Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 29, 2016

Parker Palmer (and me), on the lessons of depression


  1. Palmer on Power vs. Powerlessness (short YouTube)
  2. Educator and Quaker spirituality author Parker Palmer, on the “small fruits” of his period of clinical depression:

I could not think my way out of this. My intellect was useless. My ego was shattered. My emotions were dead. Depression is not “feeling sad”. Depression is being unable to feel anything. And my will was so miniscule as to hardly be noticeable. But way back in the thickets of my life, I could feel a little strirring like a wild animal, that little spark that made me think ‘I can make it one more day. I won’t kill myself today.’ …What came to me as I emerged from my depression is that The Soul is like a wild animal in two respects: 1) It’s very resourceful, it’s very savvy.It’s very sinewy and strong. It knows how to survive in places where there is very little to eat. and 2) But at the same time, like a wild animal, it’s very shy. And we know that if we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is go crashing into the woods shouting for it to come out. And yet a lot of our institutional life is like ‘Put it on the table, folks. Cross-examine it. Share or die.’ So the safe space is where the wild animal can put in an appearance.”

I have never quite had clinical depression of the crippling variety that Parker discusses above. But it has clearly hampered me my entire adult life, both with and without drugs or therapies. 

There is no magic bullet. But community, and family, and people (often my community of faith) who listen, further creating that safe space, … those do more than any doctor or self-justifying, ego-based sense of purpose ever could. People, often equally broken in their own way, hopefully but not necessarily empowered by God to grant mercy and consistent love– they are the way forward. 

I don’t do it alone because I don’t think we are meant to, despite my shy, slow to heal soul. We’re not built to go it alone. But on the other hand, I don’t automatically mistake the cacophony or “conventional wisdom” of my social situation for “community”. Community is something quieter and more delicate. We don’t make it… We make room for it. And occasionally we facilitate or recognize it when it’s there.


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