Monday, March 18, 2019

Writing Brings Contentment in Time of Despair

Most people recognize that depression has become the overwhelming “malady” of our times. Suicides are on the rise; opioid addiction poses an epidemic. What is the root cause?

Notably, the idea that nothing we have is ever enough or ever good enough. This mindset sets us up, not just for depression, despair and a pervasive sense of malcontent, but estrangement with others. We are always comparing ourselves to others, or they to us, in what amounts to a combat of competition. This creates a depressive mood in everyone.

I remember when I joined the staff of the Pulitzer Prize winning Philadelphia Inquirer. I had gotten there because my work as a reporter had been noticed. But once I got there, everyone’s work had been noticed and now, not just one of us, but all of us, were good reporters and writers. 

No matter how much you achieve, you are an underachiever. There is always going to be someone smarter than you, who writes better than you. This provides the recipe for depression and despair.

These aren’t new ideas, in fact, they’re not even my ideas, but the subject of recent talks by theologians and college professors during this Lenten season that I’ve had the privilege of hearing during what they call “this time of polarization.” Churches are focused on this moment in history—this political strife. A good thing, too, because it sets up the perfect segueway to talking about God who leads us to reconciliation and a place of unconditional love.

What does this have to do with writing? Writing allows us to forge intimacy with others—to forge relationships. By sharing our stories and the meaning of those stories, through one life, or many lives, writing puts us in service to others. A universal picture emerges over time. We experience much the same things. Our stories form a collective. We are all in this together.

This is why I’m staring a women’s writing circle at my church this week. Relationships, intimacy, sharing in the collective journey, offer antidotes to despair.


Poets have written about despair...“winters of despair” yet with the hope of spring. In this lovely poem "Snowdrops" by Louise Gluck, which I recently used in a teaching seminar, she writes:

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.
"Open again in the cold light of earliest spring.” That line, what we call in the circle, a "read back line," resonates with me. It offers such hope.


So, what is the answer to depression—to this pervasive lack of “joy” plaguing our times? (Joy is almost always intangible, at least in my mind. Happiness is probably the better word.) Contentment. Contentment with the ordinary life.

I have enough. My house is enough. My car is enough, I don’t need more possessions, more accolades, I have many wonderful reviews on Amazon and more would be nice, but I don’t need them. I don’t care if I’m traditionally published or self-published. The great thing—I have written a book/books out there for others to read.

I fell in love once and he with me. This is enough for one lifetime. I am content. I long for what I have, to quote Dante.

Writing brings us “home” to the ordinary life, to something in the here and now, not lofty or detached, but intimate and meaningful.

Home is where the windows and the doors are open. Windows let us look outside. Doors let us get out. Doors let us reenter. We have moved on and come back to the relationships, the shared vision that offers contentment. Home is not twenty-five or thirty years ago in some nostalgic mindset that has no bearing on reality. We can go back to that street where we grew up, see children playing and say to ourselves, “This is not home. I don’t feel at home in this place anymore.”

Write about that special moment of coming home. Like the Himalayan blue poppy, its bloom is beautiful, but fleeting.

As poet Mary Oliver concludes in "Such Singing in the Wild Branches":
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.


Marian Beaman said...

Thank you for this fine reflection. This time of year (not yet spring) many deal with SAD, seasonal affective disorder, which probably contributes to a feeling of despair.

I admire your work with writers and thank the day I learned how to blog and connect with other writers, including you. Best wishes as you inaugurate a new group at your church. Brava!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Thank you, Marian. It's so inspirational to connect with others through our stories, especially in this time in history where despair and polarization are so prevalent. Stories bring us "home" to a group of kindred spirits. I, too, am thankful that I have met many fine writers like you along this journey.

Marilyn said...

Susan, This idea of contentment, of knowing when you have enough, is powerful. Humans always seem want more, especially now that social media brings us awareness of everything we don’t have. Writing is a way to bring us back to the present, to look at what is important and to share that with others.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Well said, Marilyn. Social media is often a contributing factor to malcontent. Stories and sharing stories return the "favor" in so many ways.