This is the sermon preached on August 17, 2014 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA. If you would like to hear it, click here.
The sermon this morning was supposed to be about the Christian Book of Revelation, specifically the concept of the "rapture." Our jumping-off point was going to be the best-selling Christian book series of all time -- Tim LaHaye's hexadecagology, "Left Behind." (And yes, I just made up that word. I figured that if three books is a "trilogy," then sixteen books would be a hexadecagology.) Anyway, that's what Mike and I had been planning to explore this morning, but sometimes events make preachers change their plans.
There's an old joke. A man goes to a doctor. He's obviously on the verge of tears. He says, "Doctor ... I am so depressed. I don't see any way I can keep on going. It's all just getting too hard. The world seems so cold and lonely. I don't know what to do."
The doctor says, "I have an idea. The great clown Paggliachi is in town this week. I happen to have a ticket to tonight's show. Take it. Go. He'll cheer you up, I'm sure of it."
The man finally succumbs to his tears. "But doctor," he says, "I am Paggliachi."
This generation's Paggliachi died of suicide this week, and suddenly "left behind" has a whole new connotation. Robin Williams’ gifts touched so many lives so deeply that a lot of us felt his death personally, and felt as if we’d been left behind. And his public death brought up for a lot of us – here in this room as well as around the country and around the world – a whole lot of memories and emotions for those who’ve experienced it in their own lives. And it was only last month that the Rev. Jennifer Slade, who was serving our congregation in Norfolk, died of suicide. (Some of us might remember her since she’d come here as a consultant on the church’s search process.)
But it was Robin Williams who seems to have gotten people everywhere talking about depression, and mental illness, and suicide. In the past week people have shared their opinions, and counter opinions. And I've been somewhat amazed at all the folks who’ve "come out of the closet," if you will; who have taken public their own struggles with depression. (I guess I was somewhat ahead of the curve on that, having done so a while ago.)
Now I want to be clear about something before going on here. It’s true that everyone knows what it's like to be depressed; everyone has been "down" and "blue" at some point in their lives. But not everyone understands depression. Maybe an analogy or two would help:
Everyone knows what it's like to feel run down, but some people actually have the flu -- a true medical condition; an illness. And everyone knows what it's like to have body aches, but some people actually have fibromyalgia -- a true medical condition. Again, a bonafide illness. And everybody knows what it's like to be depressed, but some people actually have depression. These things really are similar in that way.
On the cover of your Order of Service is a cartoon I first saw a couple of years ago with which I and a lot of other people with depression resonate. "Why don't you just get over it?" "If only you'd apply yourself ..." "This lying around obviously isn't helping you any." "You just need some thing to cheer you up." ("Go see that clown, Paggliachi.") We'd never think to say such things to someone with cancer, for instance, or ALS, but virtually everyone with depression has no doubt heard things like this countless times.
And it's not just depression. In our culture we seem to treat most mental illnesses as if they were not, you know, actually illnesses. They are. And they can be just as debilitating and just as much beyond a person's conscious control as any other. Oh, sure, there are treatments that can help. Sometimes. For some people. Yet just as with a whole host of other medical conditions not every treatment works 100% of the time for every patient.
Talk therapy is good. It can be helpful. But for a lot of people it's nowhere near enough. (And there are some therapists out there who themselves really don't understand the illness -- and bad therapy can be worse than no therapy at all.)
And there are medications -- most of which have some pretty awful side effects and none of which is guaranteed to work. Often a variety of drugs have to be tried, and at a variety of different dosages, to find something that works. And often what works only works for a while and then something else needs to be tried.
There's also ECT -- electro-convulsive therapy -- which has had really good outcomes for some people. But not everyone. And it, too, even when it works, isn't so much a cure as a combative. (Think of it as helping someone to go into remission.)
So yes, there are things that we can do -- and that does include things like trying to eat well, and get enough exercise, and enough sleep; and keeping busy; and finding meaningful things to do. (And, yes watching funny movies can be good, too.) But the bottom line is that it's a disease, but a disease that often resists treatment and is rarely ever really cured.
And all of this has been raised in our public consciousness because of Robin William's suicide.
Something else that’s been raised is the effect death by suicide can have on those who are “left behind.” I should say effects, because there’s no one reaction. Survivors of suicide have what’s called “complicated grief.” Studies have shown that survivors seem to struggle more than others with trying to make meaning of the death, asking questions like, “Why did they do it?”. Survivors often try to figure out the motives and frame of mind of the deceased and look back over the days and weeks leading up to the suicide looking for clues, things they might have missed. (That’s already started with Williams.)
This leads pretty directly to one of the other difference with bereavement following a suicide – survivors are more apt to feel guilt, blame, and responsibility for the death than other mourners, asking questions like, “Why couldn’t I prevent it?” Some survivors feel that they may have directly caused the death through some kind of mistreatment or perceived abandonment. More common, though, is to blame themselves for not anticipating and preventing it.
Finally, several studies indicate that survivors experience heightened feelings of rejection or abandonment by the loved one, along with anger toward the deceased – “How could they do this to me?” This is, I think, one of the reasons we’ve heard people saying that the act of suicide is, ultimately, a “selfish” act, an “uncaring” one, and even “cowardly.” I have heard this said by people who have survived a loved one’s suicide, and I have heard it said by people who have seen first-hand the devastation that can follow. There can be a lifetime of devastation.
Yet I want to return to the analogies we were using earlier. Would you ever think to say to someone who died following a battle with cancer that they were “selfish,” or that they were a “coward” for giving up? Taken the easy way out? Of course not. No one would ever say anything like that because cancer is a disease that is recognized as deadly. Not every kind of cancer, of course, and even deadly forms of cancer can occasionally be beaten back, but we are not surprised when a person dies of cancer, or advanced heart disease, or ALS, or, for that matter, Ebola, because we know that these diseases kill.
Well … depression is a disease. And it kills. Not all the time, but that is its natural progression. Don’t believe for a minute otherwise. As was said this week, depression is, “merciless. All it wants is to get you alone in a room and kill you.” As the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention puts it in its guide for those who’ve survived a loved one’s suicide, “Just as people can die of heart disease or cancer, people can die as a consequence of mental illness.”
One of the first Worship Weavers I ever worked with would every so often listen to the ideas I had for a sermon and say, “Well that’s interesting, Erik, but so what?” So here’s the “so what” of this morning:
If you’re depressed – and I don’t just mean “blue,” or “sad,” or “heavy” – if you’re struggling with depression … take it seriously. This is one tough disease we’ve got, and left to its own devices it’s often fatal. Try those treatments I mentioned earlier. Keep trying them until you find something that works. Fight against the urge to isolate, to slap a smile on and keep on keeping on as if nothing’s wrong, to think that the problem is you rather than something in you.
And yes, we can argue about that particular phrasing, but I think you all know what I mean. It’s not generally your fault when you get cancer. It’s not generally your fault when you develop a neurological condition. It’s not generally your fault when you have depression (or any other mental illness). So try not to let shame, or guilt, or fear-of-others’-reactions stop you from getting the help you need. Try. There are a lot of us who know what it’s like. We should talk to each other.
To those of you who know, live with, love someone who is battling depression – and this, too, goes for just about any mental illness, or any chronic physical illness, for that matter – I’m hoping that you’re hearing just how hard this is. And by that I don’t mean just for the person who has depression, but for you. It is hard to watch someone you love, someone you care about, struggling with a serious illness. And the natural human inclination is to want to try to do something to help. It’s important to know that sometimes you can’t help. Sometimes you can, and you may be helping more than you could ever imagine just by being present. But it’s unlikely that there’s anything you can do that will make everything okay. If other people’s love, respect, admiration, desire-to-help could cure anyone, then Robin Williams would be alive today. And last week Mary Rose talked about how the Rev. Jennifer Slade was really beloved by the congregation in Norfolk where she was serving. As with any chronic, severe, life-threatening disease, there’s only so much anyone can do.
And that’s hard. So you need to make sure you take care of yourself. You need to make sure that you have support. Because you need to know that it’s not about anything you did or didn’t do. It’s not about any clues that you missed or saw but misunderstood (or ignored). You and that person you love are staring down a disease – an insidious and too-often fatal disease.
There’s a third group I want to speak to this morning, those who’ve survived the struggle with depression when your friend, parent, sibling, child, co-worker, whoever didn’t. I hope you’ve been hearing everything I’ve said this morning. I conclude ever memorial service I lead with words from a Mary Oliver poem: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing that your own life depends upon it; and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” That’s true no matter how your loved one died.
There is one thing more I want to say. I know that not everyone will agree with me, but I believe it to be true.
This week I watched again the movie WhatDreams May Come. It’s a Robin Williams movie. A beautiful film – both visually and in its message, too. If you’ve seen it, if you remember it, then you’ll know what I mean, but if you haven’t let me just warn you that it’s a little rough to watch right now. In part because it’s about depression, death, grief, even suicide. Ultimately it’s hopeful, but it’s a bit of a rough slog getting there.
Early on, though, there’s a scene I want to call to your attention. Our attention. A character has died and we see this person attending their own funeral. Walking down the aisle to the front of the church. Kneeling beside a loved one in the first pew. And this person tries to reach out across that divide that separate life from death to say three little words. Just three little words – “I still exist.” I still exist. A kind of angelic companion asks, “Are you losing your fear?” “Fear?” “That you disappeared? You didn’t, you only died.” They didn’t disappear, they only died.
This morning has been what one of my colleagues calls, “a rough one.” I mean, I assume it has for some of you. I know it has for me. But life is oftentimes “rough,” and that roughness takes so many forms. In the end I believe that there’s really only one thing we can offer one another. It may not be able to do everything, but to the bottom of my soul I believe it’s enough. That thing is love. Love someone today, my friends. And know that you, too, are loved.