I recently made a fairly public confession about my personal life: I struggle with depression. And while “confession” is definitely not the right word to use for this scenario, I maintain that it feels right simply because I feel guilty for being depressed. I feel called to inspire hope and joy in my community, and as a person in leadership I feel called to nurture those around me. It can be difficult to imagine how depression could function in such a calling. But based on the reactions and private messages I received following my public announcement, I am now willing to bet that there is an extraordinarily large population of ministers, educators, and leaders in religious communities who also secretly battle depression.
Many ministers messaged me privately because of the very sense of guilt I just mentioned. Leaders in religious communities feel overwhelming pressure to be constant sources of hope and light in our communities. If we want to boil it down to our true belief, we see ourselves as reflectors of light and hope, not the actual origins of light and hope. But when depression encroaches, our reflectors become hazy; reflecting hope and light becomes particularly tenuous because we suddenly have to perform so much damage control on the home front in order to continue showing love and support to those around us.
I’ve chosen to write about this topic this week because we are marching into the Lenten season. If you grew up in a church like mine, then you might not have observed Lent. Growing up, I affiliated Lent with the time of year when all my Christian friends of other denominations had to stop eating chocolate, or stop playing video games. I considered myself pretty lucky as a kid to not have to give anything up!
But this year I find myself in a different position. I’ve now observed Lent for the past seven years, and this year I feel myself craving it. Lent is traditionally a time for Christians to align themselves with Jesus’s 40-day journey into the wilderness. For this reason, Christians relinquish objects or habits of fixation, and surrender to a wilderness of sorts. Of course, this wilderness “wandering” is a bit more structured than the other wildernesses of life; Lent lasts only for a season, and the person decides what he or she will give up for the season. Yet the other wildernesses of life tend to surprise us! And we can rarely predict what will be taken from us in those seasons.
I have been in an unexpected wilderness for the past four weeks, as my depression has stepped out of line for no apparent reason, and is upsetting my routine. Thankfully, this is not my first rodeo. I know that when depression gets unruly, it’s time for me to dive deeper into spiritual disciplines, to call up my counselor and schedule a session, to do something I love that will soothe my heart and mind, and to double down on healthy practices. I’ve managed to make the battle look pretty normal by this point. As one friend said, I’m like a duck on a pond—furiously and franticly paddling my feet underwater, while above water I glide smoothly from place to place. But the guilt remains. The exhaustion is overwhelming. And the feelings of loneliness and disorientation are a bit consuming.
I kept this hidden battle to myself and a few trusted persons over the past several years, unwilling to speak publicly about it because our society tends to affiliate depression with weakness. Even worse, many Christians have been taught to view depression as a result of deficient faith or a weak prayer life! Of course, these perspectives on depression are not only wrong, they are damaging.
Choosing to keep my depression under wraps was a choice I made in order to protect myself from the judgment of others. However, last semester I read a book that changed my perspective called, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. This book is a collection of private correspondence from Mother Teresa to some of her trusted spiritual guides. Her letters reveal her own dark night of the soul—very lengthy seasons of sorrow, self-doubt, loneliness, and guilt. We venerate her as an exemplary leader who modeled selflessness and devotion in ways that we can barely begin to emulate! And yet, she knew many deep and dark wildernesses.
From an academic standpoint, scholars have conducted countless research projects investigating the apparent correlation between leadership and depression. The connection exists, although the cause can be difficult to map. In a season where I wandered the wilderness alone, questioning my capacity to lead, I found in Mother Teresa’s letters an unexpected solidarity from sister to sister, from leader to leader, from Christ-follower to Christ-follower. I was thankful for the life-preserver of honesty that was cast my way just at the right moment. I could continue to lead and serve and love; my depression does not disqualify me, so long as I work to stay healthy so that I may maintain healthy relationships in my community.
So now, I extend my truth to you in solidarity, and indeed to all of my sisters and brothers in the faith who must travel through all sorts of wilderness. This is why Lent comforts me this year. I am reminded in this season that Christ navigated the wilderness, not as some incidental setback to his plans, but rather as a season of formation and equipping. The wilderness does not go in vain; it serves a purpose. Perhaps the purpose of my wilderness is simply to join you in yours, and say that I too struggle, and that we will get through this. The wilderness is not forever, and we will emerge from the wilderness better equipped for whatever God calls us to.