Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all bound by routine. Even the most spontaneous of humans cannot escape the cycles of time and nature. Repetition–of the sun each day, of the moon each month, of the seasons, of new years–creates a rhythm to our days. For me, these rhythms always include the ominous beats of depression and the frenzied syncopation of hypomania.
Sometimes depression is triggered by a specific event that I can point to, but most often it creeps over me slowly, the way the sun sinks slowly to the horizon at the end of the day until, seemingly all at once, it’s gone. For me, depression is caused by carrying an excessive amount of pain just as much as it is by synapses misfiring in my brain. When this happens, I am also consumed by guilt. I feel that it is wrong for me to be weighed down by pain and sadness when by most measures I live a safe and wonderful life. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to understand that the pain and the sadness I carry is often not my own.
I am a highly empathetic person and I am deeply affected by the feelings of those around me both in my daily life and in the world at large. I am particularly sensitive to their pain and suffering. This is not something I have the power to turn on and off; it is part of my nature. I cannot help absorbing the feelings of those around me the same way a sponge cannot help soaking up whatever moisture it touches. Often, I do not even consciously recognize that I am doing it until one morning I wake up feeling crushed by the weight of it all.
Last year I experienced relatively long periods of depression. In spite of many beautiful moments, the undercurrent of my days was heaviness and sadness. There was so much sorrow and injustice in the world in 2017, and I wrestled with the question, How do I dare experience joy when there is so much pain and so much grief in the world? One day as I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s fantastic podcast Big Magic, I heard her quote the poet, Jack Gilbert in his poem “A Brief for the Defense.” It spoke beautifully to this exact question. I immediately found the whole poem and read it in tears at least a dozen times in a row.
A Brief for the Defense Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils. But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick. There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta, and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay. If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the tiny port looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning. To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come. -Jack Gilbert
I still cannot express how much this moved me except to say that I knew immediately I wanted these words with me always. Without a way to burn them into my heart, I settled for inking them into my skin.
This poem gave me the answer I desperately needed, and the fog of depression slowly began to lift. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the real pain and suffering of others and to do what we can to alleviate it. One way that we fight despair is with delight. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” The question then becomes not, How dare I experience joy in this terrible world? but How dare I not?
More joy in the world is always a good thing. More hope in the world is always welcome. Experiencing peace does not dismiss the reality of suffering. Instead it points out that pain is not the only way, and it calls out injustice as evil. Perhaps the way to fight the devil is the way of the Who’s down in Whoville whose Christmas was stolen by the Grinch, but who sang in spite of it. Perhaps fighting the devil is having the courage to embrace joy instead of letting despair win.
When we see goodness for what it is and we dare to enjoy it, we give glory to the giver of every good and perfect gift. We bear the banner that says Hope still exists. Peace is not a fairytale. Joy is alive. This is a sacred calling. I do not know if this knowledge can ever save me from depression, but I believe that this is true: We must be brave. We must risk delight. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We must cling to Joy on behalf of those who cannot.