The poet Dennis Hall describes attending a graveside service with a group of friends and his wife, who was at that time dying of cancer. In the brief poem titled “Folding Chair” — because he brought a chair for her on what turned out to be her last public outing — he noted that neighbors and cousins nodded, smiled and looked away when they saw her.
The poem’s last line: “They knew who would gather them next.”
Leukemia was not the only sickness Hall’s wife, Jane Kenyon, had to fight. The cancer killed her 15 months after it was diagnosed, but her struggle with depression was lifelong. A poet herself, she described happiness as a prodigal “who comes back to the dust at your feet/having squandered a fortune away.”
“And,” she asked, “how can you not forgive?”
But happiness is a visitor who does not stay.
In the poem “Having It Out With Melancholy,” she includes a “suggestion” from a friend: “You wouldn’t be so depressed/if you really believed in God.”
Yet Kenyon was a devout Christian. Although she was not a Catholic, the critic John H. Timmerman notes that she once called the Virgin Mary her muse and that her spiritual beliefs were “the essence of her personhood.”
When the television journalist Bill Moyers asked her how she managed suicidal despair, she answered:
“My belief in God, such as it is, especially the idea that a believer is part of the body of Christ, has kept me from harming myself. When I really didn’t want to be conscious, didn’t want to be aware, was in so much pain that I didn’t want to be awake or aware, I’ve thought to myself, ‘If you injure yourself you’re injuring the body of Christ, and Christ has been injured enough.’”
In the poem “With the Dog at Sunrise,” she summed up the life of many believers with two simple lines: “Searching for God is the first thing and the last,/but in between such trouble, and such pain.”
Religious faith doesn’t protect someone from suffering depression, or any other mental health struggle, any more than it protects a believer from cancer. Neither does anything else. “I’m no more responsible for my melancholy than I am for having brown eyes,” Kenyon told Moyers.
The novelist William Styron helped the general public understand depression as a genuine illness by recounting his own mental health struggles in his 1989 book “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.” It made many fellow sufferers feel less alone and told them their condition, like his, could be treated and even overcome.
He stressed the importance of medical help and also acknowledged the importance of emotional support. He argued that victims need to be told repeatedly not to give up hope. It’s a message, he wrote, that is not easily sent or graciously received: “A tough job, this: calling ‘Chin up!’ from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult. …”
Alexandra Styron, his daughter, was forthright about how her father’s depression affected her childhood in a 2007 New Yorker essay, testifying to the deep bond she shared with her father but noting that he “inspired fear and loathing in his children more often than it is comfortable to admit.”
Her mother’s devotion, she wrote, was the main reason that her father — a writer who collected a Pulitzer and a National Book Award and saw his novel “Sophie’s Choice” turned into a critically acclaimed movie — survived at all.
Those in the grip of depression, Styron wrote, are in “a state of unrealistic hopelessness, torn by exaggerated ills and fatal threats that bear no resemblance to reality.”
Against such darkness, what could be more desirable — and perhaps even more realistic — than the image in Kenyon’s poem “Notes From the Other Side”?
God as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
Carl Peters is the Catholic Star Herald managing editor.