Review: Companions in the Darkness

Companions in the Darkness, Diana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle.

Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, David Brainerd, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. What these and two others in this book have in common is their struggles with depression. Diana Gruver, who has also experienced depression, has studied the lives of seven saints for what may be learned from their experience of depression. She writes:

Their stories bring me comfort, reassuring me that I am not alone. They remind me that I am not the only one to walk this road, that this experience is not an alien one. The lie that “surely no one else has felt this” is cut down by the truth that others, in fact, have, and their presence makes me feel less isolated. These fellow travelers are my companions in the darkness of night.

Diana Gruver, p. 13.

Gruver gracefully narrates the stories of these saints, weaving in insights from her own struggles with depression. One of the striking things I noticed was the differences in these stories and that depression had many faces. Some seemed to have family proclivities toward depression, others like Charles Spurgeon first encountered depression more or less out of the blue, resulting from a tragic event. Some like David Brainerd struggled with concurrent health issues while others faced pressures from tremendously challenging events.

One of the most interesting stories will probably be an unknown to most of us, Hannah Allen. Having struggled with depression during her husband’s absences at sea, she sinks into a deeper depression when he dies at sea. At one point she secrets herself under the floorboards where she is staying, determined to starve herself to death. With the help of relatives, she eventually agreed to medical treatment, improving to the point where she re-married. Gruver discusses how prayer and reasoning from scripture were not enough:

The cure for Hannah Allen wasn’t to drag her to church. It wasn’t to convince her to pray more. It wasn’t to quote Scripture at her until it removed her despair. Her caretakers sought for her the best medical care of the day. They changed her surroundings. They put her on what we would now call suicide watch. They kept showing up with compassion. They attended to her soul, yes, but they also attended to her body.

Diane Gruver, p. 47.

Hannah left a spiritual memoir of her life, which is the primary way we know of her struggle. She represents the many “ordinary Christians” who anonymously struggle, and the hope there is for them.

Gruver not only candidly describes the struggles of each figure she profiles, she shows the efforts employed by each, all but Martin Luther King, Jr., before modern medical treatments. King had been recommended for psychiatric treatment for depression by a doctor but refused because of the efforts to discredit him and the stigma mental illness incurred in his time. Luther fled solitude, married, and enjoyed drink and laughter at the table. William Cowper, who gave us great hymns and struggled through his life with depression, found respite in art and friendship. Mother Teresa, who once experienced a clear call of God lived in spiritual darkness where God was utterly absent and chose continued obedience to Jesus despite her feelings. King drew on reservoirs of humor, song, and prayer, the spirituality of the Black church, to lead resiliently under a continuous cloud of threats on his life, and during the desertion of friends when he stood against the Vietnam War.

Gruver includes an appendix with practical guidelines for helping a friend through depression. She sums up the message of this book, drawn from Pilgrim’s Progress as Christian and Hopeful cross the River of Death, as “the water is deep, but the bottom is good.” Depression is hard but God has not abandoned us, even if it feels that way.

We’re in especially dark times. One public health study reports that the incidence of symptoms associated with depression have more than tripled during the COVID pandemic. It’s likely that we, personally, or someone we care for, are one of these. Reading the stories of these “companions,” while not a substitute for professional care, may offer insight and hope to make it to the other side of these dark months. This book is a gift for our times as well as a glimpse of a side of people we thought we knew, enhancing our understanding of the quality of their faithfulness to God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Long Night

The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression, Jessica Kantrowitz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020.

Summary: Short readings and personal narratives reflecting the author’s experience with depression, both honest and hopeful.

I’m an odd person to review a book on depression. This just has not been my experience. I tend toward an even temper, and although I’ve experienced real setbacks and discouragement, I can’t honestly say I’ve experienced the “long night” of which the author writes. A book on obsessive compulsive disorder would probably be more in my neighborhood.

But I’ve known people who have lived through depression. In more than one instance, I didn’t see it at the time. In some instances, they didn’t initially either. In the general population roughly 6.7 percent of all people experience symptoms of depression at any given time (about 16.2 million in the US). Globally, the WHO estimates that 300 million experience depression (from this article on Healthline). Inside Higher Ed indicates that among graduate students, a population I have worked with, the numbers may be higher. One study found up to 39 percent scored in the moderate to severe range of depression.

All of this is what makes this book so valuable, whether you are experiencing depression, know someone who is, or, like me, was pretty clueless when it came to recognizing symptoms of depression. Jessica Kantrowitz gives us an honest account of her own experience through depression. She doesn’t offer promises of healing or “six steps out of depression.” She offers herself as a companion to those walking in the pain and darkness of depression. She doesn’t offer answers, but shares her own questions and how she has struggled with them.

She describes her own experience with episodes of depression, sometimes so bad she could not get out of bed. She describes the migraines that accompanied her depression, quitting a ministry job because she just couldn’t turn around her work performance quickly enough. She described the companions who helped her, the friends who simply listened, said “That sucks,” and stayed. She tells us about trying as hard as she could, and of those who stuck with her through barely incremental progress punctuated with setbacks. She describes other companions, writers like Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner, whose writings helped.

She narrates learning new prayer practices that involved the body and practices of centering prayer, that instead of suppressing emotions or distractions allowed her to notice them and learn to let them go, like clouds passing overhead. She tells us about leaving an unhelpful community and finding a new one, as well as a number of fellow travelers online. She names some of the ways depression lies and distorts reality. She talks frankly about suicide and what it takes to love someone in the pain of depression.

There is so much of value for those who haven’t been through depression. Kantrowitz helps us understand how much it hurts. She invites us to see how those in the midst of depression are “doing their best” to get out and the long process of dealing with medications, food, exercise, sleep (which often is a problem), and so much more, what she calls learning healthy coping mechanisms. From her own experience we learn that the way to help is to listen, to pray, to empathize, but no advice. Our best present is simply to be present.

At the same time, this is a book of hope. Not quick fixes, but the growing awareness that God accepts us in weakness, and that we are not alone in the dark night. There is the hope of becoming more truly and fully human and oneself in the process. She offers hope that it will not always be this way against depression’s lie that it always will. A quote on the book’s cover says, “You are not alone, and this will not last forever.”

The hope offered seems to be that one may live with and grow through depression. She suggests resources to help and offers in herself the hope of finding companions on the journey. Not sermons but stories. Not cures but companionship. Not happy thoughts but hope toward the dawning light.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1939 (original edition), 2002 (this edition).

Summary: Steinbeck’s classic narrative of the migrations of displaced farmers from the Depression Dustbowl to a California controlled by large landowners who wanted their labor as cheaply as possible while despising the influx of people.

I’m not sure how I escaped reading this book in high school. I first discovered the genius of Steinbeck in East of Eden and have been reading his other works since. I think I would probably rank this second in greatness to East of Eden of Steinbeck’s works.

The story line breaks into roughly three parts. First there is the displacement of small and eventually tenant farmers to big land-holding interests using lower cost mechanized methods that eliminated even the tenuous grip of these farmers on their way of life. Most dramatically, this is portrayed as a cultivator demolishes part of the Joad family home, making it unlivable. The second part is the migration of these families to California, where handbills advertise plentiful and good paying jobs picking California crops. The Joads, with Tom, their recently paroled son, Al, the skirt chaser who keeps the truck running, Rose of Sharon, their pregnant daughter and her husband Connie, Ruthie and Winfield, the two younger children, Ma and Pa, Grampa and Granma and Jim Casy (disillusioned preacher and eventual labor organizer) all pile on the truck with whatever belongings they can fit. We see the struggle to keep run down vehicles going across the desert, and the toll this takes as Grampa dies enroute and Granma as they arrive.

All this sets up the third part where we see these migrants unwelcome and constantly threatened by the police fearing vagrants, the terrible conditions of the Hoovervilles, and the exploitation of landowners who recruited these migrants so that they could continually cut the rates of pay as desperate people would agree to work for less and less, as families like the Joads struggle day to day to survive and fend off starvation. Most harrowing is the winter, when no work is to be had and people start dying of pneumonia and starvation.

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses an interesting device of narrating the tribulations of the Joad family against the larger fabric of events they represent that helps us understand the desperate straits many families faced. We also see the cruel ways the rich and powerful exploit them every step of the way.

The standout character in the story is Ma, who keeps the family fed and together when the men and her daughter are at sea in the bewildering maelstrom of the Depression and the exploitation of the destitute. In some ways, Tom Joad, who killed one man at the beginning of the book, and another later in sudden outlashings of wrath represents the simmering rage these conditions foster, captured in these words of Steinbeck that allude to his title:

“and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Steinbeck raises for us the question how long an underclass of people can be exploited and oppressed until wrath is unleashed upon a society, a question as relevant in our own day with its growing disparities of wealth and poverty, as in that of Steinbeck. It seems there is this idea that as long as men hold on to wrath, they won’t be broken.

Yet in Steinbeck’s novel, it is the value of family and of human decency in desperate circumstances that shine through again and again, represented by Ma. It is Ma who permits the shocking break of convention in the final scene to do what can be done to save a human being.

All this suggested that while wrath may accumulate and threaten like an approaching storm, the deeper and more powerful quality that truly bestows dignity on human beings is neither overweening power, nor accumulated grievance, but a compassion, a simple human decency, reflected in Ma, and in the government-run camp, that does what can be done, and somehow is enough. The novel raises for each of us the question of what kinds of measures will we choose should we face desperate times.

On the Passing of Robin Williams

Like many of you, I realized that we had lost Robin Williams when posts started appearing on my Facebook newsfeed. At first I found myself in disbelief and started checking the sources of these posts and found some that were reputable. And then I was surprised by the profound sadness I felt at the loss of this great artist who both inspired us to seize the day and made us laugh at the follies of our human condition beginning with the comedy Mork and Mindy through Good Morning Vietnam and so many later works that I want to go back and watch. I remembered interviews on The Tonight Show where humor both witty and barbed would just seem to flow out of him. I grieved that there would be no more of any of these and that the life of the person who brought us these sparkling gems had been snuffed out.

"Robin Williams 2011a (2)" by Eva Rinaldi → Flickr: Robin Williams - →This file has been extracted from another image: File:Robin Williams 2011a.jpg.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robin_Williams_2011a_(2).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Robin_Williams_2011a_(2).jpg

“Robin Williams 2011a (2)” by Eva Rinaldi → Flickr: Robin Williams – →This file has been extracted from another image: File:Robin Williams 2011a.jpg.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robin_Williams_2011a_(2).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Robin_Williams_2011a_(2).jpg

I’ve been reflecting on this tension in which so many artists walk between genius and depression. Is it a special sensitivity to the world in all its wonder and pain that somehow enables a person to brilliantly capture both, in a movie, a painting, a comedy routine, a musical work? In Williams case, his depression has been connected to cocaine use. One wonders if the pain experienced in life for someone like Williams led to efforts to escape that pain, if for a while. Having a more even-keeled (and perhaps less creative!) personality, I cannot judge but I do grieve that in the darkness, Williams turned to the finality of death.

Do we understand how real and profound clinical depression can be and how helpless someone can feel in the throes of it? I don’t, except from the descriptions of others who have experienced this that has led me to recognize that this is not something you just “get over”. Nor is it something to be ashamed of. What depression is is a condition for which there is help and support–there are medical and emotional support communities available.

Williams death should encourage us to be alert for those who may be considering suicide. If people talk about taking their life or that the world would be better without them, we should take it seriously. Asking a person about whether they have considered taking their lives and what steps they’ve taken won’t make them do it. It will say that you “get it” and are interested enough to care. Asking them to agree not to act on those thoughts until you can go with them to get help may give them something to hang onto. And going with them to get that help says there is one person who doesn’t think this is shameful, there is one person who thinks there is still life worth living and who believes that when they can’t believe it themselves. I’ve gone through training to recognize both warning signs and how to respond to these with other ministry professionals on the campus where I work. The folks who provide this training have put some very helpful material at this website. It includes information about local and national resources to help.

One is too many, whether that is Robin Williams, a family member, or a fellow student or work colleague. Rest in peace, Robin Williams.