Answering the Unanswerable:
The Role of Spirituality and Writing
in Recovering from Depression
The Spiritual Journey of The Life of Zerah
(lecture at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand)
As the title of my talk states, Answering the Unanswerable: The Role of Spirituality in Recovering from Depression and The Spiritual Journey of The Life of Zerah (my second book), I’m going to speak to you about three topics: depression, spirituality, and writing, all three via the lens of my personal experiences. I have tried to find a way to speak about my experiences with depression that is not depressing. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. I think it’s a little hard to do. So all I’ll say is, it gets uplifting as I go along. I’m sure everyone here knows life isn’t always easy. But I do believe life is worth whatever struggle or pain may come with living it, because love, in all its many forms, makes it worth it.
To tell you briefly about my book, The Life of Zerah was the culmination of my own spiritual journey, of my efforts to understand why the world exists in the way that it does, how I could live with peace in my heart on an oftentimes very unpeaceful planet, and what I could do to make the world a better place. The three-sentence summary (very long three-sentence summary) I give about my book is: It’s an illustrated, spiritual allegory about a seed who wants to become a tree in the hopes that he’ll be loved. But just when he’s about to root himself in a field, the Wind (which is symbolic of Goddess, God, the Great Spirit, the Great Nothing – whatever higher power you believe or don’t believe in) takes him to a desert. The rest of the story is about his journey trying to become a tree and what he learns along the way from the teachers that he meets, including grains of sand, blades of grass, a twig, and an ocean, and how they help him find answers to life’s great questions, such as: Why do bad things happen to good seeds? Is the Wind kind, cruel, indifferent, or non-existent? How can you maintain hope amidst darkness and pain? How can you make the world a better place?
Before I talk to you more about that book and how it came to be, I’d like to tell you about something that I wrote many years before I finished my book. It is, without question, the worst thing that I’ve ever written in my entire life. I wrote it at age 25. It was a suicide note.
It was a note that was a long-time coming. I had already been struggling silently with depression for years by the time I was 25, and as I had had depression for so long, to me, it was the normal state of things. I had no idea that there was a difference between sorrow and the demon called depression that tells you life is not worth living and that you are worthless.
Though there are various components to depression, I’ll speak to you about just two of them – two as I experienced them. In case there are those here who have no experience with or knowledge of depression, I’m hoping what I say will help you to understand. Someone I met recently who had also suffered from depression said she thinks it’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t gone through it to understand what it’s like. Understanding may be difficult, but I hope it’s not impossible. Because without understanding someone else’s experiences, without making an effort to not only understand but to feel, in the marrow of your bones, what they’ve lived, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable or angry or sad, the only reality we know is our own. And that creates a huge wall between ourselves and others, and between the world as it is, and a better world that we have the capability of creating.
The two components of depression that I’ll describe involve sorrow from without and a demon from within. I’ll describe the sorrow from without first.
Depression falls under the umbrella term: “mental illness”. This is a term that I absolutely despise, because it seems to imply that those not suffering from depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, for example, are all “well”. Much of what passes for “well”, for “healthy” in the American culture that I grew up in never seemed “healthy” to me. And of course, there are many subcultures in “American culture”, but there are also some aspects that are more or less uniform across the country. To give just one example:
Movies and television programs in the U.S. which are filled with violence, from sexual assaults to murders, are common. They are the evening entertainment and a way to spend a relaxing Saturday afternoon. I have never been able to watch these things. The two comments I’ve most received as a result are:
1) This is real life. Life is full of violence. You have to be able to deal with it.
2) This isn’t real life. It’s just a TV show. It’s just a movie. You should be able to separate fact from fiction.
These two responses may seem at odds with each other. But in actuality, they have a great deal in common, and that is this: the inherent problem is me, not something in society. Violent images before my eyes, real or imagined, shouldn’t fill me up with so much sorrow. I shouldn’t be affected to my core when I see a scene of someone being beaten. And if I am, I should at least be able to forget it the moment that violence is no longer in front of my eyes. I shouldn’t be so sensitive. I should be tougher.
There is an incredible stand-up comedian named Hannah Gadsby. In her Netflix show Nanette, which I highly recommend watching if you haven’t already, she stated: “Why is insensitivity something to strive for?”
To my mind, sensitivity requires not only being tough, but possessing a strength that is massive in its scale, because sensitivity, empathy, take going against the grain of what many of us are taught and what many societies value. Going against the grain usually means standing apart from the crowd, and at times standing alone. That can be a very lonely place to stand. Sensitivity and empathy mean you will feel another’s pain almost as deeply or as deeply as you feel your own. It means you will not walk away unaffected. Perhaps you will be moved to change things, to help someone. Perhaps you will be overwhelmed with hopelessness and sorrow to the point of paralysis. But you will, no matter how you react, be unable to forget.
A Canadian physician I recently met at the monk chats at one of the temples here gave me the gift of a poem, which to me, is one of the best gifts you can ever give anyone. It’s by the Polish psychologist, psychiatrist, and writer Kazimierz Dąbrowski. It’s called “Hail to You” and it is a homage to those who cannot walk away unaffected.
Hail to you, psychoneurotics!
You who see sensitivity in the insensitivity of the world,
uncertainty among the world’s certainties.
You who so often experience others as yourselves.
You who sense the anxiety of the world,
its narrowness and boundless self-assurance.
Hail to you!
For your phobia of washing your hands from the dirt of the world,
For your fear of being locked in the world’s limitations,
for your fear of the absurdity of existence.
For your subtlety in not telling others what you see in them.
For your awkwardness in dealing with everyday things,
but deftness in handling the unknown,
for your transcendental realism but lack of everyday realism,
for your exclusiveness and dread of losing those you love,
for your creativity and ease of wonder,
for your maladjustment to that “which is” but
adjustment to that which “ought to be,”
for your great but unutilized abilities.
For the belated recognition of your greatness, and of those like you
who will come later, and will also not be recognized.
For your being treated instead of treating others;
for your heavenly power forever being pushed down by brutal force;
for that which is prescient, unsaid, infinite in you.
For the loneliness and strangeness of your ways.
Hail to you!
There is a little story that I love very much about a traveler who arrives at a village where the water is full of toxins. This causes all who drink it to lose their minds. As the traveler has not drunk this water, he is sane. But to the rest of the village, he is the one who is crazy. And so he needs to make a decision: should he drink this water, lose his mind, fit in at the village, and have everyone think he is normal and sane, or not drink the water, remain sane, but be considered crazy by everyone around him.
To me, the profound sorrow that I felt as a result of the pain and injustice in the world was a sane response to an utterly insane world. I had no idea how others could look out upon a world filled torture, rape, abuse, slavery, war, genocide and not draw the same conclusion that I had: It was not worth it. No beauty, no amount of kindness, no amount of love could outweigh the savagery. It was not possible. I did not understand how a mall could be filled with people buying things they didn’t need while others went to sleep hungry every night. I could not comprehend how museums had guards to protect paintings but there was no one standing beside people sleeping in the streets to say: “You are precious. You are valuable. I will not let anyone hurt you.” In an interview that I watched years ago with one Holocaust survivor, he said one of the most shocking things about the Holocaust for him was that the sun did not stop shining. I knew that the Holocaust in Germany was not the only genocide in the history of the world. I knew that the present too often served as a mirror for the past. But I did not know how we, as a society, were not stopping – stopping all activities that did not relate directly to ending violence and hunger.
I never questioned the god I believed in, and how if he, and at that time this holy being was indeed a he, truly loved and cared for humanity, he could allow savagery and starvation to occur. I only questioned humanity. I read these few lines by Dorothee Soelle, a German liberation theologian, when I was younger and they’ve stuck with me ever since: “God has no other hands than ours. If the sick are to be healed, it is our hands that will heal them. If the lonely and the frightened are to be comforted, it is our embrace, not God's, that will comfort them.” That quote sums up what I considered to be god’s role in bringing about world peace: none. He had given us life. It was humanity’s job to value it.
And now, this is the paradox of depression: others’ lives were valuable, but mine wasn’t. The injustice and grief and suffering and pain in the lives of others broke my heart. But the demon inside me, thoughts which became beliefs that insisted I was worthless, felt like the truth. And it was a “truth” that my mind repeated many times over. I struggled against depression for almost 30 years before I got better.
When I say that, some people interpret that to mean that I lived in a dark room for three decades without ever emerging. That is not at all the case. If anyone had looked at my life from the outside, they could never have fathomed what was going on inside my head and heart. Aside from during the very worst episodes of depression, I always worked. I studied and received my degrees. I traveled. At times I went out with a smile plastered to my face and thoughts of suicide filling up my head.
During the years I struggled with depression, there were also numerous times in my life that were so filled with joy that I thought the pain had gone forever. Stretches of happiness in which, though all the horrific thoughts were not gone, they did not flex their full power. Laughter and love had banished enough of them to make me think: “This time, I did it. This time, depression isn’t coming back.”
But until I received the proper treatment and got better, that pain always returned. During the severe episodes of depression, the thoughts in my head could spiral, within the space of 24 hours from: “That was a pretty bad class you just taught,” to, “That’s because you’re a bad teacher. Actually, you’re a bad person. And all that unhappiness in your heart? It’s never going away. Nothing will ever get better. You have done nothing good with your life and you never will. There is no hope. There is no end to this pain. So you should just end your life.” When I had these thoughts, they were relentless. There was no pause, no momentary respite to counter with a “no” or “wrong”.
To try to understand what those thoughts are like, imagine someone standing next to you, whispering in your ear again and again and again, things like: “You have ruined everything. You are a loser. You should kill yourself.” You beg the person spewing this hatred to stop. But they do not listen. And as there is no one else who sees or hears this person next to you, no one can even attempt to drag them away or at the very least silence them. Imagine this from the time you open your eyes in the morning to the time that you close them at night. And when you open your eyes the next morning, that person begins to tell you the same vile things again and again and again.
When you are in this excruciating pain, you are not in a place where the love of those around you can necessarily save you. You are in a place where your concept of love is that if your family and friends truly cared about you, they would put you to sleep as you do with beloved pets who are sick and cannot be cured, and hold your hand as you pass into the next world instead of leaving you to seek and possibly not find a painless way to leave this earth yourself. During one of my many severe episodes of depression, when I told a friend that I no longer wanted to live, and she told me, “You have no idea how many people you will hurt if you end your life,” the thought in my head was, “Who will I hurt?” I didn’t think people would be devastated by my loss. Just the opposite. I thought, “They’ll get over it. It’s not such a big deal to lose me.”
And that is why I am left stymied as to the proper term to use when referring to mental differences. Because being well now, I can recognize those profoundly unhealthy, erroneous, and utterly devastating thoughts for what they were. I can say, with complete conviction, that without the proper medical care, I personally could not have gotten better. I can tell you that just as I would never suggest “just cheer up” as a cure for cancer or treatment for AIDS, I would never tell someone with depression, “Just look on the bright side of things,” and expect that if they do this, they will magically get well.
I needed someone to explain to me what was happening in my head. I needed someone to tell me this simple but life-changing sentence: “Your thoughts aren’t real.” I needed someone to teach me how to stop the very first lying thought before the spiral began. I needed the correct diagnosis of bipolar disorder. And despite my absolute aversion to medication, my belief that it was a way to numb ourselves into fitting into society, that to take it would be to drink the poisoned water in the village that the traveler visited, I needed to take medicine to reach a level of stability that would end the suicidal thoughts, and thus allow me to implement the teachings that got me well: teachings that came from the phenomenal two doctors I was blessed to meet at age 37, twelve years after I had started medical treatment. That means twelve years of psychiatrists and psychologists that misdiagnosed me and mistreated me. Twelve years in which I saw the powerlessness over my own mind mirrored far too often in a doctor’s office, for when you enter seeking help, you are considered the only one who needs it. Your physician is always in the right. Society is in the right.
Everyone in the field of mental health knows that environment places a role in depression. Our definition of environment needs to be wide enough to include country and culture. I firmly believe that as much as we are currently looking for treatments and cures for mental illnesses, we are also actively creating mental illnesses. And so when I look at the other side of depression, the grief and deep sorrow I felt about others’ suffering, I still feel that it is in some ways, a healthy response to an unhealthy world.
However, it is also a response that places all power in the hands of injustice and pain and denies the power and endurance of beauty and kindness and love. It is a response that plunges one into an abyss in which the company of others who are suffering – the company that can end the horrific feeling of solitude that is another part of depression – does not exist. You are not one of many, united in a common search for hope and happiness and healing, all helping each other. You are alone, completely cut off from those who love you and from humanity as a whole. It is a response that paralyzes. You feel that injustice cannot be fought, only surrendered to. It is a response that can bring one to death’s door, and it is a response that can cause one to choose an early exit from this world with the crushing certainty that death is the only way to end the absolute anguish of depression.
There were always two things that helped pull me out of the anguish and back from the abyss when no one and nothing else could. One was writing and the other was god. On one hand it may seem heartbreaking that the love of those around me and that my love for them was not enough to convince me to fight for my life – and that is indeed what occurs in the darkest moments of depression – it is a fight for one’s life. But on the other hand, what I am essentially speaking of, when I speak of the role of writing and god in saving me, is purpose. Depression tells you: Not only is your life meaningless, but so is life itself. Purpose tells depression: You are wrong.
For some, loving a single other being, whether that is a partner or child or friend or pet is enough to fill their lives with purpose, with meaning, with a reason to stay here. For others, like myself, loving a solitary other being, or even a few of them, was not enough to fill my life with purpose. An artist that I met, who works at home all day painting and whose husband works outside the house told me, “I love my husband. But if we ever become millionaires and he no longer has to work, he is going to have to go somewhere else for 8 hours a day so I can make my art.” Writing and god were my purpose for being on this planet.
The god I believed in was the one of the Jewish religion. He was all-seeing and all-knowing. I considered the Torah, the name for both the first five books of the Bible and the entire set of Jewish laws, to be almost in its entirety, the word of god. I grew up in a conservative Jewish family. Conservative was once defined to me by a teacher as the “middle of the road” of the three main branches of Judaism – that is the three main branches of Judaism when and where I grew up. Conservative was somewhere in between reform Judaism, in which people do not observe all the rules and celebrate all the holidays, and orthodox Judaism in which every law is followed and every holiday is celebrated. This is, of course, an extremely over-simplified definition. But for the purpose of this talk, I think it suffices. Though I was raised in that “middle of the road” of these two ends of the spectrum, my path towards orthodoxy seemed destined from a young age. When I was three-years-old, my teacher at the religious preschool I attended told my mother she had never met anyone so young who loved Judaism so much. By the time I was eight I had decided that I wanted to be a rabbi, a spiritual leader in the Jewish religion. I don’t know if we develop all of our interests and passions and feelings of purpose after we are born or if there is something deep within us, before we even emerge from our mothers’ wombs, that will direct the path we want to and try to walk in life.
But I know that very early on I had a desire to connect with something greater than myself and greater than humanity as a whole. I think that if I had been born into a family that practiced a different religion, I would have loved whatever that religion was as dearly as I once loved Judaism. Religion was the only mode of expression I knew at that time to try to articulate and live that connection I felt with something immense.
I hated school for many, many reasons and one of them was that it felt like a disconnection from god. In order to get the A’s that I almost always got, in order to make an attempt to achieve the “normal” of my society that I almost always fell short of, I could not direct my thoughts where I wanted them to go, in the moments that I wanted them to go there. I had to pay 100% attention to what the teacher was saying: how to diagram a sentence, how to do algebra, how to memorize the periodic table of elements, and I could not contemplate god. When the wind howled outside my 11th grade physics classroom window, I felt that moan was the voice of god, asking us to listen to those who were starving and to bring them food. And when the birds in the trees outside my English classroom sang, I knew, that no matter how much I loved the book we were discussing, I was supposed to listen to those birds too. I was supposed to stop and marvel at the world that the holy divine being that I loved so, so much had created.
But in school I couldn’t stop and marvel. I couldn’t pause, even for a moment, to say “Thank you.” Traditional schooling in the U.S. is a never-ending race to achieve whatever grade or scholarship or prize that you have been told will help you achieve something else, which will then help you achieve something else, and something else, and on. You cannot fall behind in this race or else your future will be ruined forever.
And so in school I raced. And outside of it, I filled up every single moment that I could with Judaism and by extension, god. I studied Hebrew as a second language in religious classes that I attended three days a week after my secular school. I didn’t feel that I was learning Hebrew. I felt that I was remembering it. It was the language of my soul, and the one with which I wanted to speak to god. I learned prayers by heart and chanted them when I opened my eyes each morning and before I closed them each night. Blessings accompanied the food I ate and everything I drank. The mundane revealed itself to have been horrifically misnamed. Everything was sacred. When I could fill my mind and my time with thoughts of god, I felt protected from outside harm by a love and concern and compassion that calmed some of my fears of the cruelty that existed in the world. At times, that love was strong enough to ward away the sorrow.
By the time I was 16, I had become an Orthodox Jew in all aspects except one: I believed that men and women should be equal in how they practiced Judaism. There are laws that bar or excuse women from saying certain prayers and performing certain duties. I considered them a sexist misinterpretation of what god wanted from us. God, I was sure, had meant everyone to be equal. It was not only a commitment to equality that had caused me to reach this conclusion. It was Judaism itself and what it had taught me about asking questions.
We are born with supreme curiosity. No one has to tell children to question things. They are forever asking why. Part of growing up is trading some of our questions for answers. Without doing this we would learn nothing. If I can’t answer the question, “How do I bake bread?” I’ll never make it. Of course, there are questions that are much more complex than this one. Sometimes, to fit into society, we accept answers that aren’t right for us and other times we accept answers that aren’t right at all. “Start a war” is a heartbreaking, savage answer to a profoundly disturbing, savage question. That the questions may not always be spoken aloud does not mean that they are not always there. Questions precede everything we do. “How will I live my life?” is a question that we answer every moment that we breathe, regardless of whether we ask it or are conscious of its being asked.
Where my secular school insisted that I always have the answers, Judaism insisted that I keep asking questions. People argued with rabbis. They questioned religious texts. They debated with each other. In discussions, one answer often produced five more questions. This received praise. This received: “What a good question.” And this endless asking fostered in me a reverence for questions, and a need to question everything.
When people ask how I could go from being an Orthodox Jew to one who does not practice or believe in Judaism at all, I have often told them that I questioned my way into Orthodox Judaism, for if the laws were truly what god wanted, shouldn’t we follow them all? But I also questioned my way out of Judaism.
When I was 18 I fell in love for the first time, and it was with someone who wasn’t Jewish. I knew that according to the dictates of Judaism as it was practiced in orthodox Judaism, that this wasn’t right. I also knew that there was nothing wrong with the love inside my heart. (Perhaps it was wrong that I was so painfully shy that I couldn’t say anything about it to the guy until 10 years later, but that’s a topic for another lecture.) Of course love for another human being and love for a religion can exist simultaneously. But the fact that my religion called into question love for a person made me call into question my religion.
When I was 18 I also began to study Judaism from a historical perspective for the first time. It painted a very different picture than the one I’d been looking at for years. As with other religions, I learned there were religious leaders who were motivated not by a love of god but by a love of power. In-between the sacred Hebrew letters in the Torah that I loved so much, I found tremendous blank spaces: parts of stories that were missing. Other parts had been invented. Dates did not match up. The symbolic meaning my teachers had taught me to attribute to biblical stories that contained problematic or disturbing parts, a symbolic meaning that had at times served as a curtain, had been pulled aside to reveal literal, horrible truths.
My Jewish history professor attended the same synagogue, a Jewish house of worship, that I did. A couple months into the semester, I asked her how she could teach a history course on Monday that contradicted the prayers she prayed on Saturday. She said everyone has to make a choice as to what to accept and what to keep questioning and possibly reject. She told me she’d made her choice and that I would have to make mine.
I kept questioning, and little by little, my house of prayer began to crumble. The walls shook, the ceiling buckled, and before I could find anything to reinforce the seams, the entire foundation gave way. But I did not desert my house. I lived among the rubble for years, continuing to say prayers and to celebrate holidays that I no longer believed in. Perhaps, instead of saying: I lived among the rubble for years, it would be more accurate to say: the rubble lived in me. According to the Torah, as the prophet Moses descends the mountain Sinai, where god had given him the ten commandments, the laws by which the Israelites were supposed to live their lives, Moses finds the Israelites worshipping a golden calf instead of god. Furious, he smashes the stone tablets carved with the ten commandments to the ground. They shatter. After god replaces them, the Israelites carry those broken first tablets with them in a sacred ark, beside the new, whole tablets.
We carry inside us what has been broken. Those we love who have died, romantic relationships and friendships that ended though we thought they would last forever, beliefs that we no longer believe in, dreams that we no longer want to come true: we carry them with us. How we carry them: as a burden or blessing, source of regret or teaching, where we come from or where we run from, is our choice. But the fact that they cannot be extricated from us simply means: we remember our past. There is a story about a congregant in a synagogue who goes up to his rabbi and says, “Rabbi, I need your help. My friend has a terrible problem with his memory.” The Rabbi asks, “Is he very forgetful?” The congregant replies, “No. He forgets nothing.”
Though I forgot nothing, I began to read about other religious beliefs – not with a desire to find a new religion – I wasn’t looking for that – but just to learn about other ways to see the world.
However, the god I believed in, the one that was a product of my religion, had for the moment survived the fall of my house of prayer. I was certain that there was this tremendous loving being above me, watching me, concerned about my well-being, and promising me that if I ever reached the point in my life where the pain of depression was too much for me, he would help me leave this world.
With this god above me, I wrote. Writing, as I said, was the other thing that helped me in my battle against depression when no one and nothing else could. I felt that I had a story to tell, and that this great divinity who loved me so much wanted me to tell it. The story that I wanted to tell was a love story.
Now it was not what often comes to mind when people hear the words “love story”: a tale of romantic love. The story I wanted to tell was a glorious saga, of biblical proportions, which would have the power to end all violence everywhere by making people see that love was the most important thing in the world. Again, not romantic love, but love for creation. Love for each other, for all creatures upon this earth, for the earth itself. I wanted to write about the spiritual love that surpassed, that transcended: countries, religions, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, football teams… Anything that had ever and could ever be used to divide would lose the power to do so once everyone understood what god understood: only love matters.
And so time and time again, when depression said, “Don’t you want this pain to end?” writing said, “It will. Once you write this book. When all the pain in the world disappears, the pain inside you will as well.”
Of course, this was a task that I was doomed to fail at. And how I came to set it for myself, I have no idea. I finished writing that epic tale at age 25. By depression’s standards, it was the worst book ever written in the entire history of writing. By standards slightly more in line with reality, it simply wasn’t good, and it could not be salvaged. And I felt that I could not be saved. I had no more stories to tell. No more ideas left within me. This book that I had to write could not be written, at least not by me. God had whispered to me “love” a million times over, but I couldn’t translate that feeling, that gift, into words. I of course had dreams that I wanted to fulfill: I wanted to do work in addition to writing that helped others. I wanted to travel. But those dreams did not carry the weight of writing. Without that grand book to write, I felt I had no more purpose. All I had at that moment in time was pain that I wanted to end. And that is when I wrote, not by a literary critic’s standards, but by love’s standards, the worst thing I’ve ever written, my suicide note.
I do not believe that the heart accedes to taking someone’s life with ease, be it another’s life or one’s own. My heart certainly did not. It would not allow me to make an attempt. I left my note on my desk and fell asleep sobbing, praying to the god who I believed, with my whole heart, was watching me, to take me home, back to the place where we all come from. To a place that I considered union, the end of separation from the Great Divine who understood everything that human beings failed to.
I have listened to interviews given by gay adults who said that at certain points in their youth, they went to sleep praying to god to make them straight. I have heard young women speak about closing their eyes each night, after begging god to change their appearance. What a heartbreaking world we have created when we enter sleep pleading to leave this earth and never return, and beseeching the higher power in which we believe to transform our exquisite selves into something that we are not, and someone that we are not meant to be.
Faith does not need evidence. Just the opposite: faith functions independent of evidence. Faith is often blind to evidence. The fact that so many others prayed to god to end their pain, only to have their prayers go unanswered, did not cause me to doubt that a higher power was watching me and listening to me and would, if I prayed hard enough, answer my prayer.
A woman I met after volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece told me, in response to a story that I told her about an eight year old girl’s abuse, “That little girl is atoning for sins from another life.” I said to her, “How can you believe that?” She looked at me, tears welling up in her eyes, and said, “I have to believe that. Otherwise I could not live in a world with such a lack of justice and care that children are allowed to be abused.” She was, herself, a survivor of child abuse.
That a higher power was watching me and listening to me and caring for me was something that I not only wanted to believe, but had to believe. When I woke up the morning after I wrote my suicide note, I could no longer believe. Either my higher power was not powerful enough at all, or he didn’t understand how much pain I was in, or he didn’t care, or he just didn’t exist. None of these possibilities offered me any hope or peace.
One of the stanzas in the exquisite collection of poems called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is:
“And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to it for help –
for It rolls impotently on as Thou or I.”
I raised my eyes heavenwards and asked “Why?” There was no response.
After that morning passed, I told my family that I no longer wanted to live. On their knees, hands clasped together, they begged me to get help. Treatment with a psychiatrist began one day later. And the evening after that first appointment, I picked up my pen again and did not let it go. It was not to write stories. It was to write about the anguish inside me. What I wrote was repetitive; the same pain and hopelessness penned again and again. It was writing without an audience of human beings. No one to read or listen and say: “This is all wrong. You will get better. There is so much joy in you and in the world, and you will feel it again.” It was writing without a god, no great spirit above me to whisper “love” in my soul and set me the task of sharing that love.
It was writing without a god but it was writing with a purpose, even though I could not see the purpose at the time. My words weren’t going towards a book or a poem or a story so I thought them useless. My words weren’t helping anyone around me, so I thought there was no point to them being written. But my words were helping me. They were giving me a pen to wrap my fingers around instead of a razor blade. They were giving me blank pieces of paper which said: “The feelings inside you are worthy of being written. This pain is worthy of a witness. We will be your witnesses. We are listening.” Writing said: “I cannot take away your pain. But I will not let you bare it alone.” Writing was a cord that kept me tethered to the earth. One of the two things that had helped to keep me going, god, was gone from my heart. But the other, writing, had a firm grip around me and would not let me go.
About a year after I had written my suicide note, I was now on to doctor number three, medicine number three, and guilt had replaced love, god, and the life-changing book I was supposed to write as a reason to stay on this earth. I was now in a place where I understood that my death wouldn’t be something that those who loved me just “got over”, and I was trying, desperately, not to cause them the staggering pain they would endure if they lost a daughter, a sister, a friend. In the midst of all of this, I was working a horrible job.
On my lunch break one day, I went to a park to sit under a tree. I have always loved nature, but I chose to sit under a tree at that moment in time because of what an incredible gym teacher had told me years ago in high school. She had said, “If you’re ever sad, or scared, or don’t know what to do, go outside and speak with the trees. Listen to them. Hear what they have to say. They are so much smarter than people.”
Under that tree, I began to cry and I thought, “This is not supposed to be my life. I was supposed to write beautiful books that helped others. I was supposed to do work in addition to writing that helped others. I was supposed to travel and see the world.” And in the very instant after I thought this, a seed landed in my lap and I swear I heard it say, “And do you think this is the life I wanted for myself? I was supposed to be a tree.”
That was the beginning of my book The Life of Zerah. It was, at first, a disappointing beginning, because it wasn’t an epic tale of biblical proportions. The main character was tiny and wasn’t even human. But it was writing that I considered purposeful, and the little seed’s search for how to become a great tree soon became his search to understand the world and to try to answer all the questions that I could not, the “how” questions, but even more, the “why” questions. That included the “why” questions I had never asked earlier in my life, when I wasn’t willing to hear any answer that might have contradicted the god that I believed in.
“Why, if there is some higher power that loves us, does she or he or it or they not help us to end all violence?”
“Why does violence exist at all?”
“Why is there suffering?”
“Why is there cruelty?”
“Why is there a lack of justice?”
“Why are some of those who do such harm living lives of excess, and why are some of those who do such good living lives of hunger and illness and pain?”
“Why is there hunger?”
“Why is there illness?”
“Why is there death?”
“Why are we here?”
“Why should we stay here?”
The “why” questions were the ones I once wanted answers to. Now they were the ones I needed answers to. The “why” questions were the ones that, in my experience, most counselors and therapists did not want to deal with, either because they could not, or because they felt it unimportant. When I told one doctor that I wanted to speak about god, he told me, “God is not your problem.” The conversation was over before it had begun.
But when god is one of the things that is helping to keep you on this planet instead of ending your life, and that thing is now gone, god is a problem. And it is a problem that those in the field of mental health need to be able to discuss without proselytizing and without judgment. And as teachings from different spiritual traditions are some of the things that help those suffering from depression get well, in my opinion, it would behoove those in the field of mental health to have at least a basic knowledge of as many different spiritual traditions as possible. Or at the very least, be able to acknowledge, listen to, discuss, and understand, what a devastating loss the loss of faith is, and how one can move on from that devastation. I had gone from believing in a perfect, loving, all-powerful, supreme being, to an enormous blank space. I didn’t know how to fill that blank space. God had held the weight of a 1000 reasons for me. I no longer had him.
“How do I get better from depression?” How many articles and books and research studies and websites are dedicated to answering this question? But if you cannot answer the “why”: “Why should I try to get better?”, “Why should I hold on through this pain?”, “Why should I not give up?” “Why should I not end it all?” you will not make it to the “how”.
“Because I love you,” is one answer to “why”. But it is not enough. Depression uses everything in its arsenal when it attacks. If you have only one tool with which you can defend yourself, or if you have only a single shield to protect you, and that shield is pierced, or that tool proves weak, you may not win when depression does its worst.
You need a thousand answers to the question “Why should I fight for my life?” so if the first and second and third and fourth answer falter, there is an endless supply that follows. You need not: Because I love you. You need because we love you. You need a list of black holes: not the abyss that depression tries to pull you into, but the gaping spaces that will exist in the future if you leave this life before your time. The gaping spaces that must never exist. You need to keep the devastating image in your mind and in your heart of your family and friends weeping for one they lost too soon. You need to see it, until you can see their tears of grief transformed into tears of joy, because you still walk beside them.
You need blank spaces – not ones that represent loss, but blank spaces where the names of future loved ones will go. You need to hear prayers: not to god, but from future friends praying that their world will get brighter. You need to know that you will be one of their lights, and that they will be some of yours.
You need to see not only the hands that are reaching out to you in the present moment, but also the ones that will need to grasp yours in the future. You need a list of all of the loving words that you have received and given, and you need to know that more are coming. You need to hear the heartbeats that will pound wildly with joy because you are there, and you need to listen to the unstable heartbeats that will find their rhythm again because you are there.
You need to see the tears that will not be shed because you are in the exact right place at the exact right time and are able to offer to a stranger the kind words that they desperately need. You need to understand the lives that those kinds words will save, without you ever knowing it.
You need to feel the soft fur of an animal that comes to you seeking a reminder of how gentle humanity can be.
You need to feel tree limbs reaching out and hear them proclaiming to you: “You dwell in the center of this circle of life, not outside of it where depression and stigma would have you reside.”
You need art and writing and dance and music and sports and whatever else says to you: Keep going. For me, keep going. Because if you are in a place emotionally where someone cannot save you, something can, because there is always a way to be saved.
You need travel to take you to places that you’ve never been, not only so that your heart and mind can expand, but so that they can also comprehend: if I can make it here, I can return to places where I once dwelled, like joy, and I can make it to other places that I’ve not yet known: peace within.
You need connection to a community. To something greater than yourself – not in the heavens, but here on earth.
You need a purpose that is larger than the achievements that too many of us are taught determine our worth and a successful life: a large bank account, a house, degrees hanging on walls, your name in lights, a following of thousands or millions on social media. Kindness is a purpose. There is a story in Judaism that says that god, overwhelmed with sorrow at the harm that human beings were causing each other, decided he would destroy the world: he no longer believed that the good outweighed the bad. Just when he was at the point of annihilating everyone and everything, he saw a woman, hungry and homeless, give the small amount of food she had received a few moments earlier to a hungry dog that had just crossed her path. That seemingly small deed tipped the balance. That deed saved the world. Because in the eyes of tenderness, gentleness, no act of kindness is ever small.
In addition to a purpose, you need to be able to offer to your spirit whatever can soothe it, even if only for a moment, because a moment can be the difference between life and death. Mindfulness, rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, and Sufi poetry in the Islamic mystical tradition, specifically the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, were lights that helped me make it through the darkness. They soothed my spirit.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of mental health and one of the authors of the absolutely outstanding book The Mindful Way Through Depression, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. Except in the very worst moments of depression, mindfulness widened my gaze. Life became greater than the pain inside me. Beauty began to take back its power. The stars above me, the earth below me, a butterfly reminding me of flight, my eyes again seeing in an orange, feeling in its skin, tasting in its juices, the holiness and mystery within everything. Earth held the paradise I sought.
And in Rumi’s and then Hafiz’s poetry, I found the first expression in someone else’s words of what I had long felt in my spirit. Rumi wrote:
“All day I think about it, then
at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and
what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere,
I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.
This drunkenness began
in some other tavern.
When I get back around
to that place, I’ll be
completely sober. Meanwhile,
I’m like a bird from another
continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
but who is it now in my ear
who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes?
What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.”
Rumi wrote, “The eye goes blind when it only wants to see “why”.”
But he also wrote, “I cannot stop asking”.
Like Rumi, I could not stop asking.
Not long after that seed fell into my lap, things in my life began to change – or more accurately, I began to change them. I took my first solo trip abroad, fell in love with Spain, and decided to move there for a year. I started teaching English to immigrants and refugees only as a way to gain experience to get a job abroad, and in the process, fell in love with my students and language teaching. My purpose expanded a hundredfold and so did my happiness. I met people from all over the world, with different beliefs but similar ways of celebrating life’s joys. While living in Spain, where my yearlong sojourn eventually turned into four, I began to travel to other countries and to meet more people with different ways of seeing the world. I asked them my “how” questions. And I asked them my “why” questions.
Their answers helped me find my own. The numerous changes I’d made in my life had of course helped as well. My reasons to fight for my life had multiplied: I had more people in it who I loved and who loved me. I was writing things that I thought would help others. I was teaching. I was traveling. But still when depression said, “You are worthless,” I listened. And when the agony returned, I asked again, “Why should I fight for my life when I just want this pain to end?” I needed a 1001st reason. I needed it for myself and I needed it for the book I was trying to finish writing, because I could not write a tale proclaiming that life was worth living if I did not believe it myself.
That 1001st reason and that 1002nd reason that I found were: You should fight for your life because you can win the fight. And because you deserve to win. You deserve to experience the laughter and joy and love that depression is constantly trying to deny you.
On my long list of reasons to fight, I, myself, had never been one of them. Things could I achieve, help I could give, people I could love: these had been reasons. But my very existence, my being, had not. I learned to find holiness and value in who I was, not only in what I did. I discovered the divinity that I once gazed heavenwards to find dwelling within. I heard my own voice whispering, “Speak of love. Write of love.” I found a gut that guided me to where I wanted, and even more, needed to be. I learned to place my faith in that gut, in my own heart. The day before I wrote my suicide note I was sure I had no more stories to tell, and I was sure that meant I had no future. I was wrong about not having a future, but I was right about having no more stories to tell. I had stories to scream. And I had stories to sing.
Song. This was the spiritual path I had sought. How, despite the screams, do you keep hearing the song of love? How do you keep singing it?
The answer in my book, is spoken by a twig. In real life, it was given to me by one of my grandmothers, Dorothy, Bubbe Dot as I called her. (Bubbe means “grandmother” in Yiddish, her first language.) She was the next to the last person to have a say in what would be said in my book. My parents, brother, friends, students, teachers, the doctors who got me better, the travelers whose paths had crossed with mine, my own beliefs and experiences: all of that wisdom became part of Zerah’s teachers’ wisdom. But it was Bubbe Dot who wrote the Twig’s answer as to how to keep singing. My Bubbe Dot died approximately five years before I started writing my book.
Yet the dead are never truly dead. They dwell within us and beside us, and they answer when we ask.
My Bubbe Dot wanted to be a writer, to tell her own tale, to escape the narrative that so many kept telling her she was supposed to live. And she did, as much as she possibly could, to write a better life for herself even though others were perpetually stealing her pen and tearing her paper to shreds. When she arrived in the United States from Latvia, the citizens of which, at that time, were met with a discrimination that Germans were not, she changed her country of origin. When she was deemed too young to get a job to earn the money that she needed to help support her siblings and parents, she changed her age. When poverty said, you will go hungry, she stretched a dollar so far that rubber itself gaped in awe, and she provided food for her husband, daughter, and mother. When the men who gang raped her declared: You will be destroyed forever. She said, “Oh no I won’t.” And she rose. And she was the funniest person my mother has ever known.
In my book, Zerah asks the Twig, who had been broken savagely by a car: “How can you bear to live in a world without justice?” I could not answer this question. I asked my Bubbe Dot. This is what she said: “I can bear it, because though many things cannot be taken back, power can. I can bear it because seeds and trees and blades of grass and stars exist. I can bear it because, along with the senselessness and savagery, there is the sanity of beauty and love, and if nothing up until now could destroy them, nothing ever will. I can bear it because, though the Car’s heart was filled with hatred, my heart is not.”
For the Twig, she can keep singing because beauty, kindness, and love do outweigh savagery.
How do you keep hearing the song of love when injustice and cruelty are loud? How do you keep singing? How do you find hope?
These were the offshoots of my “why” questions: Why is the world like this? Why is there suffering? Why is there cruelty? These were the questions I thought I needed answered. But it is their inability to be answered that can offer hope.
Zerah asks a Blade of Grass why? The Blade of Grass responds: “Understanding why is the second struggle in life; the inevitable one. For me, it is also a refuge for hope when despair arrives, clutching a long history of the savagery that has been; demanding that I see only the injustice that is; threatening to take over as the ruler of my mind and heart. We do ask why there is darkness, hunger, and pain. And in that asking, there is hope.”
Hope is one of the things that depression most wants to take. Hope is one of the things I most want to give. Because if I can better from depression, anyone can.
I started off speaking about sorrow and a loss of faith. I’d like to end speaking about joy and hope with one last excerpt from my book, and then tell you what filled in that great blank space, the one where the god of my childhood and young adult years used to reside.
For a long time, Zerah only wants to tell his story, even more, to sing his own song. To find a way to proclaim to the world that he matters. But as his journey continues, he comes to listen to the stories that others tell him, just as they listen to him. When he at last finds song within him, it is indeed a melody to match the birds’ music in its beauty, but the lyrics are not what he expected. They do not proclaim his own worth; they proclaim everyone’s:
You are the same as me:
important, useful, special, and loved.
With an open heart you can clearly see.
The grains of sand to our left,
the blades of grass to our right,
the ants that crawl,
the birds in flight,
the trees behind us,
the seeds before us,
the ground below us,
the sky above us,
the animals, humans, and insects all around us.
This truth every single one of us shares:
your life matters,
and so does theirs.
As Zerah journeys on, the sun sets and rises, forever fulfilling his promise to the night: “I will return.” The moon waxes and wanes, speaking of eternity and telling old tales about that which will never change: the existence of love. The there and yesterday, here and now, near and soon, far and later, and beyond and one day hear the same melody; at times quiet, at others loud, but never unsung. A mad dance carries on, with seeds, drops of water, and specks of dust whirling inside the Wind, colliding with one another. The terrified, jagged rocks spinning beside them howl, “There is no choice,” while a chorus led by a grain of sand, a twig, five blades of grass, countless speaks of soil, a valley, an ocean, and a seed named Zerah sing of choice.
And in that choice, there is hope.
As for my choice about what to believe in, I usually call it: The Great I Don’t Know and the Great I Know. The Great I Don’t Know is: I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t know why we live in a world where life is only sustained by death, where even if no human being ever raised their hand to harm another creature, animals and insects would still find another’s death the way to sustain their own lives, and they would still suffer in their dying. I don’t know what created us. If it was an explosion from gases and dust, I don’t know who or what created those gases and that dust. I don’t know how I could say that god saved me, without creating in my spirit something that feels like an affront to sanity and goodness and love because so many others have not been saved. I feel there is something larger than ourselves, kind and loving, but I don’t know what it is. Someone once told me: You don’t need to understand life. You only need to live it.
The Great I Know, in which I wholly believe, is: We are not alone. We need not and should not face any sorrow, any injustice, any pain, without a hand to hold onto. Without hands, plural, to hold onto. I know, that as the poet Hafiz wrote: “No one lives outside the walls of this sacred place – existence.” I know that everyone experiences the same emotions: the same doubts, the same pain, the same need to be valued. I know that everyone, at one time or another in their life, will ask at least one “why” and one “how”. I know that many ask: “Why am I here?” “Why should I stay here?” “How can I make the world a better place?” I know that of every possible answer we can choose, love is among the choices. I know it is the best choice, and I know that we are all capable of choosing it.
Thank you for your time and thank you for listening.
Note: I gave this talk in January 2020. Though much of it still reflects my feelings about mental health, there are other parts that definitely do not. Various experiences since my talk have made me start to think about mental health in a very different way than I long had. I'm currently working on two books about mental health. I'll post more information about them as soon as I can.
Here is an OUTSTANDING website in Spanish that speaks about changing the way mental differences are viewed and treated:
I will share a link for a comparable website in English as soon as possible.