When the Center Slides Sideways
David R. Weiss – June 15, 2021
NOTE: This post, which discusses my “complicated relationship” with myself (depression), isn’t about seeking pity, much less attention. I rarely go “here” in my public writing. Of course, there’s shame, embarrassment, and self-consciousness at play. But also, as a writer, I harbor a deep desire to be known for the inspiring, piercing, provocative words I write rather than the cacophony of voices (a virtual chorus of inward critique and cosmic nihilism) and bewildering feelings (and sometimes the sheer absence of feelings) inside me.
ALSO: Although this should go without saying, I will say it—just in case. Expressions of solidarity, appreciation, insight, are welcome. Unsolicited advice is not. This is my life. It has been my life at least since adolescence. Over the years I’ve worked with several therapists, and I’m actively working with one right now. I’m processing some of my stuff out loud today, not so you can tell me what you’d suggest, but so you can better understand the ebb and flow (some days the pathos and chaos) of my inner life. If that’s TMI—“too much (personal) information”—for your tastes, just wait for my next post. I don’t come here often, but sometimes the better part of valor is actually less discretion. That’s my choice today.
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There’s a challenge of living with chronic melancholy (mild/moderate depression) on top of being both intellectually thoughtful and temperamentally introverted. It’s easy for others to mistake my more or less level demeanor as inner calm, when it’s just as likely to be existential weariness. The quietly desperate attempt to find bearings that mark meaning and purpose in a world that seem determined to undercut both of them regularly. And, for me, acutely.
This spring my center unexpectedly slid sideways and that weariness ate me alive. Somedays for breakfast, lunch, and supper. And not because of any one thing. Sometimes life is hard for me even on days when I channel joy. That’s perhaps one of the most damning details about depression: joy takes the edge off it—and thanks to family, friends, and trees—I am fairly pampered with joy. But it is no cure for it. And the melancholy that lives in the marrow of my bones never takes a vacation.
On the other hand like noxious algae in a lake, it does occasionally … bloom. And when that happens—holy shit—all the oxygen in the lake gets gobbled up and I’m left gasping for air … that simply isn’t there. In the very place I like to call home. ME.
There is no clear cause or specific reason to point to. Whence this sadness? Were I more dramatic, I might make a wild sweeping gesture and say, “All of this! All. Of. This.” As a poet-prophet-essayist, my bread and butter is empathy plus vulnerability plus holding myself open to unexpected insights that are as likely to rock my world as yours.
That set of peculiar characteristics forms the cauldron in which my words bubble away. But when the center slides sideways I can lose my balance and suddenly—oops—find myself dunked into that cauldron, too. For no good reason at all (it’s not like anyone—or anything—pushed me) I’ve spent most of the spring with my psyche simmering alongside all the other muck in my own cauldron pitched over the fire that burns in my soul. I’ve been so busy treading “water” inside a fairly toxic brew of social perceptions that I can barely fashion a coherent sentence before I feel myself being pulled under again. Which is why my blogging has been so sparse of late.
Make no mistake, this sludge is (potentially) as creative as it is toxic … and (potentially) as lethal as it is lively. So I do still turn out some sparkling pieces: a couple hymn texts and essays come to mind. The hymns in particular garnered me some fine praise. And they are textual gems. Glistening, powerful. But alongside those accolades comes a measure of loneliness.
Full disclosure: I exist, day-to-day, far closer to the edge of despair and madness than most everyone (except maybe Margaret) realizes. It’s fair to liken this past spring to me doing a free solo climb on the sheer face of a mountainside cliff. I don’t exactly mind. I mean, I always hoped for a sense of vocation that would bring me fully alive. I suppose it’s just quibbling to add with some irony that at times it nearly kills me as well. Whatever.
But please be cautious—generous but cautious—in your praise. Because you see me—when I post the final product on my blog or on Facebook—crest the cliff edge and hoist myself and my words onto the top, and it looks (and I even feel) celebratory. But while no one was watching this past spring I nearly lost my grip on that sheer face of the cliff umpteen times. Sometimes amid the writing itself; more often amid the inner writhing that made the writing so difficult.
Nonetheless, I truly believe I’m called to this restless existence. I might even say sadness is my superpower. Or at least my capacity to fashion something precious out of the melancholy that marks my mood more days than not. This is not wallowing. You and I both need the gifts I bear. And while there are things I can do—and do better—to maintain my balance (and avoid taking foolish risks on that sheer face of the cliff) there is no path for me that is not perilous.
I am (simply) doing my work in the world. And the conditions in which I do that work are intrinsically dangerous. But so are the conditions in which one fights wildfires, and no one says those who fight them are foolishly tempting death. They’re taking risks to honor life. Those who know me, know that I am no thrill seeker. Far more kin to Bilbo Baggins than Aragorn, if I’m laboring in deep peril, it’s because I don’t believe there are other conditions in which this most important labor (call it truth-telling for church and society) can be done well.
Still, this spring (really for the first time in three years—and for no real good reason at all) my center slipped sideways, I lost my balance, and I found myself gasping for air. I’m breathing a little easier these days, although I still haven’t quite re-centered myself.
I find life harder that you might guess. Even on good days. And especially on bad ones. But when I write, that’s when the magic happens—that’s when I feel most fully alive. If I make it look easy, that’s only because writing settles my soul. Rest assured, the Wind was howling and the Water was pelting me before the words came.
No complaints. It’s just time to be known on my own terms.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.