On Sunday I posted a hymn that begged a comment about depression based on what seemed a simplistic response to a complex issue. Last night I attended a conversation about depression at my local liturgical hangout where a group of us began to explore the topic of depression and what it means to be a community that is a welcoming place to those who struggle with depression or other mental illness (hit the preceding ‘conversation’ link for a recap).
Those who have struggled with mental illness of any type will be familiar with many of the attitudes they face in churches. Their natural tendency will be to pull back from involvement, and often those from the church who reach out to them may end up doing more pushing away rather than gathering in. It seems that people often feel a compelling need to encourage or offer advice to those who struggle. It’s easy to forget that presence is so much more powerful than words. Often the words, though genuinely well-intentioned, subtly communicate an agenda to “fix” what is wrong with the person who struggles. Words of advice take on a prescriptive undertone that suggest that the person is not “okay” as they are and must certainly change to fit the norm that is expected. In a way, it’s sort of like the “come-as-you-are” message that is only issued with the assumption that people won’t actually show up as they really are, or if they do, they’ll change to fit the norm pretty quickly. To put it another way, the words intended to encourage can sometimes have the effect of burdening someone with the feeling that they’ve just fallen under yet another person’s agenda. To say it again, presence is often more powerful than words.
In the midst of one of the stories of the evening shared by a guest resource, an encouraging image is that of Jesus calmly asleep in the boat while a storm rages on and the disciples panic. The essence of Shalom is of course that it is not derived from external circumstance, which Jesus demonstrates in his ability to ignore his surroundings and catch some Z’s. While it’s a stretch to suggest that someone facing depression “just relax,” the hope that this could one day be possible is an encouragement in itself. Not that it’s something that must be done today, but that there is a rest in store. These are words of hope. In fact, the term “words” may be at least partly figurative here… because sometimes the most powerful words of hope are instead the simple gift of silent presence.