The Spiritual Dimension of Depression

Although my father was never diagnosed with clinical depression, he suffered under its heavy hand most his life.  Later in life, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the doctors put him on antidepressants, he was nicer, kinder.  Since depression is in my genes, I’m more cognizant of its grip.  It can be crippling and painful and exhausting.  It can overwhelm you at the most inopportune times.

Last week, I caught a segment of Krista Tippett On Being‘s “The Soul in Depression,” where she interviewed several authors regarding their encounters with depression.  [The show’s transcript is here, if you’d like to read it.]

The first, Andrew Solomon, wrote The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression for which he won The National Book Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.   He wrote the book after his original article in The New Yorker solicited so many responses from readers.  He was amazed at not only his physical collapse but the loss of his passion and spirit.  Speaking of his mother’s death, he said, “The passage from grief into nothingness was very alarming and very strange. There was a sense — I mean, I still would have said, you know, ‘I’m terribly upset that my mother died,’ and so on and so forth, but the feeling went out of it.  And I think that’s why, when the feeling comes back, you think, ‘Oh, this is a soul.  This is a spirit.  This is something profound and alive which returned to me after taking a leave of absence.’”

Solomon continues, “It’s an experience, I think overall, of finding the most ordinary parts of life incredibly difficult: finding it difficult to eat, finding it difficult to get out of bed, finding it difficult and painful to go outside, being afraid all of the time and being overwhelmed all the time.  And frequently, it’s quite a sad experience to be afraid and overwhelmed all the time.  Nonetheless, those are the essential qualities of it.  It isn’t, I think, primarily an experience of sadness.”

I couldn’t agree more.

In addition, Tippett interviewed the Quaker author Parker Palmer who had experienced two horrible bouts of depression during his 40s.  He recalled something his psychologist said to him during one of those times.  I’ve highlighted it to the right.

The therapist said, “Parker, you seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend pressing you down onto ground on which it is safe to stand?”

I liked the imagery the words suggest.

Palmer went on to say that most of his friends and family had no idea how to relate to him during these times, but there was one friend who came faithfully, but said little.  I’ll let Palmer explain:

“There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet.  He hardly ever said anything.  He was a Quaker elder.  And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’  But beyond that, he would say hardly anything.  He would give no advice.  He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition.  Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being.  And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

“What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering.  He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way.  And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference.  And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”

The littlest gestures can mean the most.  Is this something you could do for another?  Sometimes just listening is the biggest gift you could give.

As you may have guessed (by the quote I’ve based my blog name on), I love Rainer Maria Rilke’s wisdom when it comes to things like this.  I was delighted that Tippett interviewed one of the translators, Anita Barrow, of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God and included several pieces dealing with sadness and gloom.

The first:

I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots

a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.”

Don’t you just love that imagery?  Doesn’t Rilke just “get it?”

Here’s another:

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit;
now it becomes a riddle again,
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.”

Whether you experience waves of depression or whether you have friends and family who do, it’s important to stay connected.  Can you think of one thing to do for such a friend today?  A short email, saying you love them?  A short note, saying you’re available?

Whatever you decide to do, know that the heart is a fragile thing, and it must be massaged back to life.  It’s not an overnight thing; it’s a daily thing.


  1. f451
    Mar 02, 2011

    “Now you must go out into your heart
    as onto a vast plain. Now
    the immense loneliness begins.
    The days go numb, the wind
    sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.
    Through the empty branches the sky remains.”
    It is what you have.

    I’ve been through this. I am going through this. I will most likely see this again in the future as it comes in seasons. The thing I have found that is my steadfast anchor, is the hope of things to come after this life. It’s hard to explain really to people around me who I know have no such hope. And since we’re all sharing bear with me as I give an analogy 🙂

    Two men on a plane. Both experiencing the same situation. To the first man the flight attendant walks up and hands him a parachute and says “Here, this will make the flight better.” So he puts it on. The parachute is uncomfortable, the flight is still bumpy. People sitting around him, start to ridicule him for wearing it. The plane ride hasn’t improved from his vantage point and he starts to tire of it and finally, he takes it off and throws it away in disgust, sitting back into his seat for the bumpy ride but at least without the burden of the parachute.

    To the second man the flight attendant hands a parachute and says, “Here, put this on because in a little while we will all have to jump at 25,000 feet.” So the man puts it on. The ride is bumpy, but the man knows he will soon be off the plane. The parachute is uncomfortable at times but the man knows that it will save him from assured death. The people around him ridicule him but he tightens the parachute a little tighter. In fact any adverse situation he faces on the plane makes him look forward to that jump and makes him gratefull for the parachute knowing that the plane ride is just for a little while.

    My parachute is my faith in God, knowing that in spite of my broken self and in spite of the afflictions I am going through, I will be redeemed for ever. Now I know this doesn’t work for everyone but most people don’t know they need to be redeemed in the first place, which obviously is a point a person would need to come to before such hope exists within his/her heart.

    I don’t think depression will ever be fully conquered but my hope gives me confidence and gets me through the darkest times. Oh and meds too 🙂

    I enjoyed your post.

    • Elissa
      Mar 02, 2011

      Dear F451,

      I feel your pain, and I’m glad you have hope. Your story highlighted the spiritual dimension of pain and agony quite well…:)

      In my darkest hour, I want the pain taken away. In my brightest hour, I can honestly say that the valleys are what made me stronger, made me more empathetic, made me want to reach out. You know? I’m here to tell you that if you can make it through the deep, dark forest, there IS a lit meadow on the other side, a very sweet, living-day-by-day kind of meadow, come what may.

      You’re in my heart.

  2. Sylvia
    Mar 02, 2011

    My son lost his life as a result of bipolar disorder (manic depression) on 11-17-08. He was 34 years old and had suffered from this terrible disease since his teen years. In August of 2008 he wrote this on his myspace page:

    “I think I offer what I have freely because I believe that the One Love will never die as long as we all share what we can when we can- I have all I need, take it and pass it on. If I keep what I have to give with me, selfishly, the Love I have been given dies; if I share the Love with anyone that needs it, it lives .. even when I am gone… even when I have nothing left to give…

    I guess that I have hope.

    I hope”

    This was his deep spiritual belief and it showed by the way he lived his life and treated everyone he met.

    If you have a child that suffers from this terrible disease, please do all the research and find all the information you possibly can on this disease.

    • Elissa
      Mar 03, 2011


      My heart aches for you…for him…for those he loved…and those who loved him. What a wonderful quote to share! I hope that it helps others coming to this site.

      The disease is vicious, and I, too, hope there is a cure some day.

      Thank you SO much for sharing. I wish I could take the pain away. The way that it comes in waves is the hardest… xo

  3. Sylvia
    Mar 02, 2011


    Thank you for your kind and understanding words.. I have never personally experienced severe depression so I was somewhat judgemental when Steven suffered severe bouts…always saying things like “sometimes you have to make yourself do things” or “trust God to see you thru this”. Boy was I ever wrong. Not only did I loose my son but I lost my faith as I had always believed it. Now I am on a new journey. I love the post on your home page about “living with the questions” because that is where I am.

    You were right about the grief coming in waves but there is a dark hole in my heart that will never be filled. A part of me is gone forever and life will never be the same. I have been reading about “survivors of suicide” but to me it is more “existors of suicide”

    Thank you for sharing your blog and your wonderful talent.

    • Elissa
      Mar 02, 2011

      And how could you fill that hole that Steven filled? It would be impossible. Nothing would be exactly Steven. I’m sure every day you’re reminded of him, in some little way. How could you not be? Honor that. Stay with it. Although I can’t take away the grief (or pain), I can tell you that little rays of sunshine have come through the cracks in my life, and although they’re not substantial, they’re what gives me hope during those times. You have to find your own way, and no one else can “tell” you what to do. I’m sending you hugs, okay? Such a trivial thing, but it’s all I can seem to offer right now.

  4. […] people with personal experience with depression. All the way down is by Parker Palmer and The Spiritual Dimension of Depression is by Elissa Elliott. A book from “the front lines” is Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of […]

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