The recent election led me to reflect on the odd reality that my Christian small group, my most intimate friend group, is full of people on the other side of the political fence from me. How can this be?
Two reasons, I think. One is the reality that all of us know God is bigger than the USA, Jesus is more important than any other affiliation, and our unifying task is to follow Jesus and serve people his way. We rally around one big story, and one guidebook we’ve come to believe is ultimately reliable. The guidebook sees love at the center of everything, so there’s that.
The second reason is that there’s a magic that happens when people commit to meeting regularly and helping each other grow. As long as we agree on some norms that give structure and protect each other from our innate selfishness, it works really well. You can go as diverse as you like. Mix up ages, races, and walks of life. Welcome people with strange ways of speaking, weird clothes, or different political convictions.
I’ll go into more detail on group norms next post, but suffice to say, we work on listening well, we keep our tones respectful and we choose to love. Here’s the beginning of a conversation I had with one of the other members of our small group:
Me: I think most of the people in our small group voted differently than me.
Friend: I think you’re right.
Only read this paragraph if you last voted Democrat: It became clear to me as we talked that my friend was utterly misinformed, deceived by the misinformation spewed by ultra-right news sources.
Only read this paragraph if you last voted Republican: It became clear to my friend as we talked that I was utterly misinformed, deceived by the misinformation spewed by liberal news sources.
All resume reading: How could such a longtime friend, such a sensible, loving person, buy into this craziness? How could they be trusted with family secrets and be called on for help at a moment’s notice and yet buy into a belief system that was :
Eroding the pillars of democracy?
Destroying the nation?
Making a mockery of biblical truth?
It was unsettling. Nevertheless, we kept listening to each other without interrupting. We surrendered the need to convince the other to snap out of their delusions. We spoke out of our decisions to choose love over political outrage, and stay connected.
And that’s what we keep doing, week after week, year after year. That’s how, in these barbaric times, you hold together a small group. That’s how you hold together a church. That’s how you hold together a nation.
Question for Reflection: When did you last have a respectful, productive, political discussion with someone who voted differently than you?
In 1994, the year after we got married, my husband and I started a Christian small group. We’re still in the same group. Here’s why:
I was 32 when we decided to invite some friends to a weekly evening gathering, where we’d do a Bible study and pray for one another. I’d like to say my motivation was an abundance of holiness, but no, it was more – neediness.
I’d been married for a year, after more than ten years of wanting to be married, seeking and hoping and praying to be married. But after a year of being married, to the best of men, I was surprised to find myself lonely. All those rom coms had oversold romantic love. A husband wasn’t enough. A husband and God weren’t even enough. We needed something else.
We both had good families, and good jobs. We belonged to a strong church, had friends and hobbies. We traveled, we volunteered. Life was full, but we needed something else.
I found myself wanting my living room to be full of people who were walking the same path as Bill and I. People who were followers of Jesus, trying to be like Him in a culture that was pulling us towards selfishness, busyness and status. I wanted a large enough group to expand our perspectives, but small enough that we could tell each other about the junk in our lives and help each other with it.
We started with a couple we were good friends with, invited another couple who had just moved into town, and were soon joined by others.
I remember one of our first meetings, in the small apartment of the couple who had just moved into town. They’d come to Cincinnati to lead a campus ministry, which sounded cool to me, until I saw the plastic taped to their windows, and the government-donated cheese in their fridge. Not a lucrative field, campus ministry.
While the rest of us made more money than they did (we did end up among their financial supporters, by the way) we all had our own equally urgent needs of other kinds. It only took a few meetings to scratch through the veneer and start being real with each other.
We prayed together, for more money, more peace, more health, less fear, deeper understanding, greater love. We wrestled with Bible passages, seeing so many more facets of truth than we would have found on our own. Just talking about the things that were weighing us down lightened the loads.
The conclusion I’ve come to, after 29 years of marriage and 28 years of being in a small group, is that God is experienced in different ways when we’re alone, when we’re with a partner, when we’re with a small group, and when we’re part of a larger community. We need them all.
After our small group started, I knew I’d found what I needed. I wasn’t lonely any more. I had God, I had my husband and our full life but now I also had a safe group of people who would help us stay on the path we longed to walk.
Question for Reflection: What are some of your best group experiences, from any time of your life, in any type of group? What did it feel like?
Churches are always trying to get people to join groups of eight to twelve people who meet regularly.
They call them ‘small groups’ or ‘growth groups’ or ‘house groups’. One church called them ‘lambs groups’, which I get the biblical symbolism of, but I can’t imagine guys who ride motorcycles or pump iron joining a ‘lambs group’. I would steer away from that one.
Church leaders know that if people just show up to services, or even volunteer, but don’t belong to a smaller friend group, they may not stick with their faith. These groups meet a number of needs – people get to know each other and develop friendships. They learn more about the Bible. They learn how to pray for each other, then seeing the prayers get answered draws them closer to God. They live out what they believe in good, supportive company.
Anyone who really believes in Jesus is swimming upstream in American culture. That’s just how it is, especially if you’re younger. Little in mainstream mass media, art or academia supports the truth of the Christian faith. No major network or streaming platform is putting money into stories told from a Christian world view. Even saying we believe anything is absolutely true makes us suspect – puts us in company with unhinged preachers and terrorists and people who preserve tons of peaches in preparation for the apocalypse.
So, if we’re going to stick it out as followers of Christ, we need authentic community. We need to be family for each other, minus the weird dynamics. On the path where Jesus is leading us, we need fellow travelers to urge us on, tell us good stories, share their trail mix, and pull us away from cliff edges.
Even when you’ve come to a careful, studied conclusion about what you believe, it’s hard to hang onto it unless the people around you believe it too. My small group, just by gathering together in Jesus’ name, reminds me of the reality that God is really with us. We share what we’re learning, how we’re changing, how prayers are being answered, and I leave bouyant. This is not how I would feel if I stayed home and watched “Fresh Fried and Crispy”.
I’ve had the honor of being in one of these groups for 28 years. I’m writing a series of ten posts on how it’s changed the course of my life, and what we do to help one another. I’ll also talk about some of our terrible mistakes, so you can avoid those. I’m hoping something I write will urge you towards joining or starting your own. Just don’t call it a lamb’s group.
Question for the Comments: Do you meet regularly with a group of people you really trust? If not, does that seem attractive, or not so much?
What I find most heartbreaking about the high rate of suicide among young people, is that I know, if they could have waited, they would have come through the dark time and been glad to be alive.
The first time depression hits, and it gets hold to the point where life isn’t worth living, you think the rest of your life will feel like that. But you swing out. Most of us don’t just suddenly wake up feeling awesome – it’s a slower swing, but soon you look back, and think, “Wow. I was in a really bad place. Glad that’s over.”
So if you’re in the middle of it, please hang on! Even without doing any of what my previous posts suggest, we were made to move on from sorrow and failure and heartbreak and despair, to adapt and grow and thrive. You will too.
The Tools You Need to Fight Depression
Taking care of ourselves chases depression away, just like it does for other illnesses. When we get to a more solid place, that’s when we need to make the self-care stuff habitual. There are things we can make part of our lives that will keep us out of the deep hole of depression. Here’s my top ten, linked to the posts that explore the topics:
Say kind things to yourself: If you catch yourself thinking self-critical thoughts, change them to positive ones and say them out loud.
Depression isn’t something we have to put up with. There are so many steps we can take that will lead us out to a better place.
Homework: Journal what choices you’re making that help you feel good, and which ones lead to you feeling bad. Analyze one of the bad choices, and note what kind of help you need to change it. Then go get that help.
Anything helpful to add? Click on the top title, then comment below.
It’s hard for most of us to believe that what we watch and listen to will strongly influence our moods and actions. I want to think I’m more objective than all that. Guess not. I guess if we were that objective, there would be no fashion industry – in fact, no trend-based industry at all. There would be more Republicans in the cities and Democrats in rural towns. There would never have been 17 million people pouring freezing water over their heads in an ice bucket challenge.
Given the hard cold reality of how socially influenced we are, whether it’s by real people or digital ones, how depressed we are has everything to do with what we’re watching and listening to. So, in this area as in all others, we need to know ourselves to fight depression. What kind of content inspires and energizes us? What brings us down? What makes us feel good for a while, but leaves us feeling worse when it’s over?
If following a bunch of gorgeous people who spend gobs of time and money on physical perfection makes you feel inadequate when you look in the mirror – you could stop following them.
If watching porn leaves you more lonely, maybe its not as harmless as we want to tell ourselves.
If obsessing over your ex’s facebook documentation of all the best moments in their new relationship is driving you to despair – you get the message.
Staring at me from a bookshelf as I write are three wooden monkeys carved in Africa – each with a hand over eyes, ears, or mouth. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. When fighting a low mood, it only makes sense to see no depressing, hear no depressing, speak no depressing. (Unless the speaking is to someone truly compassionate and helpful.)
Even if I’m watching good, fun, inspiring stuff, too much screen time will keep me from doing the other nine things that help me fight depression, which we’ve covered in this series. It can also lead to later bedtimes and pooorer quality of sleep. I ended up deciding to keep the recreational screentime for the last hour or two of the day, and stop it in time to read something before I go to sleep. That feels about right for me.
I don’t want to get to the end of my life and wonder what real happiness I missed while I was watching everyone else’s virtual drama.
Homework: Pause after each show or social media session to notice your internal state. What are you thinking and how are you feeling? Is it positive, neutral or negative? Do you need to make any changes? How much screen time is enough for you? How much is too much?
Anything helpful to add? Click on the title, then scroll to comment after the article. For the first post in this series, click here.
I’m not knocking atheists. Some of the smartest people I know are atheists. A lot of them have high sensitivity and empathy too. It’s just that believing there’s no creator, no one who cares about the universe, no destiny, no afterlife – yikes. No amount of prosac could cheer me up with that worldview.
Agnosticism isn’t much better. There may or may not be a God, is a position with a little more humility; it doesn’t claim omniscience. But still, depressing. Not knowing if there is or isn’t a creator who cares, destiny, afterlife – that’s a quagmire.
Religions – those theologies and behavior codes that set us up for divine approval – those are the most depressing of all, because we can’t measure up. If getting to obedience or holiness or enlightenment is up to me, I’ll fail. I can’t even focus long enough to get the clothes into the dryer, let alone follow long paths or hold up heavy pillars or keep crushing commandments.
So what’s a good world view for depressive types?
I’ve taken a long time to think about this. Here’s what I’ve found to be the most cheerful and logical world view:
Good is better than bad. We just have this wiring, even when it doesn’t make sense for the survival of the species. Kindness is better than evil, compassion is better than brutality, love is better than apathy. So if that’s how humans are wired, it follows that something or someone good created us. There has to be goodness and love at the heart of the universe.
Personality is a real thing. No human is a replica of any other human. Even my identical twins have such different spirits that I could tell one baby from another with the lights off. So it follows that our creator is some kind of person. We’re created and sustained by a good person with loving intentions.
Something has gone wrong. Duh, no need for elaboration there.
If there is a loving creator, that person would want to rescue us from evil and suffering.
If a good God wanted to rescue us, there would be a reliable record of some kind of Messiah showing up in a way everyone could understand. That being would have to demonstrate divine love and power, and do nothing wrong. Yeah, you know where this is going.
Jesus checks all the boxes. Yes, following Jesus makes me much happier than atheism, agnosticism or religion.
It’s worth a try. Jesus said, “Come, follow me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I’ll give you rest.” (That’s in Matthew 11:28 in the Bible.)
Buying into Jesus’ rescue story has improved my life immesurably. I have found following Jesus to be the best way through and beyond depression.
Homework: If it were true that God loved you and had come to rescue you from evil and suffering, how would that change your schedule this week? Give that altered schedule a try. See what happens.
Anything helpful to add? Click on the title, then scroll to comment after the article. For the first post in this series, click here.
“The way my place looks doesn’t have any effect on me. I don’t care; it’s just where I crash.”
I’ve heard quite a few people say things like that. I don’t believe them.
You can’t sever sensing from feeling. Everything we see, touch, smell, hear and taste affects our emotions. When I see a picture of a puppy playing, I feel happier than when I see a picture of an animal being hurt. When I smell lavendar, I enjoy that a lot more than smelling garbage. So it goes. Surroundings matter to humans.
Ask Yourself Some Emotion Questions
Go into the room where you sleep and look around. Do you like the look of the walls? Do the sheets smell clean? Are there any annoying sounds? Rate the room on a scale of 1 (ugly and uncomfortable) to 10 (beautiful and comfy). Do that for all the rooms you live in.
If your numbers are low, you can do some things to feel better in your space.
I know, there’s that pesky issue of money for most of us, but cleaning is cheap, and so are some of the other changes that will boost your mood.
My sister runs an interior design business, Rusty Fig Redesign, and she specializes in repurposing, rearranging and reorganizing the stuff people already have to make it a more beautiful, more functional space. When people come back to their homes at the end of the day for the ‘big reveal’ -to see their redesigned spaces, they are always delighted. Some of them even cry with joy. They often say things like, “I can’t believe I get to live here.”
Ask Yourself Some Sensory Questions
Granted, my sister is especially gifted at this, but anyone can do something to improve their space. Any small improvement gives you an emotional lift. So try asking yourself some questions:
Start with one room. Think about all the uses for that room. If it’s a bedroom, you may list sleeping, resting, reading and dressing. Ask yourself, “Do I have what I need to be comfortable while I do all these things? You might need a new mattress, or a big pillow to lean against when you read in bed. You might need a standing lamp next to your closet so you can see to get dressed in the morning. If you can’t buy new stuff, be sure you’re making the best use of what you have.
Is there enough light in the room overall, or too much? You might need room-darkening curtains to sleep better, new lighting to see clearly, or to move things you’ve put in front of windows so you have a better view.
Look at the colors of walls, floors and objects. Do they look good next to each other or are their some clashes you don’t like? Would you like the room better if you painted it a different color? If you’re starting a room from scratch, try picking three to five colors that really look good together, and stick to them when you shop.
Are there any plants in the room? Plants bring life into a room (as long as you water them!) and they improve the air quality.
Are there any pieces of furniture or objects that give you a bad vibe? Seriously, sometimes we keep things because we inherited them or they’re a gift, or we spent a lot on them, and to be honest, we just don’t like them. Do you think of your mean great aunt every time you look at that vase? Lose the vase. Did you buy a modern side table that looked great in the store but just doesn’t look right with your other furniture? Maybe it needs moving to another room, or another home altogether?
How much stuff is in the room? If there’s a lot, do you like all of it, or would you enjoy more openspace? Edit out things you don’t use or like. Some people are most comfortable with a lot of stuff out on surfaces. That’s fine, but if you feel better with clear surfaces, its time to make some piles – Keep, Sell, Give Away and Throw Away.
Are there some things in the room that you enjoy? Maybe a scented candle, a framed certificate of an achievement you’re proud of, a soft throw blanket that makes TV viewing super-comfy? Comfort and beauty are different for everyone; my husband thinks his racing bike looks great in the dining room!
One More Way to Fight Depression
Obviously, great design isn’t the cure for depression. Lots of miserable people live in gorgeous mansions.
However, life is just more pleasant when you walk in to a room you’ve fixed up. It also gives you a little more energy and confidence to make other changes to improve your life. So, paying attention to the surroundings where you spend a lot of your time is one great way to fight depression.
Which isn’t to say we’re helpless to do anything about it. It’s something we have to fight. We come at it from many angles, pruning away at it, putting up boudaries so it can’t take over. Think of it as a vine that creeps over everything if it’s not dealt with.
True, when we’re in the trap of major depression, we may be helpless for a while. But as we start to climb out, with therapy or rest or antidepressants or all of the above, it’s time to start caring for ourselves in ways that will keep it from creeping back.
Because of the reality that most of us need to work, and all of us are less depressed when we accomplish something, this self-care needs to take turns with working.
The previous posts have covered six ways to do this. In this post I share another way I cut back depression – by paying attention to nature’s rhythms and getting my schedule in sync with them.
Some of us push ourselves too hard and crash after the burn. Some of us have trouble being motivated even to get out of bed. Both extremes can be softened by pacing ourselves in harmony with the natural world, pausing regularly to rest and recharge.
Monks are ninjas at this lifestyle. People who live communally in monestaries have honed the art of moving peacefully through the day as a way to stay near to God and honor God with their work. They even have vocabulary for it – they call it the Liturgy of the Hours.
It invites us into a lifestyle where we become aware that there’s a lot more to it than getting stuff done, a way of being that faces the reality that life waxes and wanes (like the moon, right?) It involves breaking the day into segments, and pausing between them to catch our breath and reflect.
Without going into lots of ancient monastic detail, I’ll take you through a sample of how you can put this into practice:
The day begins with early morning when the demands of work and people haven’t kicked in. This is a good time to breathe in the quiet, to imagine all the day’s possibilities before you lock yourself into a schedule. Remind yourself that with each new day, you can start again and do things differently if you want. Out of this sense of possibility, you plan your day and get going.
2. Pause mid-morning when you’ve done a few hours of work. Remind yourself that the best work is done when you’re not in a hurry. Consider how your work can be a gift to other people. Drink some water. Take a few deep breaths before you get back to it.
3. Midday – This is noon for monks, who’ve been up since before dawn. Getting up before dawn is depressing in itself to me, so I skip it, and do a midday pause anywhere between noon and 2 pm, when I’m hungry and want a break. A this high point in the day when the sun is at its brightest, pat yourself on the back for what you’ve already done, and consider what you’ll do in the afternoon to build on it. If morning didn’t go so well, put it behind you, eat good food and start again. Try to look at something beautiful – the sky if nothing else. Think about how vast the world is so you don’t get swallowed up by the day’s troubles.
4. Mid to Late Afternoon – a few hours later, pause again. This is when we face our mortality. We may be losing steam, focus and interest. We may realize we’re not going to get as much done as we’d hoped. Here’s where I’m tempted to give up and take a nap, or eat a large bowl of M&Ms. But another choice is to pause, feel the weariness, stretch or take a walk, and think about what can be done in the time left.
5. As evening falls, put things away and tell yourself it’s time to stop working. You are worth a great deal more than what you get done, and it’s time to unwind. Evening is a great time to shift from doing to being. For some, this seems out of reach. Many people have to work two jobs or have toddlers to get to bed, or have chores to do after work. But as muich as possible, slow your pace and take care of yourself.
Let go of the day’s frustrations, switching to something else, like eating a good dinner, talking to a friend, doing a hobby you enjoy, or watching a show that lifts your spirits.
6. Bed Time – Pause at your ideal bedtime – even if you are in the middle of a game of Fortnight. Feel your tiredness. Look outside into the dark. Remind yourslef it’s time to shut down. Let yourself settle into the darkness and quiet of night. If your thoughts start to spin, tell yourself, “Night is for sleeping.” No problem-solving, no replays. You may need a habit to calm you in this pause – journaling what you’re graterful for, playing a meditation app, praying surrender of everything on your mind to God. Night is for sleeping. This is when your body heals, when your mind processes its hidden issues, when you sink into that wonderful oblivion that gets you ready for the new day.
So, what does this Liturgy of the Hours have to do with depression? Everything. As we take life in managable segments, grounding ourselves between tasks, we enjoy ourselves more and feel less overwhelmed. We are more interested in the world and other people, realizing it all doesn’t revolve around us. We feel more grateful and less burnt-out.
As we look over the other topics we’ve covered on fighting depression – affirming ourselves, staying in the moment, processing our emotions, seeking connection, caring for our bodies – we can see that all of them are made easier by living in tune with the rhythms of nature.
Anything helpful to add? Comment below, after you click on the title.
(Fifth in a series on taking steps away from depression.)
I used to think of depression and anxiety as two unrelated problems.
But I realized, at some point, that depression often followed a time of anxiety. Then I made the connection that anxiety often set in as I was emerging from a time of depression.
Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out whether they just take turns, depending on what’s going on in your life, or if they actually trigger one another.
There is a Connection
I’m convinced, at least in my own case, that anxiety wears me down to depression. When many tasks of life are seen as a big hurdle, triggering shortness of breath, a sense of dread, a feeling of incompetence, a fear of rejection, trouble focusing – that drains me to a point where I feel so down I want to quit stuff.
One study described in theJournal of Anxiety Disorders states that anxiety and depression are often highly correlated with each other, and that depression can follow anxiety years later. People with lifetime anxiety had lifetime depression 73 per cent of the time, and people with both had worse illness and functioning than those with only one.
This article also pointed out that past depression predicts future avoidance, and avoidance predicts anxiety. A huge study of over 6000 adolescents over 14 years demonstrated that avoidance behaviors occurred in between times of anxiety and depression a significant percentage of the time.
Avoiding Makes it Worse
We kind of know that intuitively, don’t we? If my 13-year-old self chickened out and skipped a party because of social anxiety, I had to deal with a residue of shame, a sense of failure, loneliness and hopelessness that soon added up to depression.
On the other hand, if I went to the party, chances are I would have some positive experiences there in addition to all the awkwardness, and I would feel prouder of myself afterwards.
I would probably also learn a few things, whether or not I was aware of it, that would make me a little more hip to how I should behave at a party, which would make the next experience less scary.
Conquer a Little at a Time
So it goes. If we can gradually expose ourselves to what makes us anxious, our window of fear gets smaller.
I used to be terrified of getting onstage and saying or doing any little thing. Now I’m only scared if I’m performing at a big convention with video screens. The setting is usually a lot smaller than that, so having succeeded at the convention, I no longer dread a crowd of 200.
That’s how we anxious types need to march through life. The worse thing that happens is that we aim too high and we fail at something. So we learn, and we take our challenges in smaller chunks.
And when depression starts to take us down, we don’t avoid that reality either. We take care of ourselves and get as much help as we need, so the downward spiral changes direction.
It seems that often our greatest anxieties are attached to our giftedness. It’s so frustrating to see a marvellous athlete quit just because she failed in one competition. Or a wonderful musician stop playing because his performance anxiety wore him down to exhaustion.
Don’t Give Up!
Please don’t give up on yourself. Don’t let yourself get too busy, or make yourself a slave to others’ expectations, but don’t quit either.
Then you can get off the anxiety/depression seesaw and just focus on one thing at a time.
It’s so rewarding to get to a place where you can function in your strengths, and even get a handle on a few weaknesses, only to discover that they no longer stress you out.
(Third in a series on steps away from depression. For the last post, press here.)
Sometimes isolating feels like all we can do.
Sometimes everything else is too hard, so we hole up in a safe, comfy place and shut the world out. Our best friends become chocolate, or cats, or beer, or some memory of someone who’s gone.
We’re not alone in feeling alone. A Cigna survey found that forty per cent of the 20,000 adults they interviewed feel isolated. Some isolation has been forced by the pandemic, but this article focuses on our choice to isolate because life out there is too overwhelming and we can’t face it.
Isolating can be helpful for a few hours, or maybe even a few days in a crisis, but too much isolation makes us sadder and crazier. Here’s why:
Making sure to plan at least one outing to connect with people, even if it’s just to go to the store and ask the checkout person how they’re doing, is really important. If going out is hard right now, make it a short trip and promise yourself a reward when you get home. (Not a noon cocktail though.)
Everyone has their own ideal balance for time out with people and time alone. I could do most of my work from home, but have been much happier since scheduling two days a week in the office of the church where I work. It lifts my spirits to get out of sweat pants, hit the road and have people to talk with on and off throughout the day.
It’s Not All About Us
Going to church, playing a sport or going to the gym, joining others for hobbies or volunteer work – all these things are key to reminding us that the world out there is big and full of possibilities. If we can’t go out for ourselves, let’s do it for the others we go to be with. It’s not all about us. Helping someone else almost instantly lifts our mood.
I often don’t feel like getting up on Sunday, donning a mask and going to church. But the music, the encouraging words, the connections with friends, being part of a community that serves people – all of that results in a sense of well-being that makes the coming week easier to face.
Homework: Look back over your last week. How much of your time was with people, and how much alone? Are you happy with the balance? Someone home all day with kids may crave alone time. Others, especially people who live alone, need to be intentional about inviting friends over and getting out into the world. What are three things you can do next week to keep the balance right for you?