THE CROW’S MESSAGE: The Differences Between Depression and Despair

Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty…” David Whyte

Several years ago, I gave a brief lecture to about a hundred men at a conference in Minnesota on the differences between depression and despair. During the talk a tall man standing in the back of the room began weeping. At the end of my forty-five-minute presentation I asked the man if he was okay and would he mind sharing what brought him to tears?

“For twenty-five years I have been telling my wife she had to do something, get some help or something for her depression. We fought over this a hundred times and every time she would say something like, ‘You just don’t understand. It’s not depression. It’s something else, and I would let it go for a while and then we’d get into it again. I have to go home and apologize to her and try to make amends because now after your talk I know what she was trying to tell me but just didn’t have the words. Now I know it is, and always has been, despair.”

A few years later after my divorce I went to my cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to deal with my own adult despair, not my childhood, adolescence or young adult depression. It was in that house that I read everything I could on despair. When I wasn’t reading or weeping, I stared for hours out windows and into some distant pastures, past ponds and pine trees and slowly the distinction between depression and despair came into view. Even though many educated and thoughtful people and professionals use these two words interchangeably I came to fully realize they were as different as night and day.

Depression is a biological and emotional quest for light, relief, and balance. Depression gives nothing and takes everything—sleep, food, relationships, and much more.

Despair on the other hand seeks darkness, like that of St. John of the Cross in his beautiful work, “Dark Night of the Soul,” or in the case of the Babylonian myth of the great flood. In this version of Noah and the flood the hero of the story wants desperately to know if there is any dry land to be found so he sends out birds—a sparrow, dove and they don’t return with any news at all, but the last bird he sends out is the crow and it returns with mud on its feet. When we’re in despair we are searching for the mud in our minds, art, hearts, careers, parenting, and partnering hoping to find meaning, usefulness and authenticity.

Depression does nothing to remove the masks we’ve made and worn for a lifetime. Despair’s desire is to take the ego, the personas and all the false selves and drown them under 40 days and 40 nights, or in my case, over 40 years, and watch them sink to the bottom of the flooded false self. Despair is desperate to find the truth of our existence here on earth.

Here is a little more light about the differences between depression and despair. First depression is a situational, circumstantial, or biochemical imbalance or a combination of all three. Change the situation, the circumstances for the better the depression should diminish, dissipate or disappear. If it is due to biochemical difficulties, then change the biochemistry and the depression should lessen. What we know is that only two out of ten people who are diagnosed with depression get little or no relief from pharmacology or psychotherapy or both. What is the other eight or millions really suffering from? Could it be despair that pills, nor PhD’s, or psychiatrists cannot cure?

Despair is rooted in an existential loneliness that almost everyone is afraid to admit for fear they have done something wrong. Despair is a house we eventually have to sit in until we are ready to reassess our deepest self and our interior world. It is in this house where we must unabashedly and without embarrassment or shame strip away all our false selves. Despair is the first stage of freedom and an entrance into a more genuine and real existence. Despair is the bridge that takes us from “here to there.” Despair is that lonesome valley that we all fear but must be walked through. It is the dissonance or the distance between what we thought we would do with this life and what we have actually done, who we thought we’d be and who we became.

Despair is caused by self-betrayal and giving up on our deepest desires; it is the result of the risks not taken, the love not received or spoken. As John Burnside said, “Nothing I know matters more than what never happened.” Despair is the continual frustration and even anger over the feeling that some unspoken or spoken contract or agreement with our self, each other or the divine has been broken or dishonored. It is very different and from depression and must be treated differently.

In the words of poet Mary Oliver, “…tell me about your despair, and I’ll tell you about mine.” Or as David Whyte says, “…I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned, if you can know despair or see it in others.”

So, I ask you to think a little differently now and consider, is it depression or despair that you wrestle with?

 “Life begins on the other side of despair.” Jean Paul Sartre

 

“Caring for” Someone or “Care taking” Someone Makes a Big Difference

“…teach us to care, and not to care and to be still…” ~ T.S. Eliot

Last week I was honored to be invited to speak to about a hundred folks at a Co-dependents Anonymous (CoAD) meeting in California. I told them, among other things, that one way I continue to work with my own and my clients’ tendencies to put other people’s needs and feelings before my own to my detriment and exhaustion is to keep making the distinction between “caring for” someone and “care taking” someone.

While I explain the differences more fully in my new book, The Flying Boy Letters: Getting Back to Y’all 30 Years Later, I want to give a shorter version here —” Care taking” is usually done out of a sense of obligation or duty. We feel like we don’t have a choice, and anytime there is the feeling of choice-less-ness, there is likely going to be some regression involved where we are hurled back to childhood when we didn’t have a lot of choices.

“Caring for” is most often going to leave us feeling grateful that we can be of help and support while “care-taking” is tiring, exhausting and, more often than not, creates some resentment and even anger because we would rather be doing something else with our limited time and energy. “Caring for” leaves us energized, fulfilled, and even joyful. We feel like compassionate adults who consciously make a decision to comfort, nurture, help or be there for someone in some kind of way.

Most of us were raised with the terrible notion that because someone is biologically related to us that we must or are supposed to “take care” of them even if it is draining us and keeping us from living our lives. Also, interestingly, the one receiving the “care-taking” can feel “one down,” infantilized, patronized, and less than the one providing “care taking” and often are guilty of feeling little or no gratitude.

“Caring for” comes out of compassion and love, and “care taking” comes out of guilt – trying to be a “people pleaser.”

 Novelist Eleanor Brown wrote, “Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”

 

Surrendering to What Is: Staying Open to What Will Be

“You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Yes, I know. You read the word; heard the word “surrender” and you think, not me, I’m not giving up. I won’t accept defeat.

I’ve been thinking about this word a lot lately having just sold my cabin in the Appalachian Mountains that I’ve had for 30 years and recovering from a hip replacement – letting the old hip go and getting a knee replacement next month. Lots of letting go.

But even earlier I remember the Christian hymn being sung in the old wooden Baptist church we attended on Sand Mountain, Alabama – the one I was baptized in at nine.

The old folks would sing:

“…I surrender all,

I surrender all.

All to thee, my blessed Savior,

I surrender all…”

I didn’t really know what they meant. I didn’t have a whole lot to surrender, give up, or give into – a Daisy BB gun shooting sparrows off the wire and the Johnny Cash album I got the same year for Christmas.

However, at the tender young age of 68, I find myself more than ever exploring this whole surrendering process, and I have more than a few clients trying to find ways to circumvent surrendering to what is in their lives.

I want to be clear; I’m not talking about surrendering to religion or God or Jesus or a Guru. I’m talking about letting go. Grieving what was, what will never be again, and feeling freer than ever to proceed into the present. I don’t know anything much, but I do know the word religion means “to bind.” So many of us are bound to our past, and Lord knows there’s days I wish I had my cabin back, my energy of my 30s and 40s, and a lover or two long gone and the money I casually and foolishly let fly.

Most mornings now I wake up, have my morning coffee meditation, and begin again to surrender to the way things are. I take a few deep breaths, gently relaxing and proceeding to keep learning and feeling trust that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I get up, work on a book that few people will probably read, counsel a few folks though fewer and fewer, check my mail, walk my dogs, and at night dream dreams of people, projects, and possibilities of days gone by.

One of my dear clients in her 60s said in session yesterday, “But I want back the fire in my belly that I used to have for my work. I want it to blaze again.”

I could only empathize, but said, “that 40-year old fire may be gone but I see much light in you!”

“I thought my fire was out,

I stirred the ashes

I burnt my fingers.” ~ Antonio Machado

Interruption Rage: The Kind of Rage No One Has Talked About

People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing. ~ Will Rogers

See the tiny toddler going to explore the dog in the neighbor’s yard? Now listen to what she might have heard – best case – “Get back here young lady.” Worse case from the very anxious or perhaps exhausted parent, “Don’t you ever leave this yard, or you’ll get a spanking.” I can’t believe spanking still happens, but that’s another blog post.

Toddlers to teens to adults, trying to go forward, trying to get somewhere, testing limits and boundaries all thwarted in time and space by well-intentioned adults. Even the police officer who pulls us over for speeding to our destination is good intentioned most of the time.

I call it “Interruption Rage.” It takes many forms: you’re in a hurry and the person in front of you at the grocery store says, “I forgot something.” Interruption. You’re dancing with your sweetheart and someone cuts in – interruption. You’re finally going on the much-needed vacation and the flight has been cancelled or the ship is held at port for a germy interruption. Or perhaps you’re speaking at a lecture, having a heart-to-heart, come to Jesus talk, and the would-be listener interrupts – you explode – “Stop interrupting me, damn-it!” or you just shut down.

These small and large interruptions are stored in our bodies and fester there sometimes for decades.

We as children or teens could not safely express the momentary anger at those who guard the gates, monitor the hallways, shuts the doors on our momentum going forward literally or figuratively. So, we return to our cribs crying or we fantasize our cars have machine guns mounted on the hood so we can use them to get the guy who cuts us off on the interstate. Thus, the mild-mannered, never-in-trouble accountant heading home at 5:15 on a Friday after staring non-stop at columns of numbers gets cut off one too many times. They floor their Prius, drive like crazy, cutting others off to catch up to the surrogate, over-anxious parent, teacher, partner. The disproportionally pissed-off accountant best case starts cursing and shooting the bird. Worse case gets the offender to pull over and one or both go to jail, and we call this Road Rage – my new term – Interruption Rage!

How about you? Been interrupted recently?

He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage … and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” ~ Herman Melville

 

The Flying Boy Letters: Getting Back to Y’all 30 Years Later

This is a most unique and comprehensive book, which is a culmination of thousands of hours of teaching, counseling, key noting clinical conferences on relationships, men’s issues, recovery, anger, regression, grief, and passivity. This small book is the “best of” 30 years.

I would be honored and appreciative of any support you may provide. Please buy it if you can, read it and post a review on Amazon; or recommend it to your friends, family, clients, and colleagues.

If you have a podcast, radio, or television program, I would like to do any and all interviews.

Thanks so much for over 3 decades of support!

JOHN

Order The Flying Boy Letters

Schedule sessions, or to bring JOHN  to your treatment facility, community group or place of worship or an interview, please contact me.

 

The Language of Animals

Animals are nothing but the forms of our virtues and vices, wandering before our eyes, the visible phantoms of our souls.

~ Victor Hugo

Men used to listen attentively to the messages of the animals; our lives, our souls, depended on it. The appearances and absences of certain animals at certain times were full of meaning and offered essential guidance. The hawk, raven, wolf, and bear all sent messages to men and spoke in a language we understood.

A part of us still understands that language. The animals still speak, showing up at interesting times, in “coincidental” ways. A husky a cousin to the wolf, might walk up to us just when we are in need of courage. A cat visits when we require patience. When peace is most precious, a dove flies overhead. The animals are speaking.

Today I’ll observe the animals to absorb their wisdom.

Excerpt from A Quiet Strength: Meditations On the Masculine Soul

Conflict

“In fact, the conflict itself is creative and perhaps should never be healed.”

~ Thomas Moore

Very often men seek to remove conflict. At times that’s the best move to make. But hoping for an end to all conflict is unrealistic. Conflict is natural; it’s part of living in community rather than isolation.

When conflict arises, I can take it as a great opportunity to practice my skills. I can explore, appreciate, and learn from each circumstance. If someone flirts with my wife, I get to practice handling my jealousy and anger. In a disagreement with a coworker, I can practice seeking a task in a new way. If my teenage son wants to dye his hair purple and put a ring in his nose, I get to practice tolerance and compromise.

No matter how disagreeable on the outside, every conflict has a delicious sweet at its core – a great teaching hidden in its middle. To pray that a conflict will disappear before it has done its work on me will only lead me further into darkness. To meet conflicts with an enthusiastic good nature, to work at each one until I discover its hidden teaching, is to live wisely and fully.

Today I accept the presence of conflict in my life. I have the choice to embrace conflicts, to learn from them, to use them to grow.

Excerpt from A Quiet Strength: Meditations on the Masculine Soul

The Perfection of Imperfection

Baseball … teaches that errors are part of the game.

~ Ernest Kurtz

Some of us, long ago, learned that anything less than perfection was failure. We learned this in our families, at school, from coaches. Some of us had “four A, one B” parents: we handed them our report card, they looked silently at the row of A’s, then saw the B and said, “What is this doing here?” Such parents pass on to their children the intolerance they got from their own parents. As adults they teach their children to be ashamed of anything less than perfection, even if their children are doing very well.

If our worst fear is to make an error, we can’t make any home runs either. When we feel our worth depends on perfection, we stop taking risks. But if we can’t risk failure, our days will be colorless and empty.

Inevitably our life’s journey will include stumbling over rough terrain. At these rough spots we discover our inner strength. Besides, without out “mistakes,” we’d be somewhere else – we’d be someone else! Today, we can try to accept all we’ve lived through. We can keep going, accepting the outcome, whether it matches our fantasies or not.

Today I’ll look back on my “mistakes” with new eyes. All that I’ve done in my life has helped me to arrive where I am right now.

Excerpt from A Quiet Strength: Meditations on the Masculine Soul

Seeking the Truth

If you tell the truth, you have infinite power supporting you; but if not, you have infinite power against you.

~ Charles Gordon

I’m a man who has told lies and lived lies and listened to the lies of other men. Lying is what I was taught to do. I was told that if it hurts, you put on a smile; if it cuts or bruises you, be a “big boy” and act like you’re okay. And if you fail – fake success.

Now I want and need to tell the truth about my hurt, my pain, and my disappointments, and I need contact with other men who are learning to do the same. I also want to learn the truth about a man’s special capacity for intimacy, joy, and serenity.

Nothing less than the truth will suffice at this point in my recovery. But I also don’t want to turn the truth into a battering ram. I may feel shame and regret for past untruths, but none of these mistakes is who I really am. Not one of them diminishes me as a man. If I begin to shame myself, I can raise a shield, saying, “Stop.” If others use the truth brutally against me, I can leave.

Today I honor, search for, and embrace the truth about myself and my masculinity.

Excerpt from A Quiet Strength: Meditations on the Masculine Soul

Self-Esteem

“A man falling in his own esteem needs more ground under his feet; to stand again he may need the whole world for a foothold.”

~ Wendell Berry

So many men try to live up to the expectations and visions of others (as our fathers did) by acquiring land and things, even by “collecting” people! We must finally come to the conclusion that we, in ourselves, are enough. All those who ever implied or said outright that we weren’t good enough were wrong. Until that moments of awareness arrives, we will continue to work and worry ourselves to an early grave.

Once we recognize ourselves at our full value as the priceless, irreplaceable men we are, we can begin to let go of our choke-hold on a world that can never confirm our manhood, our inner worth.

Today I’ll let go of one thing I’ve been using to measure my manhood, to validate my existence, to confirm my right to be here.

Excerpt from A Quiet Strength: Meditations on the Masculine Soul