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Unraveled and Restored: Personal Reflections on Philip Yancey’s Undone



"My illness has established an empire within me, and it will advance by certain arcane secrets of state, which it is not bound to declare."  

—John Donne


That is a quote from author Philip Yancey's new book, Undone, a modern rendering of poet John Donne’s Devotions, a 400-year-old collection of Donne’s meditations on his own suffering.


For a month in 1623, Donne and his doctors believed he was suffering (and likely dying) from the bubonic plague. He was able to do little more than write, which he did—journaling a series of meditations on his wrestling with God. Simply titled "Devotions", the collection is considered one of the great works of nonfiction literature.  


Donne described his illness as an empire builder the 12th day of his worsening condition.  




The Doctor Becomes the Patient


In 2004, I also suffered an illness that established an empire within

me.


Mine was not a physical illness, but a mental one. Frankly, I would have preferred a physical illness or injury. And a month’s illness would have seemed like a short visit from a rude guest in comparison to my prolonged sickness. A debilitating hybrid of depression and anxiety established a beachhead and then slowly and steadily moved inland, conquering more and more territory until I was forced to surrender. 


I didn't have a history of depression or anxiety. Perhaps that's why, even as a counselor, I didn't recognize the storm clouds in the distance as something systemic within me, but instead viewed the struggle as something situational and temporary. I kept waiting for the absence of energy, enthusiasm, and motivation to pass. It did not. Instead, lethargy, apathy, and discouragement hardening into despair took up residence. 


Depression has a way of sitting down heavily on your back and reclining on it like a sofa, signaling that it plans to stay a while. 


I resonated with the opening line of Dante's Inferno: "In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost."  


Now, almost two decades later I relate to the next verse, "It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh, and impenetrable that wood was..."


The Counselor Becomes a Detective


Through the lens of Philip Yancey's writing, we see that John Donne reacted to his suffering as do most of us when tragedy occurs or when evil strikes—he asked God “Why?”


Why me? Why this? Why now?


Those were certainly my unanswered and unanswerable questions. I was like an amateur detective desperate to solve a mystery in which I was both the victim and the suspect. I say “suspect” because depression has a way of interrogating you and implying that you did something to cause it or failed to do something that could have prevented it. 


I’ve since discovered that our completely normal “Why?” is not really a question that is looking for an answer because an anxious mind is not easily quieted by reasons and facts.  Rather, the bewildered, protesting “Why?” is voiced by the wounded and frightened heart that is crying out, “God, where were you?”


Unlike John Donne, I did not wonder if God was “nailing me to my bed” as a delayed punishment for my younger sins. Instead, I felt abandoned and ignored, that my suffering was happening behind God’s back. One of the worst lines I read during that period was from a blogger who wrote, “Rather than God using your depression to discipline you, perhaps He is using it to disciple you.”  


Seriously? Did I miss the memo that Jesus had contracted with Debilitating Depression to form a new and innovative discipleship program?  


I wrote in my journal, “If I’m not being 'disciplined' (i.e. punished) and this worsening sickness is a test, then I’m failing the class. Or if this terror is being presented as a gift to transform me, then God, I hope you kept the receipt.”


As I would later write in my book, When Will My Life Not Suck? Authentic Hope for the Disillusioned, at some point the question “Why me?” must transition to the question, “What now?” But at that time I was not ready or able to shift my inquiry. 


The Patient Becomes a Scribe


I've consistently journaled from my teen years up to the present. I trusted that I would journal my way through my depression to the other side. The journal entries from that period of my illness reveal a growing fear that I wouldn't see the other side. I often asked, "Will I ever get me back?" 


John Donne wrote to a widowed friend, “I am afraid that Death will play with me so long, as he will forget to kill me, and suffer me to live in a languishing and useless age.” Yancey further tells us that as Donne’s illness progressed “he saw himself as a statue of clay, its limbs and flesh melting off and crumbling into a handful of sand. Soon nothing would remain save a pile of bones.” A living skeleton.

 

I was afraid of living in an elevator stuck between the two floors of life and death. I feared living ever suspended in the miserable present between a pleasant history and a pathetic future, languishing with shame as a constant companion.


As Yancey writes in Undone, “A measure of shame seems to accompany disability or illness.” Donne experienced and wrote about such shame. My journaling expressed my own deep shame, a shame rooted in my belief that I was now weak, flawed, and a failure. Yancey further describes this dark hovering cloud of shame as “an innate shame in inconveniencing others for something that is neither your fault nor your desire.”  


Together, depression and anxiety are a two-headed monster. When depression, anxiety, and shame link arms, the days are a downward spiral. 


The Pastor Becomes a Protestor 


On top of feeling bewildered, discouraged, and ashamed, I began to feel angry. Very angry. Anger is the natural human response to perceived injustice, unfairness, or mistreatment. I felt that being blind-sided by depression and anxiety was unfair and undeserved. 


Like John Donne, I had devoted myself to ministry and faithfully served Christ and his church. And this was the reward? I let Upper Management know how I felt about the compensation package for one of his best employees. Like Peter, I was inclined to remind Jesus that I’d left everything to follow him, adding that depression and anxiety was a crappy way to thank me for my obedience and sacrifice. 


I echoed the remarks Teresa de Avilla made to God following an accident crossing a river in which all her belongings and supplies were ruined, “If this is how You treat Your friends, it is no wonder You have so few of them.” 


Undoubtedly Psalm 69 was a soundtrack for Donne during his physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering. It was for me. I jabbed the verses on the pages of my pocket New Testament, as if poking and provoking God to react:


"Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck. Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire; I can’t find a foothold. I am in deep water, and the floods overwhelm me. I am exhausted from crying for help; my throat is parched. My eyes are swollen with weeping, waiting for my God to help me...
Rescue me from the mud; don’t let me sink any deeper! Don’t let the floods overwhelm me, or the deep waters swallow me, or the pit of death devour me."

                                                               (from The New Living Translation)


Like John Donne, I grappled with God. I was Jacob wrestling with the angel. I was a protesting Job, a complaining Jeremiah, and an angry Psalmist. I echoed Gideon in telling God, "Oh yea, well if this is what it's like for the Lord to be with me, I'd hate to experience what it's like for Him to be against me." Forced to take extended medical leave from my job, I shouted at God along with Bruce Almighty, "The only one who isn't doing his job around here is you!" I regularly pounded on God's chest with my fists before falling into His arms sobbing. 


I didn’t mean to be irreverent; I was just raw. God can only meet us where we genuinely are. Not where we wish we were or where we think we should be.


When you call 911 in an emergency and need police or paramedics to show up, you give the operator the exact location where you are, not some place you wish you were, or an address where you should be instead of this one, if only you had made better choices. The good news is that God will meet us at our honest coordinates on the map, and the even better news is that he will not leave us in the same spot unless we insist on staying there.  


Wrestling with God is very intimate. You cannot truly wrestle another person without lots of touching and holding, gripping and grabbing, pushing and pulling. While it's certainly not romantic, there is nevertheless almost constant physical contact during a wrestling match. And you cannot truly wrestle with God without a lot of human-divine contact. 


The Mourner Becomes a Dancer


My recovery was snail-like, slow, and gradual, but I discovered that even the slightest sustained improvement gave me hope. And hope, I learned, is oxygen.  


It’s been almost 20 years now since my fight for life. There are many things about that dark season that I can’t remember and plenty of moments I wish I could forget. The bottom line is that I have felt so good for so long now that it seems like it was all just a bad dream or that it happened to someone else. But it was real, and it happened to me. Therefore, I feel blessed and am grateful to say today with the Psalmist, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (Psalm 30:11 NIV)


As a byproduct of that season, I’m more understanding and have more empathy and compassion for people who struggle with grief, despair, depression, or anxiety. I’ve always had great empathy and compassion for hurting people, well before my depressive crisis. But now the empathy and compassion is informed by personal experience.  


I more fully grasp the meaning of Paul’s words, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).  


This is part of what I believe Donne and Yancey mean by “the redemption of pain.” In the words of Japanese novelist and poet Kenji Miyazawa, “Don’t waste your pain; rather burn it as fuel for your journey.”


I now understand Henri Nouwen calling us to be “wounded healers.”   

And if I am a wounded healer, who having fiercely wrestled with God, now dance with a slight limp, then so be it.


Turn up the music. 



 

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage & family therapist in Franklin TN.  (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) An ordained minister, weekly newspaper columnist, award-winning poet, and the author of several books, including When Will My Life Not Suck? Authentic Hope for the Disillusioned, Presson can be reached at ramonpresson@gmail.com 


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