Depression’s Epic Battle with the Seven UU Principles…

September 4, 2011

…or, another night at the Video Store.

There are many things even the psychologists and psychologists who have made it their life’s work to study depression may never understand about the disease. There are also still many misconceptions and stigmas in our society about depression.  As someone who has struggled with the disease for over half my life, what I am still learning is how great an effect it can have on those around you.  I’m also learning how much more difficult it can be to live up to the seven principles when depression surfaces.

This blog begins with another encounter at the video store where I work part-time.  Actually, this encounter began more than ten years ago, but I’ll explain that soon enough.

A couple entered the store, talking amongst themselves.  I said hello and how are you, as I try to do for every customer that comes in, and got the feeling that the woman was talking extra loud to her companion, and purposely not returning my greeting, annoyed that I had spoken to them before she was ready. I shook it off, after all people are often rude to those who work in retail, and was only partly listening as they walked through the store, pointing out movies they clearly thought were low-brow or otherwise objectionable.

Eventually they made their way to the counter, and I said hello again.  The woman, rather than returning my greeting turned to the man she was with and said, “oh, I guess I need to get the card.”  In a few brief seconds, the tone of her voice, the way she turned her head away from me as I spoke to her, and then the first name on the membership card she presented brought back a sharp memory.

It turns out I had gone to college with this woman, and a brief encounter with her is one of the most painful memories I have. We shared some mutual friends, but had never really got on ourselves.  Part of it was that at the time I was still recovering from the suicide attempt I had made while in high school and was very sensitive to criticisms, imagined or real. She was one of those people I consider lucky in that she always seemed self-possessed and upbeat.  More than once, she had entered a classroom with a joyful cry for the mutual friends of ours, while I was in the middle of sharing something personal about a hard time we were having. So, I take my share of the responsibility for not forming a friendship or at least cordiality toward her. I know I often sighed or scowled at her greetings; she never seemed to care what was going on before she entered the room, but expected those within it to respond to her mood as soon as she was there.

I am probably still (a decade later) too defensive about this, but I attest that two people can dislike each other and still each person is a good human being. I did not care for this person, and I shared with some mutual friends that I found her behavior rude.  Once, when someone else was complaining about her, I filled in the blank when he said “She’s just been so…” and I said “bitchy.”  I stand by my right to feel that someone is acting like a bitch, but that does not mean I deny their inherent worth and dignity.

Well, what happened next is what came back to me when I heard that familiar voice in the store and knew I’d have to talk to her face to face.  A few days after I made my off-the-cuff remark, I was standing alone in the library when this woman walked briskly up to me and demanded to know why I was calling her a bitch behind her back. She railed into me for several minutes, and though I can’t remember ever word she said, I did remember her voice clear enough that the same emotions came back to me when I heard it again this week. I felt awful for hurting her feelings, and wanted to explain that I had never consciously intended to be mean to her and had not called her a “bitch.”  This may not be a distinction to many people, but I feel naming someone’s behavior is far different from classifying someone in a way that implies they only behave one way.

However, at the time I was not able to make either of those points because not only was I so taken by surprise by what felt like an ambush from someone who hadn’t really even ever had a conversation with me, but every time she screamed “what do you have to say,” and I started to speak, she would cut me off with “I don’t want to hear it.”  The humor of the irony is probably the only thing that kept me from completely falling apart then and there. Eventually after berating me what she deemed a sufficient amount, she stormed away.  I finished my work in the library sniffling through tears, and trying to hide it from the helpful librarian.

The hardest part about writing this is that I don’t want to make this blog about pleading my innocence or asking for pity.  I said something not particularly nice about someone not to their face. That’s not a nice thing to do, and it’s not something I’m proud of. But if I had thought it was possible to have a fruitful conversation with her about our differences, I would have tried. I might have been able to be honest about the fact that it was true I did not like her, which was one of her accusations, but still knew she had the right to be the way she was, just as I had the right to my feelings. In my wildest imaginations, I never would have thought she would be so offended. I can only assume my non-verbal and regrettable spoken comments had gotten blown out of proportion, which I might have been able to tell her had I been able to speak more than a word or two before she started talking over me.

Likewise, she had no way of knowing where I was coming from.  She had no way of knowing that I cried for days after that encounter.  She may or may not have known that I apologized to all of the mutual acquaintances we had for anything I had said and putting them in an awkward position, and pretty much stopped talking to them at all after that day.  They all seemed surprised that I was apologizing, but I didn’t go into details about why I felt I needed to.  After that, it was just too difficult for me to be myself around them, and it was easier to stay in my shell and socialize as little as possible.

This woman had the right to her feelings. She didn’t know how close I came to suicide that weekend as I dwelt on the encounter and convinced myself that I was such a horrible person I didn’t deserve to have friends that I could say something mean to.  She might not have even remembered the incident when she ran into me this week. She almost definitely wouldn’t have imagined that thoughts of suicide resurfaced for me with the memory that her voice triggered.

I have no way of knowing if it was real or imagined that she was being condescending to me when she pointed out the low-brow movies she was renting were for a class she was teaching.  Just like she had no way of knowing that I was spending my nights working in the video store as a second-job after giving up leading a congregation for several years.  I found myself wanting to explain myself to her, but was able to recognize the impulse as self-defeating and let it go.

How funny is it that those that hurt us the most, who show us the least respect, are often those we are most desperate to prove ourselves for?  Just as I had the right to find her behavior years ago rude and hurtful, she had the right to feel condescending or whatever it was she felt when we made our awkward conversation as I checked out her movie and offered her the store’s free popcorn.  (If I claimed to know what she was thinking or feeling that would prove I haven’t learned anything, right?)

Likewise, you never know when you step out your door whether just being yourself that day will make someone feel good or tear at their soul a little.  All you can do is promise yourself that if somehow you were granted omniscience into others feelings, you would never intentionally hurt them.

It keeps coming back to the two principles I remember best: the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, and justice equity and compassion.  It’s hard to keep those in mind every time you interact with someone.  Sometimes its harder to remember your own inherent worth, and allow yourself to be compassionate about your own shortcomings. Sometimes when you are most in need of the principles to help you, that is also when you are least likely to follow them as you should.

The only thing that saves any of us is that we may still have another chance.  Every morning when you wake up, know that you have the opportunity to live the life you want and be the kind of person your faith calls you to be.  And, when you fail, even though there are no confessionals in a UU church, you can use your faith to guide you toward reparations to another human being or yourself.

It’s not much, but I gave the woman I accused of bitchy behavior a smile and a bag of popcorn. And maybe the memory she gave me will remind me that I need to keep trying as hard as I can, even when my disease makes that difficult.

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Saying Grace over a Twinkie

August 7, 2011

It was senior year of high school and my friend was in a panic.  This time the cause for stress was that she had been asked to lead the blessing at our National Honor Society dinner.  I can’t remember whether she herself was a church-goer, but she was deeply aware of the fact that the group she was expected to say something like a prayer over was an extremely diverse mix of many or no faiths.  What could she say that wouldn’t offend someone?

No problem, said I.  I was a Unitarian, and I was sure there was something in our hymnal that could either be used verbatim or adapted for this occasion.  We specialized in blessings designed for those from all walks of religious life after all. It didn’t seem particularly worrisome to me that my family and I had never said any such blessing from Singing the Living Tradition or any other source.  There had to be something!

All I needed to do was call or stop by my church and either pick a book up or copy a few blessings for my friend to choose from. And so my cockiness and less than careful word-choice doomed me for yet another frustrating UU conversation when someone picked up the phone at my church.

“We don’t have prayer books,” said the woman.

“I just need something to use at a high school dinner blessing,” I replied, a little taken aback by her instant shut-down.

“We’re Unitarians,” she replied, “We don’t pray.”

Uh-oh.  But the seventeen-year-old me pressed on. “It really doesn’t need to be a prayer,” I said. “I just need something that could apply to many religions for this event.”

“We don’t have prayer books,” said the woman.

Yes we do, I thought to myself.  I had spent plenty of time before services reading the various benedictions, offerings, or readings or whatever they were called in that book in my pew.  If only I could remember the name on the cover perhaps I could get this conversation going in the right direction.  But, I just couldn’t remember it.

“I just want to borrow the book to look for something,” I said.

“We can’t help you.” she replied.

“But, I’m a member of the youth group,” I cried. “My mom does the catering for all the big events like the craft fair every year.”

“Oh,” said the woman.  “You can stop by and grab a copy of our hymnal if you want.”  Hymnal, that’s the word I should have used.

I need to put aside the wish that any member or friend would have been a little more friendly and helpful to anyone in need, even if an unforgivable word of prayer came into the conversation.  What I want to get to is the idea of saying grace over a meal, or any food for that matter.

It turns out that there was the perfect blessing in the back of our hymnal: #515 “We Lift Up Our Hearts in Thanks” by Richard M. Fewkes.  It was spiritual in that it gave thanks for all the things that are truly beyond human power, but never made it feel like you had to be thanking a particular deity.  My friend was grateful, and I was proud that UU’s had saved the day.

I was also a little regretful for the fact that my family had never used this, or any other blessing before a meal at home.  But, my family never practiced that particular ritual.  Even for the big holiday meals like Thanksgiving.  Even when I asked my still very Catholic grandmother if we could say grace, she treated it more as another silly play I wanted to put on for my own amusement, rather than something that our family should do together to bring us closer to the god she claimed to believe in.

I knew she prayed because my family often shared how many miracles had occurred when she said a novena.  However, I had never actually seen her do it, and she had never encouraged me to kneel and say a prayer by my bed before going to sleep.  I was left with the impression that prayer, if done at all, was something private and perhaps even a little shameful.

So I was a little uncomfortable years later in college, when a man I worked with clasped his hands together and bowed his head over the plastic tray full of over-processed line food.  What was I supposed to do? Look away? Run away?  Join in?  He looked like he was having a private conversation, so I decided to just wait it out, if I could without breaking into nervous laughter.  Luckily, he took very little time before raising his head and asking me what I thought about a problem we were having with the computers.

It wasn’t the first time since that high school dinner that I had been wistful about saying a blessing over my food.  But, I still felt rather powerless to say any such blessing myself.  After all, who or what should I ask to bless it?  What should I say? Who was I to ask? I didn’t overcome these obstacles until years after that.

Today, there is a little index card in the drawer of the living room coffee table where my husband and I eat most of our meals.  It has two short, non-godtalk blessings on it.  Occasionally we read them aloud.  But, more often, I just think about them when we are eating.  If I catch myself not noticing what I’m eating, or feeling only negativity when I eat, I stop.  I reflect on the good fortune that I have food, even if it’s not exactly what I would have wanted, or I’m stressed that we needed to put this weeks groceries on the ever-growing credit card balance.

I try to think about only the food, not only how it tastes, but all the miracles that needed to occur for me to be able to eat it.

If I’m really stuck, I remember a wonderful fantasy novel called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  The protagonist of that story was cursed with a supernatural gift to taste the emotions of whoever made her food. Through food, she learns her mother is deeply unhappy.  She tastes the anger and frustration or whatever other negative emotion was in someone’s heart when they made what she tastes.  She finds it nearly impossible to eat, and seeks overly-processed packaged food like twinkies that have the diluted tastes of many individuals and machinery.  She is deeply grateful for those options that she can stand to eat. In other words, she says her own kind of heartfelt grace over the foods that we may give the least amount of thought or blessings.

Then on a particularly horrible day, she has a bowl of soup in a restaurant that is “warm, kind, fused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking.”

I like to reflect on that story whenever I am cooking or eating. First, I feel lucky to not have that particular power to taste emotion in food, for all the trouble it caused Bender’s protagonist.  But, I also try to imagine that I could taste all those people and plants and animals as separate entities that are working together to fuel my body and soul. It reminds me of all the separate miracles that make up every bite I take.  That’s a little embarrassing too, so I do it silently while chewing, rather than bowing my head.

Of the many attempts I’ve heard to define religion, without getting into separating definitions of Unitarian and Universalism, or Islam, or Christianity or Pagan, the best are these simple words: gratitude and connection.  Food is something to be grateful for, and something that should remind us of all the ways we are connected to the global village of human and the ecosystem.  Even if it’s just a twinkie.


My Gratitude to Douglas Gresham

May 29, 2011

I decided to take a risk this week.  Being the unofficial start to summer, I took a new look at something that has been a sacred  part of my summers since I was at least thirteen.  I decided I was ready to watch the movie version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

What could possibly be risky about that, you might ask?  Well, for one thing this is a Unitarian-Universalist blog, and C.S. Lewis was a Christian who strongly defended the theology of the trinity. I still feel a bit like an usurper when I use Mr. Lewis’ writings for my personal spiritual guidance.  I find I have to pick and chose what I am moved by and truly believe with what I have to just accept that I can’t quite agree with. I don’t know if Jack, as he was called by his family and friends, would appreciate the uses to which I have put both his apologetic writings or his fiction.

But, as I have said, Narnia moved me in a way that the Bible, and even later theological works by brilliant Unitarians and Universalists never did. In that way, I have something in common with Mr. Lewis who explained the same sort of feeling when he read ancient mytholgies compared to the New Testament.

It took me over five years to be able to watch the film version of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I knew a Hollywood retelling would never match the visions I created when I was a girl.  I can forgive this in most book to film translations, but not Narnia.  Narnia was sacred.

The short version of why this is so is that these stories were my only comfort as a teenager when I started to suffer months and eventually over a year-long stretch of insomnia.  It was something I tried my best to hide from my family, but most nights I just laid in bed trying to concentrate on anything aside from the flashbacks of an event that occurred while I was thirteen, and the creeping depression that was starting to consume my life.  The hours between when I was expected to be asleep and when I was confident my mother and step-father were unconscious and unaware were the hardest.

But, in the midnight hours, I would be able to escape into Mr. Lewis’ magical world that I had first visited as a child.  There I would find some real comfort. I’d average one to one-and-a-half books a night, so it is no exageration to say that I have read the Chronicles (all of them) at least a hundred times. The advantage of rereading these same stories even when I had gone weeks without sleeping was I also didn’t have to necessarily *see* the words through my bleary eyes.

It was years after those sleepless nights, when I was somewhat recovered, that I saw the film version of Shadowlands for the first time.  Thus, I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, through a Hollywood retelling of his childhood.  Though not exactly the same, I could relate to the tragedy of Douglas watching his mother die of cancer, because I had been about the same age when my grandfather (and the only father I had) died of the disease.

Two images from this film pierced my heart deeply. The first is early on, when young Douglas spies a wardrobe in the Oxford professor’s attic.  The wonder and hope on the boys face is almost painful, even before we witness him knock fruitlessly on the back of the wardrobe and hear him tell C.S. Lewis, “I knew it was just an ordinary wardrobe.”  Second, in the near final moments of the film, when young Douglas and Jack are sitting next to each other and confessing for the first time their sorrow at losing Joy, mother and wife to the two of them.  The pain is so real it was like watching myself as a young girl explain that I wished I could speak to my grandfather again.

Douglas Gresham went on to become a writer himself and is co-producer of the film series.  I know these seven books *very* well, so any detail that was changed from page to screen would not go unnoticed.  I waited five years to see the first film, because I was afraid of changes that might be unforgivable.  But, in the end, I broke down and watched it out of curiosity and hope that I could trust in Mr. Gresham’s oversight. After all, he had more at stake with this book than I did.  So, although I know Mr. Gresham is not the only person responsible for how wonderful The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie is, I would love to be able to thank him personally for not only his part in the film, but for showing me that the young boy who lost his mother and his stepfather at such a fragile grew up to be a man who carries the true spirit of love and triumph from Narnia in his heart.

There are dozens of details in the film that I was impressed by.  Surprisingly, those that most impressed me were actually changes from C.S. Lewis’ original text.  I rejoiced in these changes either because they managed to stay true to the spirit, if not the words of the book, or they fixed something that was wrong.  Here are some, which fittingly for Memorial Day, all speak to he Horrors of War:

C.S. Lewis began his story explaining that four children were sent to the country “because of the air raids.”  As a child who has not learned much or anything about World War II, you could either easily gloss over this sentence, or be confused by it.  The film leaves nothing to be misunderstood.  Showing the children in a house being shook to its foundations and Edmund risking his life to save “Dad” a photo of the Pevensie father who was absent, assumedly in the war himself.

The irony that the children were sent to a house in the country to avoid England’s war, only to find themselves in the center of Narnia’s also bloody and savage fight is not lost on the characters of the film.  There is greater emphasis on the children’s, and especially Peter’s, self-doubt and desire for safety.  As Peter confesses to Aslan, “I’m not who you think I am,” and the Great Lion responds “You’re Peter Pevensie…” So are all great triumphs and tragedies experienced by real people who do not know their own strength.

Even the animals of Narnia are more revealing of their personal loss from the evil of the Witch’s war against nature.  Mr. Beaver’s cry of “my best mate” when discovering a stone statue showed a vulnerability and hurt that the war-ready creature lacked on the page.

Mr. Tumnus also gets his say as to why wars are worth fighting.  While Mr. Lewis revealed Tumnus’ death through Edmund’s eyes when he sees a statue of a faun and wonders if it was his sister’s friend, the film leaves no doubt.  We see Mr. Tumnus alive and still concerned for Lucy’s safety. We share Tumnus’ disgust at Edmund’s betrayal.  Yet, his greatest moment comes when Jadis asks him if he knows why he was her prisoner.  His reply: “Because I believe in a free Narnia.”  Though it is easier to understand the Narnia’s wish for the end of winter and Christmas, which seemed to be the main causes of unrest in Lewis’ text, freedom is really what they were fighting for.  Hooray for Mr. Tumnus’ bravery in stating this fact to the witch, and hooray to whoever wrote the words into the film’s script.

And, one other very significant change:  the character of Professor Kirke.  The film has not one but several scenes which reveal just how much the old man knows about the wardrobe and Narnia.  I realize that even the author probably didn’t know this when The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was written, but it always bothered me that the Pevensies never seemed to understand who they were talking to, even in the last pages when the professor tells them they’ll know when they see someone who has had a similar experience to thier own. The best correction of this is in the last seconds, when in response to Peter’s statement that he wouldn’t believe where they’d been, the Professor tosses him an apple.  *Wink, wink* to all you Christians and those who’ve read the Magician’s Nephew.

Speaking of which, I sincerely hope they do a film version of the Magician’s Nephew, because I’ve been proven wrong about Hollywood ruining Narnia.  There’s some things they could clean up in that film, too.  I still think it’s impossible to make a film of The Last Battle, however.

For those of you who have never read the seven Chronicles of Narnia, you’re truly never too young or too old to enter this magical world.  For those of you who like me, are holding back on seeing the films because of loyalty to the books, give them a try, and you may be surprised.

For Mr. Gresham, thank-you for your wonderful gift to the world.  Who knew how fitting a film it would be for Memorial Day as we reflect on the horrors of war, and remember those who are no longer with us.