience of depression—the experience of darkness—is well integrated into his or her self-image and self-understanding before you begin sharing it, because if there’s any residue in you of that shamefulness, that sense of being flawed, or that sense of, “This darkness is not part of who I should be,” then you’re not ready to share it. Sharing it would be a dangerous thing to do, and the message that you would convey—whether you intended it or not—would not be helpful.
It took me 10 years after my first depression—which was in my mid-forties—to feel that it was well-integrated enough that I could start to write and speak about it. So, it was the ability at that point to say, “Yes, I am all of the above. I am my darkness and my light. I am those months I spent cowering in the corner with the shades pulled down, as well as the guy who can get onstage in front of 5,000 physicians and deliver some challenging messages.”
I am all of that, and I don’t need to blink any of it. It’s my way of saying to myself, “Welcome to the human race. We are a very mixed bag—and Parker, that includes you.”
So, as soon as I was able honestly to say that to myself, then I was ready to take what I’ve named here as a third step in making meaning of depression—which is sharing it with others in a way that can be healing and therapeutic and encouraging for them. People will sometimes say to me, “Well, it’s such a courageous thing for someone like you—who is known for his spiritual writing and speaking, who seems to have it all together, and who’s had a pretty successful life as measured by the world’s standards—it’s so courageous of you to say that you spent months cowering in a corner with the shades pulled down.”
But, from the beginning my response to that has been, “No, this isn’t about courage at all. This is about staying healthy—me staying healthy by showing up in the world as who I really am. One of the things you start to think about more profoundly at age 75—as I said, I’ll soon be there—is your own mortality. As I’ve thought about that, I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with a sense that I never showed up in the world as who I really am.
So, showing up with everything I’ve got—my darkness as well as my light—is, I think, part of ultimately dying a good death. Dying with the ability to say, “To the best of my ability, I showed up in the world with everything I’ve got.”
I put everything I’ve got at the disposal of anyone who is interested in getting access to it. That includes my darkness as well as my light—because if it’s human, it’s a deployable gift as long as we can explore it and explore its meaning together.
TS: Now, Parker, I’m curious if someone’s listening to us right now and their experience is the experience you described of being the dark itself. They’re listening to you. They’re not in the meaning-making place at this moment. They’re just that darkness. What might you say to that person in that state? I know you’re not going to give them any kind of trite, feel-good answer—but what can you say to somebody in that state?
PP: Well, you know, that’s a point, Tami, where I fundamentally don’t believe in words—even though I’m a writer and a speaker. I generally believe in words a lot.
As you know, I tell a story in the little book Let Your Life Speak about a friend who came to me in an incredible helpful way. In fact, I’ve always thought of him as the one person who best understood what I was going through. This was a friend who came to my house at four o’ clock or so every afternoon, having asked my permission to do so. [He] sat me down in an easy chair, removed my shoes and socks, and [then] for maybe a half an hour massaged my feet.
He hardly ever said anything. He was a man somewhat older than I—a very intuitive man [and] a Quaker—to whom the silence came naturally. But, somehow by intuition, he found the one place in my body where I could feel connected with another human being. His simple, wordless act of massaging my feet was a lifeline for me that kept me at least somewhat connected with the human race in the midst of this incredibly isolating experience.
He would occasionally say just a very few words, but they would always be reflective of his intuition about what was going on with me. So, he might say, “I feel your struggle today,” and that would be it. Or, he might say, “It feels like you’re a little stronger today,” and that would be it.
There would never be any demand for conversation. He didn’t say these things in a way that made me feel, “Oh, I’d better make Bill feel like a good caregiver by saying ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ or something in between.”
So, if someone is listening to this right now who is feeling like the darkness—rather than just being lost in the dark—it’s hard for me to imagine that the words that I’m speaking—any words that I could speak—would mean a lot to them unless there is somewhere in them for this person. [This would be] for reasons I wouldn’t know or understand. Some glimmer of hope that a person who’s been in the same place—that they can articulate what that place is like and is talking from a post-depression experience, beyond surviving [and] into thriving. If there’s some spark of hope in that for somebody, God bless them.
But, I think the most important thing that such a person could do for themselves—if they have the energy to do it—is to seek out some kind of presence of the sort that my friend Bill gave to me.
I think it’s often something physical that doesn’t involve language. I was hardly able to go outside during my experiences of depression. In part, it was because I didn’t want to have social encounters. I was incapable of running across a person and having a conversation. But, what I could do was get on my bike and just zip around town. [Interestingly enough,] I often would ride vigorously through a very large cemetery that’s not far from my home, that has this very extensive set of roadways running through it.
Find some comfort in that physical activity. Walking would sometimes work, but not during the daytime when I might run into someone else. I could do that only at night. If I had had access to a swimming pool or something of that sort—or a warm body of water—being in the water might have helped. But again, by myself.
So, I don’t think that verbal encouragement works in that deep, dark place. We have all these images from some of our spiritual traditions about the Cloud of Unknowing, or the deep and wordless darkness, or the void before life begins. Those are places where there’s not a lot of chitchat. I think most words sound like mere chitchat when you’re in that place.
TS: Now, Parker, in the beginning of our conversation—when we talked about the importance of redefining the journey through depression—you talked about how having open conversations where we can just bring things out in front of ourselves, talk about our experiences of depression—how important that is. Also, that many people are afraid of depression, and how [for] a person in a depressed state, the fear of other people can be quite painful. My question is: why do you think depression is something that is so hard for us to bring out into the open? Why are people so afraid of it?
PP: Yes. That’s a very important question that takes us partly into the depths of the human psyche. But, I think also it takes us into the nature of some of the distortions of American culture. It’s not clear to me that all cultures have the same problem or as big a problem as we do around this.
But first, let’s identify the fact that it’s a very common experience for people who have suffered hard things to find other people avoiding them—not just depression. If you’re going through a divorce or you recently have been divorced, there will be people— who prior to that, would have talked easily with you—who won’t know what to say. A common phrase in our culture, or a common feeling in our culture, is, “I don’t know what to say. So, I’m not going to call that person. I’m going to walk around the block to avoid that person. I’m not going to write that person.”
Similarly, if a spouse dies or a child dies or a tragedy of that proportion occurs in a family, we’re afraid of it. We don’t know what to say.
Now, there’s a whole interesting analysis we can do why it is that we don’t know what to say. I think it is that we live in a culture where everything is a problem that needs to be fixed. We don’t know how to fix things like this—like the ones I’ve just named.
So, part of the key to it is realizing that not everything is a problem that needs to be fixed. If we can get that monkey off our backs, we will find things to say. We will find ways to be present to one another.
Here’s a parallel: There are people listening to this or reading this who have had the experience of sitting at the bedside of a dying person. That’s not an uncommon experience for people of a certain age. We learn something in that experience, which is that we’re now looking at a situation that cannot be defined as a problem for which I have a fix—or anyone has a fix. People die. No one can stop that when it’s in its final stages.
So, if we’re sitting at the bedside of a dying person, we give up the illusion that we can somehow invade that person and that problem with our little toolkit in hand, and offer advice or suggestions or techniques or things to do that will fix everything up. That’s a huge, powerful lesson.
We also learn that the disrespectful thing that we could do would be to avert our eyes from the dying person—to look away in disgust or in frustration that there’s nothing we can do about it. That would feel like the most egotistic copout—abandonment of a person who at that point simply needs our faithful attentiveness.
So, to summarize it, we learn at the bedside of a dying person neither to invade nor evade what’s going on—but simply to hold it in our attentiveness. My own belief, Tami, is that when we’re able to be present to another person that way, we are communicating without words some kind of confidence that this is part of the human journey and that the person we’re with has whatever it takes to make this passage in their own time and in their own way.
I’m quite convinced—looking back—that that’s what my friend Bill conveyed to me. He conveyed that he had a certain confidence in me that I didn’t have in myself. Because he was not afraid of me, I could slowly, slowly start being less afraid of myself.
But, as long as we carry this fix-it thing with us, and we assume that if we’re going to go to someone in depression, someone who’s lost a loved one to death, or someone who’s suffered some other grievous loss—if we’re going to go to them with the assumption that we have to fix it, then of course we’re not going to know what to say because there’s no fix.
If we let go of that assumption—as we ought to do—I think we can find ways to be present to such people that are very, very life-giving and very, very confidence-inducing. [It’s] very connective, allowing them to rebuild that bridge back to the human community. “Welcome to the human race,” is the silent message—if we can show up without a fix in mind. Otherwise, the message is, “I’m going to take you on as a project.” I can’t think of anything more alienating to someone who’s truly suffering than to be taken on as a project that allows the other person to prove what a skillful fixer they are.
TS: Now, Parker, I’m also curious: When you look back at your three passages through depression, could you say there is some type of intelligence at work in your life—now, in retrospect, looking at these experiences—and if so, what type of intelligence is that? What was trying to be worked out in you, if you will?
PP: Interesting question. So, my general belief is that there is a vast intelligence at work in all of life. I don’t see it as something outside of life, but as embedded in life itself—in the world of nature and human nature. The great web of being.
It’s a very complex intelligence, that knows how to weave together the shadow and the light—that knows how to weave together life and death. [It] knows how to weave together all kinds of things that our limited human intelligence wants to separate out as opposites or contradictions. Good and bad. Black and white. Light and dark. Or, I should say good versus bad—right versus wrong, light versus dark.
So, there’s an intelligence that can hold it all, and the human mind has limited capacity—but I think expandable capacity—to understand that. In my life, the concept of the intellectual concept and what eventually becomes a spiritual—and I think even a bodily—understanding of paradox has been very, very important.
So, paradox—as everyone knows—is this notion that not everything is either/or. Some things are both/and. In fact, some of the most important things—most of the most important things—are both/and. I’ve always loved what the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Neils Bohr said one time, when he said, “The opposite of an ordinary fact is a lie. But, the opposite of one profound truth may be another profound truth.” That’s paradox.
I think Neils Bohr’s statement is a very discriminating statement. He says, “The opposite of one profound may be another profound truth.” You take it a case at a time, and you examine it.
So, for example: Am I made for community? Absolutely. The human self is a communal self. We wouldn’t be here without community, and we can’t go on without community.
Am I made for solitude? Absolutely—because in its depths there is a lot about the human journey that is a solitary journey. We must learn to take it.
In that light, it’s possible to understand depression as one of the little deaths that allow us to practice for the big death. I have no evidence that there’s any intelligence that did this intentionally to me. I think life is a very complex mixture of intentionality and accident. But, wherever it came from—and I don’t need to really know the answer to that—I can make meaning of depression by saying that it allowed me to practice a certain form of dying—short of the death of my actual body and my present form of consciousness—that helps prepare me for the big death.
A lot of wisdom traditions have this notion of all the little deaths in life that help prepare us for the big death. When you ask people, “What do you mean by ‘the little deaths?’“ they’ll say things like, “Well, things like the failure of your youthful vision for what your life was going to be. The loss of a meaningful relationship. The failure of a project in which you had invested enormous energy.” Et cetera, et cetera. And, let’s add depression to that list, if you survive it. It’s one of the bigger kinds of little deaths.
If there’s an intelligence at work in that, I think it’s an intelligence that works through me as I try to sift and winnow the experience of depression and whatever it is that I might have to learn from that. So, causally, I don’t where these things come from. But after the fact, I have some sense of what it means to tap into your own intelligence—and I mean that in the sense of the multiple intelligences that every human being has. Not only cognitive rationality, but emotional intelligence, relational intelligence, bodily intelligence, intuitive intelligence, et cetera et cetera.
So, to tap into your own intelligence in that larger sense and into the larger intelligence of the universe—the cosmos that we’ll never get our own finite minds around [and] that we keep opening to bit by bit as we accumulate life experience—and hold it as thoughtfully and reflectively as we know how.
TS: Now, Parker, in thinking about depression as a “little death,” how do you think your three passages have prepared you for physical death?
PP: It’s a great question, and it’s a hard one to sort out because there’s a part of me—as I approach my seventy-fifth birthday in a month—that wants to say that, in my case, just aging itself has prepared me. I’m better prepared at age almost 75 than I was at 55 or 35 or 15 for dying. You’ve seen more of it happen. People you love have gone ahead of you into what Dylan Thomas called, “That [good] night.” You have a sense with some of them that they’re making a path or leading the way—the way they did earlier in your life, if they happened to be a parent or mentor that you loved and who loved you.
So, it’s hard to sort out exactly what it is that offers the preparation. But, it seems to me that depression specifically—again, if you have the good fortune to survive it and thrive in the wake of it—it makes you less afraid of the dark. We have this thing about childhood—many of us are afraid of the dark. It carries on into adulthood.
I remember asking a friend of mine—this was back when we were both in our fifties—who had recently experienced a death in his family. I said, “So, how are you feeling about your own death?” He said, “I don’t like the idea, because I’m afraid of the dark.”
Well, it was partly a joke between friends, but there was also a kind of gravitas to it—a kind of seriousness to it. The kind you get in gallows humor.
I remember thinking at the time that—because of the two experiences of depression that I had had by then—I was not so afraid of the dark. I had actually come to understand that you can dwell in darkness and experience a certain kind of peace—which I think is what led me to this notion that some people find kind of radical, which is that I’m just not one of those people who says, “I don’t understand why so-and-so committed suicide.” I understand. They needed the rest. They needed the peace. That’s one of the things that that sort of darkness can bring you.
So, I think in that sense the experience of depression is preparatory to—as some people would say—the long darkness that death involves. I myself have no reliable reports from the other side of death and I’ve never been there, so I have no idea what to expect. I’m sure that—like every other experience of my life—whatever expectations I may have will be upended by the experience itself. I have a lot of evidence that I’m not all that good at projecting exactly how it’s going to be. I need to get there to find out.
But, I think depression has made me less fearful of a lot of things. The big death at the end of the road is on that list.
TS: Parker, when you got depressed in your sixties, did you think, “Oh my God. I went through this in my forties twice. I can’t believe this is happening again.” Like, “This is just terrible.”
PP: Absolutely. I felt like, “Oh, wait a minute. This isn’t fair. I’ve been there, done that.” I thought I had checked this off my to-do list.
It’s very interesting: My first and second depressions were in my forties. The third depression came 17 years later. Seventeen years is a long time. You almost forget that you were ever there. It takes you totally by surprise.
So, yes. As I found myself sinking [and] I started to recognize the signs, I was angry when I still had a capacity to be angry. Ultimately, when you’re in the depths of depression, you really have no emotional capacity at all. As I like to say to people who have never been there: clinical depression is not about feeling profoundly sad. It’s about the terrifying realization that you can feel nothing at all—which, to loop back for a moment, is why the friend who came and rubbed my feet and actually evoked a little feeling in my body was giving me a miraculous sense of connection. A small degree of emotional recovery or bodily recovery from this numbing experience.
So, I was taken totally by surprise. I think that part of what helped me at that time, again, is that I went into it and—while I still had some cognitive capacity left—you think a lot in depression, but you don’t think helpfully. While I still had some helpful cognitive capacity left—before I hit the bottom—I also had the thought that—because I’d been there a couple of times before and survived and been able to thrive in the wake of it—that that might give me some tools or some reassurance that I could survive this one and thrive on the other side too.
The depression—I think it’s true of all three of my depressions—[was] partly biological and partly situational. That’s a very hard thing to sort out. Every psychiatrist I’ve ever talked to who understands the medical side of this says that there’s just a lot about depression that we don’t understand. That seems to me to be appropriate humility about one of the mysteries of human life.
So, on the biological side, there is some history of depression in my family, going back through several generations. So, it’s not inconceivable I have some genetic predisposition. But, in each of the depressions, I could also identify—as I began to emerge—situational elements that had contributed to the depression. One of those situational elements when I was 65 was a growing awareness of my aging and my mortality. The depressing thought that was I was going to die, and I had fewer years of life ahead of me by a long shot than I had behind me.
So, in that sense, the depression at age 65 was one that—as I emerged—compelled me to do some deep thinking, some deep meditating, some meaningful talking, and—in my own journaling, at least—some meaningful writing about dying and death. It compelled me to face into that subject more profoundly than I had, so that it wouldn’t just rear up and take me by surprise the way I think it did at that particular time in my life—with 65 being a kind of symbolic road marker on the life journey that says, “You’re really getting old!”
So, again, it served as a befriending force in my life. That prompts me, Tami, to say something that I first heard in one of my earlier depressions in my forties. At that time, I worked with a therapist. I think this was in my second depression. I worked with a therapist who listened to me very carefully for a long period of time, over a number of meetings. I felt that this was somebody who was really hearing me.
So, when he spoke, I was ready to listen. At one critical get-together, he said to me, “You know, Parker, you seem to be imaging depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. I wonder if it would be possible to image your depression as the hand of a friend trying to press you down to ground on which it’s safe to stand.”
Those words didn’t change things overnight, for sure. But, they made a real impression on me. I felt that something important had been said that was worth exploring and trying to understand more deeply.
It was those words that led me to realize that—at that stage in my life—my depression had a lot to do with the fact that I was living at altitude. I managed—and I write about this in Let Your Life Speak—to identify several kinds of altitude at which I was living. So, there was the altitude of living in my ego rather than in my soul. There was the altitude of having embraced a kind of spirituality that was more about up, up, and away than it was about down to the ground of our being. There was an altitude involved in embracing an ethic composed of “oughts” rather than an ethic that arose from the embodied values of my own life. There was an altitude involved in ambition that was all about flying high rather than serving in ways that were within my reach, and available to me.
When you’re living life at altitude, if you trip and fall—which we all do every day—you have a long way to fall. You may kill yourself. If you’re standing on the ground, you can fall again and again, and simply get up, dust yourself off, and take a next step.
So, that’s the way I started to make sense of the notion that depression could be a befriending force pressing you down to ground on which it’s safe to stand. It’s been interesting to me over the years—I think Let Your Life Speak was published in 1999. So, for the last 15 years or so, I’ve had so many people say that that analysis of altitude—and the difference between living at altitude and living on the ground—spoke to their condition and helped them understand what was going on with them.
This also leads me to say that the depression I had at age 65—and I’ve written about this too—was partly around the political situation in our country, which certainly hasn’t gotten any better over the last 10 years. [It] has in fact—in some ways—gotten worse. I do think that we pick up depressive elements not only from our psyches and from our genetic makeup—from our brain chemistry [and] all that internal stuff—we also pick it up from the environment.
At the moment, I’m not referring to chemicals in the environment—although that’s a problem. I’m referring instead to things going on in the culture and in the society at large. When I was 65—which would have been in 2004—it was a very depressing time in American politics, which is something I’ve always cared about.
One thing I’ve learned in depression is once you do get a little energy and are able to get a little perspective on what it is that’s generating your depression—or helping to generate it—it’s important if you possibly can to become proactive in relation to whatever that may be. So, as a writer, one way I have of becoming proactive is to start writing again. Out of that came a book called Healing the Heart of Democracy—which actually begins with a prelude in which I talk about my depression, which was in part personal and in part political, and how I started trying to understand the way in which the personal and political are related.
[I] found great illumination, incidentally, in studying the life of Abraham Lincoln, who had been depressed since he was a very young man. This great figure in American political life was so depressed when he was 19 or 20 that his neighbors would take him in to keep watch over him. They’d have him live in their houses for periods of time for fear [that] he would take his life. The community helped see him through.
Lincoln never totally overcame his depression. There’s a great Biblical phrase: “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Anyone who’s ever seen one of the classic photographs of Lincoln’s face—and that includes almost everybody—will know immediately that that phrase is very descriptive of the face you see in those photographs.
I think it was this capacity to hold his own light and his own darkness that made Lincoln the reconciling president we need at the time—at the time, obviously, of the Civil War. Lincoln was the president who didn’t try to demonize either side. He was firm, he was leaderly, and he was decisive, but he did not engage in the demonization and the blame game that is so toxic in American politics today. I think one reason for that is that he had long experience at saying to himself, “I am all of the above. I am my darkness as well as my light,” and, for that reason, didn’t have much trouble saying, “This Union that we treasure is one of darkness and of light. What we have here is not a perfect Union, but a national organism that is always in search of the ‘more perfect’ Union.” Because that’s the way he had to live his own life in order to survive and thrive.
So, when I understood the situational element of my depression at age 65, I was able to become proactive about—in the form of writing a book—that gave me my way of coming to grips with trying to make a contribution to the social and cultural conditions that I was finding depressive.
TS: Now, Parker, just to make sure I’m understanding you correctly when you’re talking about Abraham Lincoln: It sounds to me that what you’re saying is that you have a sense that his experience with depression is part of what equipped him to be able to be the force of reconciliation that he was in American history. Is that correct?
PP: Absolutely. There is no question about it. Anyone who would like to study up further on that: there’s a wonderful book that I drew on heavily in Healing the Heart of Democracy by a man named Joshua Wolf Shenk. His book is called Lincoln’s Melancholy. “Melancholy” was the nineteenth-century name for what we would now call clinical depression.
Shenk makes a very, very good case that what you just said, Tami, is true. His depression didn’t disable him for the presidency, but equipped him for the presidency at that very critical time in American history. Because, here was a man who had had to reconcile the shadow and the light in himself in order to move forward as a whole human being. He was tempted as a young man to suicide, but he also felt this strong calling to play a significant role in political leadership.
So, he called upon this complex mix of darkness and light in himself as tools—as really an energy source—in playing that political role. It’s interesting and it’s very sad to contrast that with a fact that some of us can remember, which is that when George McGovern ran for president and chose a senator named Thomas Eagleton as his vice-presidential candidate, it came out after a while that Eagleton had been treated for depression. He was forced to step down from the vice-presidential candidacy and McGovern had to choose a different running mate because of the taboo nature of this in our contemporary society.
Rewrite American history and have Abraham Lincoln stepping down because a neighbor steps forward and says, “You know, when he was a young man, he had suicidal thoughts all the time.” Rewrite American history that way and you get a very dicey picture of what our national fate might have been. It’s hard for me to pick another president off the long list of American presidents who could have done what Lincoln did during the Civil War as a reconciler. I think his capacity for reconciliation externally came from his lifelong practice of inner reconciliation.
I’d be willing to bet that anybody you can identify as a public reconciler of darkness and light is someone who has deep and long experience of that same kind of reconciliation inwardly. You just can’t do it outwardly if you haven’t been there inwardly.
TS: Parker, I just have two final questions for you here. The first one is—in listening to you talk about these three big depressions, the curiosity that came up for me was: do you have in you any fear—especially you talked about potentially the genetic factor in depression and how it runs in your family—do you have any fear that a fourth depression might come upon you?
PP: Well, it’s a great question. The answer is: I don’t. I’ll qualify that by saying, “To the best of my knowledge.” I think there are some things that stay hidden away in us [and] take us by surprise. So, we have to get there to find out.
I have a vivid memory that your question brings back, Tami—of the day that I talked to a psychiatrist about my third depression. I told him how surprised I was that this had overtaken me 17 years after my second one. He was—as I said—not a talk therapist, but someone who was expert in the science of the subject. He said, “Well, statistics show that if you have one depression, you have a 25 percent chance of having a second depression. If you have a second depression, you have a 50 percent chance of having a third depression. And, if you have a third depression, you have a 75 percent chance of having a fourth depression.”
I have a vivid memory of walking out of that office just saying this mantra to myself: “I am not a statistic. I am not a statistic. I am not a statistic.” I don’t believe I am or anybody else is.
I faced into that one early on, and as far as I know, I moved past it. I’m not aware of holding that fear at all.
TS: And then my final question, Parker, is that I was quite taken when you were talking about finding ourselves at different altitudes in our life. I might use my own language for that, saying finding myself kind of inflated or blown up in some way—like a big balloon filled with helium. Unrealism, not connected to the ground.
I’m wondering if you—here at the end of our conversation—could share with us [whether there are] ways you in your life now stay connected to the ground. Intentional things that you do to keep yourself grounded, embodied, and not at altitude from life.
PP: Well, I think it’s a wonderful question and I think it’s an agenda for all stages of life. I’ll have to say again that I think the aging process itself—at least as I’m experiencing it—is a grounding process.
Leonard Cohen is, I think, one of the wisest philosophers of our time—to say nothing of being a brilliant songwriter. He has this great line in one of his songs, where he’s reflecting on age—I think he’s almost 80 now—and he says, “I ache in the places where I used to play.”
When you start experiencing your body that way, it has a grounding effect. It’s one of the signs of your mortality. It’s one of the signs that you need to slow it down a bit and be a little more gentle with yourself and keep it a little closer to the ground. You realize that if you go flying off that trampoline or off that ski slope, you’re not going to bounce as readily as you did 20 or 30 years ago. You’re much more likely to break something or crack something.
So, there’s that. There’s simply the biological process of actually descending toward the earth, which you start to feel as you start to experience the finitude and fallibility of your body. I’m reminded of a great phrase that I believe belongs to Teilhard de Chardin, who said, “We must learn to be hallowed by our losses.” I think that the hallowing in these physical losses or liabilities can come as we do live closer to the earth.
The other thing that’s become important to me—and for some people, this has been a part of life since they were quite young. But it wasn’t for me when I was young; it is now. That’s spending more time outdoors in nature. I spent a number of years either at the keyboard of a typewriter or word processer without poking my nose out very much. But, I think in the last 20 years or so, I’ve developed a real tropism toward the outdoors. I just find a gravitational pull there that involves walking in the woods, walking alongside big water, hiking mountain trails when I can, being in the ocean when I’m able to get there, et cetera et cetera. That is itself very, very grounding.
I also think that it’s grounding to have a partner and friends who know you for your shadow as well as your light—who know you in all of your complexity—and who aren’t afraid of naming that complexity [and] obviously embrace it, because they are a partner or they are friends. [They] can help remind you that you don’t wear a cape and you can’t fly. Those kinds of relationships are very grounding in themselves.
So, for me, it comes from a whole variety of angles that have to do with—I just remembered the correct phrase from Teilhard de Chardin. “Hallowing our diminishments,” was the phrase he used. I like that idea. I like that idea very, very much.
We have diminishments throughout our lives. It’s just that there are earlier stages of life when we don’t want to look at them. We don’t want to acknowledge them. We don’t want to be honest about them, because we think it’s important to maintain the illusion that we can fly. It’s a good thing to be reminded that we can’t, and there is a lot to be seen by taking a good walk.
TS: Parker, I always love talking with you. Quite honestly, you’re one of my favorite people to have a conversation with!
PP: Well, the same here, Tami. You ask such amazing questions and I always feel totally trusting with you. I never feel like I have to hold back on what I want to say.
TS: You are the welcome sign. You are a human welcome sign. You welcome. Thank you so much.
PP: Thank you, Tami.
TS: With Sounds True, Parker Palmer is a contributor to a new anthology called Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey through Depression. He’s also written about his experience of depression in his book Let Your Life Speak. Parker has also created an audio series with Sounds True—An Undivided Life: Seeking Wholeness in Ourselves, Our Work, and Our World.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.