Sunday, December 5, 2010

Without the Dark, There is No Light

In Ric Masten’s song “Let it be a dance” that we sang for our gathering song, you heard these words, “Without the dark, there is no light.” My original intention was to highlight the holidays from various cultures that occur during this time period which emphasize light – and the return of the light. But the light is not what Masten is lifting up here. He’s lifting up the darkness. And I’m trying to lift that up in my own mind too. And in doing so, another song came to my mind.

(Let me get my air guitar.)

(Sing) I woke up this morning – had them Statesboro Blues,
Yeah, I woke up this morning – had them Statesboro Blues,
Looked over in the corner – grandpa and grandma – they had’em too.

Blind Willie McTell – from Thomson Georgia – a traveling blues singer, declared after being rejected by some Statesboro woman, that he was putting on his traveling shoes, cause he had them Statesboro Blues. And the song was later popularized by the Allman Brothers.

Since the Allman Brothers put Statesboro on their fans map, I’ve been bothered by the implications of that song. It’s not good to be from a town that is best known by some for giving you the Blues. But if you listen to the song, it’s not the location that is Blind Willie’s problem. And Statesboro not my problem either. This town is not what gets me down. But I do find that when December rolls around, I often sing the Blues.

The days get short,
The nights get long,
My heart gets to hurtin’
And I sing a sad song.

December is not my favorite month. And the Christmas Season doesn’t bring the joy with it that I’m supposed to feel. I think that’s part of the problem – that it is supposed to be the season of joy and happiness – and when you have difficulties, when you or a family member is sick or hurting from physical problems, financial problems, or mental, emotional, or spiritual problems -- that is juxtaposed against all that shiny tinsel and glitter of the season --- and it’s hard to reconcile.

And I’ve found that I’m not the only one who gets a little sad at this time of year. In fact there’s a special diagnosis that goes with the blue feeling that some folks get in the wintertime. It’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder – or SAD for short. So I decided, rather than talk about the holidays today – because you’ll get plenty of that… I wanted to address something that many of us face at some times in our lives ---- depression, sadness, the dark times, the blues.

Now I’m one of the lucky ones in that I’m fortunate not to have a kind of clinical depression which is not a seasonal disorder – but a chronic illness. And my blue Christmas feeling is probably more related to extremely difficult events that have occurred in my life on or near Christmas. So mine may not even be diagnosed as SAD – which may bemore related to the diminishing sunlight. But I did attempt to find out a little more about this diagnosis – which may affect some of you as well.

SAD was first formally described and named in 1984 by Norman E. Rosenthal and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s described as “a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or, less frequently, in the summer, spring, or autumn, repeatedly, year after year.” Now in the Diasgnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as the DSM-IV), SAD is not a unique mood disorder, but is “a specifier of major depression.” So there is some disagreement about this disorder – and some folks are still skeptics. However studies now estimate that its prevalence in the adult population of the US ranges from 1.4 percent in Florida to almost 10% of the population in New Hampshire. (
I suppose that’s a good reason to appreciate living in Statesboro.

Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder is a milder form of SAD experienced by an estimated 14.3% of the U.S. population. And according to the experts cited in one of the articles I read, the blue feeling experienced by both SAD and SSAD sufferers can usually be dampened or extinguished by exercise and increased outdoor activity, particularly on sunny days, resulting in increased solar exposure. And I personally can vouch for that! In any case, connections between human mood, as well as energy levels, and the seasons are well documented, even in healthy individuals.

And if those things don’t work, there are other forms of therapy – especially in the climates where there is little natural light – including light therapy, medication, inonized-air administration, cognitive-behavioral therapy and carefully timed supplementation of the hormone melatonin.

There are those among us, however, who have a more chronic kind of depression, and I’m familiar with this as well – having family members who suffer. And you know, most of us don’t realize what folks are going through in their lives. We look at some folks and they seem to have it all together. But my reading and my experiences tell me a different story. The Rev. Barbara Meyers is a Unitarian Universalist community minister and the creator of “Mental Health Matters,” a public access TV show focusing on mental health issues in her community. Her story is included in one of our issues of UU World. Meyers is a regular speaker in churches and at community forums. Her involvement with mental health was stimulated by her own struggles with depression. She does an interesting thing when she speaks to congregations. She says: “First I tell my own story. And then I ask people to stand up if they or someone they love is living with mental illness. Invariably 80 to 100 percent of people stand up.”

“The theological basis for Meyers’s ministry starts with her belief in Unitarian Universalism’s First Principle about the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Her role model is Dorothea Dix, a Unitarian mental health reformer in the 1800s. ‘Most of what she did was to live out her religion in the world. That’s what I hope I’m doing,’ Meyers says.” And isn’t that what you and I want as well.

To those who don’t think their congregations have people with mental health issues, Meyer’s says, “Our congregations are full of these people. Many times they’re sitting there suffering in silence because they’re not sure if they’re welcome. When I ask people to stand up it’s a tremendously powerful message for those who are suffering silently.”

Well, I’m not going to ask you to stand up today if you or someone you love has suffered from depression. But I do not doubt that most of you here could respond in the affirmative to a question like that. One reason I’m pretty confident that we have lots of folks who have suffered from depression here is because our congregation has so many wondrously creative, talented people – and those gifts are often accompanied by possibilities for depression. And you are in good company --- or some may say talented company. Here are a few of the well-known folks who have spoken candidly about their struggles with depression: Adam Duritz (lead singer for Counting Crows), Ashley Judd, Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins), Billy Joel, Boris Yeltsin, Brooke Shields, Delta Burke, Princess Diana, Drew Carey, Emma Thompson, Harrison Ford, Heath Ledger, Hugh Laurie (that’s House), J.K. Rowling, Jeffrey Sebelia (from Project Runway), Jim Carey, John Denver, Marie Osburn, Mike Wallace, Olivia Newton John, Owen Wilson, Rodney Dangerfield, Rose O-Donnell, Sheryl Crow, Terry Bradshaw, and Thomas Eagleton – who you may remember left the Democratic ticket as McGovern’s VP nominee after revealing that he had suffered and been treated for depression. These are some of the folks that have been more open about it on talk show, in books and articles, etc. – but of course, there are many, many others.

Often when folks go through a difficult time, they emerge stronger and better able to face the future. One excellent example is President Abraham Lincoln. A recent [Houghton Mifflin, 2005] book by writer Joshua Wolf Shenk is entitled Lincoln's Melancholy - How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

“The sub-title of the book tells it all. Lincoln had throughout his life bouts of depression. He learned how to handle them with a variety of coping strategies, among them writing, especially writing poetry, and by reading poetry and the Bible and by storytelling, especially telling funny stories.” (

And many mental health professionals offer us great encouragement. They tell us that depression can be managed, if not cured, by medication and therapy. Sometimes it takes a while to find what works best for each person. There is no perfect recipe. Now some folks, like the Scientologists, are totally opposed to medication for mental conditions. I certainly do not agree with them. However, I do agree with William Finger, author of “The Healing Power of Community” in a 1999 UU World magazine article.

Finger states: “One blessing of our era is the pharmacological revolution, allowing medications to pinpoint brain chemistry, including the serotonin re-uptake process. But with this blessing comes a narrow view of healing.

“Medication can help manage symptoms and provide new energy. Therapy can offer a safe place for talking, grieving, healing, and developing hidden sides of one’s personality. But we need more if what we’re looking for is long-term transformation and behavior change. Depression can be like an old shoe, a familiar place to go during times of stress, life transitions, a particular time of the year, a family dynamic triggered in parenting, empty weekends, Sunday nights facing a new week. 

“The support of a community can help people recovering from depression to avoid falling back into old behavior patterns.” Finger then describes communities that have helped him, including his UU congregation.

I also wonder if some of us don’t run for the feel better pill a little too quickly. Now I’m especially talking to folks who may not have a really severe, critical situation. Sometimes we need to just be a little more comfortable with sadness.

Several years ago, I had my first trip to Womenspirit at the Mountain. And Pauline DeLaar encouraged me to go on the Trust Walk they were having. Now up in these Mountains – there are no street lights. It is truly dark. And we got into vans that took us to an area where we were going to walk down into a gorge – and eventually end up behind a water fall – and we were to just make our way by holding the hand of the person in front of us – with the all-knowing guide in front. She shared with us that after a while, our eyes would adjust to the dark – and we would be able to see well enough to find our way. And you know – she was right. It took a while of groping around at first – but my eyes did adjust – and I could see well enough that I felt more secure, especially knowing others were around.

I share this story, of course, to say that when the darkness of the blues falls on me, I don’t immediately look for the flashlight of a pill. I wait for my eyes to adjust – and I can usually see. I recognize it – call it by name – say-“Hey – there you are again. I was wondering when you would show up.” And I invite depression in like a good neighbor would do. But depression is a temporary visitor – at least for me, not a permanent house guest. I suppose if I did have chronic depression though – I would try to fix-up a room for her and hope that she would spend most of her time there and not take over the house.

When the blues come to call – I think also of Ric Masten, the fellow that wrote the song “Let it be a Dance” that I’m using for the themes for my sermons this year. I think of Ric– dancing with Life. And Ric himself suffered with bouts of depression during his illness. And¸ he would dance with despair. And the despair danced into his poetry, sometimes with great weight and sometimes lightly. But when the weight was too great, Ric (like William Finger) turned to others. Listen to his poem entitled:


Upon diagnosis I was informed
I was “inoperable, incurable, terminal”
Blunt lumbering thoughts
Immense as elephants
And “Don’t go there!”
Is like being told not to think about elephants
While lying among them trying to sleep

So like the five blind men
Describing an elephant
“a tree, a rope, a kite, a spear, a hose”
Just so
I ran my shocked and frightened mind
Along the big “C” beast
To understand what I was feeling
Gleason, PSA, neuroendocrine,
Carcinoma, palliative
Mysterious aspects of the monstrous thing

The Prostate Cancer Self-Help Group
Meets the first Wednesday of the month
And why I didn’t go at first who knows
I only know that till
I dragged my butt through that door
And joined my compatriots
I was utterly alone
And it was elephants elephants elephants
Night after night all night long

I must say it seems absurd
That it took so long to learn
About strength in numbers
And in gathering together
The elephant herds are driven away

And so I too will dance this year with my sadness for a bit. But it can’t have the whole dance card. And that is one reason I come here to UU – so that I can dance with you too – and we can share our joys and concerns, our hopes and dreams, our despair and our care and listen and commune with one another and welcome JOY into our lives together.

One of the so-called seven deadly sins is sloth. And I used to just think of this as laziness. But the way it’s used in the Bible is to refer to a lack of zeal in accepting the joy of the spirit. Now if we think of sin in it’s literal meaning of “missing the mark” – when we are not open to that JOY and healing spirit that is present among us, when we do not avail ourselves to it, then we are missing the mark – and our souls are sick and hurting.

When my spirit is really low – I think, I don’t know if I have enough left for even one day. But I remember the miracle of Chanukah, and commit myself to persevere, and watch the light burning that day, the next day, and the next, and the next, till I come to UU on Sunday morning or other times to refill my soul with the oil of gladness! This place is my Gilead, my community of healing, the source of that precious oil.

(Sing) “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
But then that Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

May it be so, this day, this season for us all.
Amen and Blessed Be

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