Krista Tippett  On Depression:

Krista’s Journal: The Nature of Human Vitality

February 26, 2009

We’re increasingly aware in our culture of the many faces of depression, and we’ve become conversant in the language of psychological analysis and medical treatment for it. But depression has a profound spiritual effect that is much harder to speak about and can often only be traced years onward. Still, like many things that are difficult to speak of — and given the epidemic scale of this illness in our society — this is important reflection for our common life. I feel that the the three voices in this hour bring rare, brave, and helpful insights into the light.

I took the making of this program as an occasion to walk myself with some trepidation back through the spiritual territory of despair. Like many millions of people, I have experienced severe, clinical depression. And I think that “depression” is one of the most misleading and inadequate words in our vocabulary. When I try to describe the experience, I find myself grasping to say what it is not. Depression is not essentially about being sad, or down, or blue, though these may be symptoms. In the illuminating language of Andrew Solomon in this week’s program, the opposite of depression is not happiness — it is “human vitality.” It can have purely physiological origins. It may be triggered by old sadnesses grown unbearable or anger turned inward, as one saying goes. But it becomes a way of being in, and moving through, the world.

Ignatius Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuit order, spoke of “desolations” — a better word than depression, in my mind — that “lead one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love. One is completely listless, tepid, and unhappy, and feels separated from our Creator and Lord.” For me, depression was not so much about being without faith or hope or love; it was, rather, not being able to remember knowing those things, not being able to imagine ever experiencing them again.

After depression there is a particular solace in the voices of others — like all three in this hour — who’ve been marked by this disease and lived to reflect on its contours. When I finally began to emerge, I found a kind of comfort in the scriptural psalms of lament and imprecation — mourning prayers, cursing prayers. Suddenly the “pit” of which the psalmist so often writes was real to me. I also returned to the poetry of Rilke, who like many great thinkers and creators, had an intimacy with “darkness.” One of this week’s guests, Anita Barrows, has luminously translated some of his poetry. Personally and in her work as a psychologist, she has also grappled with depression all of her life. She traces a difficult but ultimately hopeful line between the illness of depression and the darkness that is a part of human vitality and that we can embrace.

But a cautionary word is necessary. In the midst of depression, very little if anything is possible in the way of spiritual reflection. The insights of this program are all hard-won and came much, much later after a period of recovery and healing. If you know someone who is depressed now, or if you yourself are in that state, go gently, seek help, and don’t expect spiritual breakthroughs. In a section of this week’s program that many people describe as helpful, Parker Palmer tells of the friend who helped him most during his worst episode. The friend came and sat silently with him, day after day, and “merely” massaged his feet. In such simple human gestures we find the most essential comfort.

Parker Palmer’s two bouts of paralyzing depression came, in fact, while he was a leader of a spiritual community. In the end, that experience reframed his whole understanding of spiritual life. And I’ll leave the last words of this reflection to him — on the important question of the role and presence of God in the suffering of depression:

“I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death. I believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live life fully and well. Now, is that going to take me to places where I suffer because I am standing for something or I am committed to something or I am passionate about something that gets resisted and rejected by the society? Absolutely. But anyone who’s ever suffered that way knows that it’s a life-giving way to suffer — that if it’s your truth, you can’t not do it. And that knowledge carries you through. But there’s another kind of suffering that is simply and purely death. It’s death in life. And that is a darkness to be worked through to find the life on the other side.”

Andrew Solomon  On Depression

Parker Palmer   On Depression

Anita Barrows  On Depression

Transcript for The Soul in Depression

February 26, 2009

Krista Tippett, host: I’m Krista Tippett. Clinical depression is an epidemic of our age. This hour, we’ll explore spiritual dimensions of this illness and its aftermath.

Andrew Solomon: In a sense, after you’ve been through a depression, it gives you a different relationship to the world.

Anita Barrows: Suddenly, in depression, you are ripped from what felt like your life, from what felt right and familiar and balanced and ordinary and ordered.

Parker Palmer: Depression is absolutely exhausting. It’s why, day by day for months at a time, I wanted to take my life. What I don’t understand is why some people come through on the other side and reclaim life with new vividness and with new intensity. That is the real mystery to me.

Ms. Tippett: This is Speaking of Faith One in 10 Americans and, even more dramatically, about one in four women will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives. This hour, we’ll explore spiritual dimensions of this illness and its aftermath. From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Soul in Depression.”

As a society, we’re increasingly aware of the many faces of depression, and we’ve become conversant in psychological analysis of depression and medical treatment for it. But there is a growing body of literature by people who’ve struggled with depression and found it to be a lesson in the nature of the human soul. Such insights are scarcely possible while one is in the throes of depression, but they can come later after a process of recovery and healing.

I have experienced severe depression. And when we first created this program several years ago, I took the making of it as an occasion to walk with some trepidation back through the spiritual territory of despair. The voices of this hour span a range of varieties of depression and religious perspective. Anita Barrows is a poet, psychologist, and Buddhist practitioner. Parker Palmer is a Quaker author and educator. My first guest, Andrew Solomon, is the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, for which he received the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Mr. Solomon: And when I was going through the depression, I had the sense that many of the qualities by which I had defined myself were abandoning me and that I was no longer the person whom I had previously been. And yet, there was something within me that seemed to stay the same, something essential remained at the core, and I thought, ‘What is that essential thing?’

Ms. Tippett: Andrew Solomon first went public, writing about his depression in The New Yorker magazine, in 1998. He described his breakdowns in excruciating detail and his extreme immersion in the brave new world of antidepressant pharmacology. That article elicited over 1,000 letters from New Yorker readers. After the article and his subsequent book, Andrew Solomon was interviewed widely.

What struck me as I listened, as a survivor of depression myself, was how Andrew Solomon’s questioners tended to focus on his physical collapse and not on his eloquent insistence between the lines that depression for him was also a spiritually revealing experience. And Andrew Solomon is not a religious person. His mother’s death when he was 27 triggered his first major depression. As he recounts in his book The Noonday Demon, she committed a planned suicide in the presence of him, his father, and his brother to end a bitter struggle with cancer.

Andrew Solomon realized later that the opposite of depression is not happiness; it is human vitality. And in a life of vitality, even pain has its place. He now traces the onset of his depression from his incapacity to grieve the death of his mother.

Mr. Solomon: The passage from grief into nothingness was very alarming and very strange. There was a sense — I mean, I still would have said, you know, ‘I’m terribly upset that my mother died,’ and so on and so forth, but the feeling went out of it. And I think that’s why, when the feeling comes back, you think, ‘Oh, this is a soul. This is a spirit. This is something profound and alive, which returned to me after taking a leave of absence.’

Ms. Tippett: I think what I found really refreshing about your book and something that I don’t think is out there enough is, you know, what depression really is and what it really is not. It’s not sadness, really. I think you say that the opposite of depression is human vitality.

Mr. Solomon: It’s an experience, I think overall, of finding the most ordinary parts of life incredibly difficult: finding it difficult to eat, finding it difficult to get out of bed, finding it difficult and painful to go outside, being afraid all of the time and being overwhelmed all the time. And frequently, it’s quite a sad experience to be afraid and overwhelmed all the time. Nonetheless, those are the essential qualities of it. It isn’t, I think, primarily an experience of sadness.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Solomon: And it teaches you how big emotion is. The profundity of the inner self, I suppose, would be the best way of putting it.

Ms. Tippett: Are passions, maybe in a real classical sense of that word, also a way to talk about the largeness of emotion that you’re describing?

Mr. Solomon: I think passions are the only way to talk about it, the passion which is the essential motivator for all human activity. In a sense, after you’ve been through a depression, it gives you a different relationship to the world. It gives you a different sense of how your interior monologue really determines everything, and you’re left mystified as to where that interior monologue originates and where those passions come from and why they’re so mutable and what it is within them that’s immutable.

Ms. Tippett: I’d like to talk about medication. You are still on medication, I believe …

Mr. Solomon: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: … and, I suppose, will be forever, which is becoming the advisable way for people who’ve suffered multiple depressions. Is that right?

Mr. Solomon: That is right, yes.

Ms. Tippett: What kind of regimen of medication do you live with now?

Mr. Solomon: Well, I’m in the process of shifting things around, because at the moment I’m on really more than I’d like to be. But right now I’m taking Lamictal, Zyprexa, Lexapro, BuSpar, and Wellbutrin.

Ms. Tippett: So I wonder if people ask you, how do you know that this person you are now and these observations you have to make, even this wisdom that you have, that this is really you, when you are so influenced by chemicals?

Mr. Solomon: I think the idea that there is a real self and that changing it in any way with medication is artificial is like the idea that you really have teeth that fall out when you’re 30 and that you’re artificially changing them by using modern dental care. I just think the authentic thing goes through periods of flaw and illness and problem, and that you have to address those problems. Taking these medications brings about effects, which are also brought about by certain kinds of talking therapies and external experiences, and I’m a great believer in those therapies and also continue to work in those areas and arenas.

There’s a lovely passage from The Winter’s Tale, which I quote toward the end of the book, beautifully phrased, and I wish I had it in front of me. I’d read it out loud.

Ms. Tippett: Here’s a sentence I think may have been from that passage or your commentary on it, “If humanity is of nature, then so are our inventions.”

Mr. Solomon: Yes, exactly. And it ends, that passage, with then the line, “That art itself is nature.”

Ms. Tippett: You also quote the poet Jane Kenyon, “We try a new drug, a new combination of drugs, and suddenly I fall into my life again.” And from my own experience, I remember that, and I think that, again, is so hard for people to imagine who haven’t been through this, that it is not like you are changed into someone new, but you fall into your own life again. So mysterious.

Mr. Solomon: I feel that very strongly. I’ve talked with people some of the time — and I think I relate this anecdote in the book, but there’s somebody who I used to know, and I was at a party, then was on my way home and ran into her in the street. And I said, ‘How are you doing?’ and Jane said, ‘Well, I had a very serious depression.’ And I said, ‘Oh.’ I said, ‘Are you taking medications? Have you been in therapy?’ She said, ‘No, I just decided it was the result of stress, and so I eliminated the stresses from my life. I broke up with my boyfriend, because that was difficult, and I gave up my apartment to just live in a one-room place because I thought that would be less demanding. And I don’t really go out to parties anymore, because I find being with people is just very difficult for me.’ She went on and on with this catalog, and I thought, ‘That is not true to yourself. I’ve known you for years, and you are a different person.’

I feel as though I’ve made, in effect, the opposite decision. I have the personality that is consistent with the personality I had when I was 10 and 20 and 25, and that then began to fall apart a little bit later on. And I have the strong sense that the medications have returned me to myself.

Ms. Tippett: Author Andrew Solomon. His award-winning book The Noonday Demon is at once a memoir and a compendium of the many nuances of depression described from medical, scientific, and social perspectives. He also delves into historical attitudes towards depression, including religious ideas, which have formed modern attitudes in the West.

Many ancient classical thinkers did not understand the psyche as detached from the body. By contrast, the great fifth-century church father St. Augustine labeled depression a disease not of the body but of the soul, and a mark of God’s disfavor. This Christian stigma, Andrew Solomon says, has endured in modern America even when the theology behind it has not. I asked him what, if any, religious literature he found to be helpful.

Mr. Solomon: I think I would say that I found a particular comfort in the harder rhetoric of Judaism, though I vastly appreciate the more forgiving nature of the New Testament. But the Old Testament had a certain doctrine of acceptance and law and endurance that these terrible things happen, and you just stick it out, and maybe they get better and maybe they don’t get better. But there’s a kind of hardness in it which — one would expect in a depression that what one needs is softness, and I think one does need softness from other people. But I found those basic lessons, which I had absorbed in those Sunday school lessons when I was a child, there was a sternness in them that I found very believable even when I was at my lowest. At a time when I couldn’t have believed that God loved me, I could believe that there was logic and structure in the world. And so for me, as a Jew, I think that was a particularly potent comfort to me and guide to me through what was happening.

Ms. Tippett: You know what, I think that’s fascinating, because on the surface, it doesn’t sound — I don’t know, you would think that those passages especially might alienate a modern person, a sophisticated, educated city dweller.

Mr. Solomon: They’re much easier to believe if you’re a sophisticated city dweller.

Ms. Tippett: OK. I think I’d like to end with something that is maybe the first line in your book, that depression is the flaw in love. What do you mean by that? It’s a haunting sentence.

Mr. Solomon: It seems to me that, in a way, the most fundamental and important capacity we have as human beings is the capacity for love. And I think the feeling of love couldn’t exist without a range of other feelings that surround it, the primary one being the fear of loss. If the loss of someone you love didn’t make you sad, then what substance would the love have? And I think that therefore the emotional range that includes great sadness and great pain is essential to the kind of love and attachment that we form. It seems to me that the kind of severe depression that we’ve been talking about represents an overactivity of the mood spectrum, but that without the basic mood spectrum of which depression is the extreme end, we couldn’t have the experience of intimacy, which that brings.

Ms. Tippett: And you also have spoken a lot about how the experience of depression for you and also a recovery of the capacity or a deepening of your capacity for intimacy go together. Does that flow from that same thought?

Mr. Solomon: Yes, I think it does. I think the awareness of my own vulnerability has made me more aware of other people’s vulnerability and more appreciative of people who cushion me from the things to which I am vulnerable. So I think it’s made me both more loving and more receptive to love and given me a clearer sense than I would otherwise have had of the value of love. And I suppose, again, without wanting to get into a suggestion of specific doctrine, that that has also given me a sense that some abstract love in the world, which I suppose we could call the love of God, is essential and significant, and it has been increased in me, both in terms of my appreciation for it and my feeling of being loved or held.

I mean, I use that word “soul” very advisedly. I don’t particularly mean something that will eventually acquire wings and go off to the kingdom of heaven. I guess, though, if you say “the mind” or you say all of those things that get used in scientific discussions of depression, like “emotional infrastructure” and other phrases like that, they just seem to me not to capture this essential self.

Ms. Tippett: Those are too clinical, right. Yeah.

Mr. Solomon: And it seems to me that who other people are is always mysterious. What I realized in the wake of depression is that who I am is fully mysterious to me. And so since I don’t fully know it and since I can’t fully comprehend it — it’s not simply that I don’t, it’s that I can’t — then there has to be some mystical element in it and some element that’s obviously present and yet beyond my comprehension. And that, I think, is what I was trying to characterize when I used the word “soul,” because I think the recognition of that fundamental reality has been much stronger in religious writing and in religious contemplation than it has been in other areas of considering an enterprise.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I know that you used the word near the very beginning of your book and right at the end again, I noticed. I’m not sure you used it many other times throughout.

Mr. Solomon: Yes. That was quite deliberate actually. I felt, given that I didn’t want to write a religious book, because I am not in any very mainstream way a religious person, that I didn’t want to adopt the word all the way through. But I felt that it was an important mode of description, and I felt I wanted it to frame all of what I was saying.

Ms. Tippett: Andrew Solomon is the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Soul in Depression.”

At speakingoffaith.org, we’ve provided links to organizations that help people with depression and related illnesses. I’ve also posted some writing I’ve done about my major bout of depression when I was in my mid-30s. My symptoms were classic: sleeplessness, weight loss, fear, anxiety, and a devastating inability to concentrate. In depression, I found body, mind, and spirit to be shockingly, maddeningly inseparable. As I was gradually emerging, I read an essay by the author Parker Palmer, which echoed this experience of my own. But the article surprised me. I knew of Parker Palmer as a guru of the soul, a wise Quaker thinker whose books and speeches had helped many people integrate their deepest spiritual values into their lives and work. And yet, here was a revelation by Parker Palmer that he had suffered two episodes of crippling depression in his 40s.

Mr. Palmer: People walk around saying, ‘I don’t understand why so-and-so committed suicide.’ Well, I understand perfectly why people take their lives. They need the rest. Depression is absolutely exhausting. It’s why, day by day for months at a time, I wanted to take my life. What I don’t understand is why some people come through on the other side and reclaim life with new vividness and with new intensity. That is the real mystery to me.

Ms. Tippett: When Parker Palmer experienced his depressions, he was the revered leader of a Quaker spiritual community. At first, because of this, he felt ashamed, but ultimately, he says, depression forced him to reconsider the core of his understanding of spiritual life itself.

Mr. Palmer: Going into my experience of depression, I thought of the spiritual life as sort of climbing a mountain until you got to this high, elevated point where you could touch the hand of God or, you know, see a vision of wholeness and beauty. The spiritual life at that time had nothing to do, as far as I was concerned, with going into the valley of the shadow of death. Even though that phrase is right there at the heart of my own spiritual tradition, that wasn’t what it was about for me. So on one level, you think, ‘This is the least spiritual thing I’ve ever done.’ And the soul is absent, God is absent, faith is absent. All of the faculties that I depended on before I went into depression were now utterly useless.

And yet, as I worked my way through that darkness, I sometimes became aware that way back there in the woods somewhere was this sort of primitive piece of animal life. I mean, just some kind of existential reality, some kind of core of being, of my own being, I don’t know, maybe of the life force generally, and that was somehow holding out the hope of life to me. And so I now see the soul as that wild creature way back there in the woods that knows how to survive in very hard places, knows how to survive in places where the intellect doesn’t, where the feelings don’t, and where the will cannot.

Ms. Tippett: So where is God in all of this?

Mr. Palmer: Well, Tillich, you know, described God as the ground of being. I no longer think of God as up there somewhere. I think of God as down here, which I think is — in my own Christian tradition, is pretty consistent with incarnational theology, with the whole notion of a God who journeyed to Earth to be among us compassionately, to suffer with us, to share the journey.

Ms. Tippett: I love this, there’s a sentence from your book: “I had embraced a form of Christian faith devoted less to the experience of God than to abstractions about God, a fact that now baffles me: how did so many disembodied concepts emerge from a tradition whose central commitment is to ‘the Word become flesh’?”

Mr. Palmer: Mm-hmm, yeah. That’s a baffling question to me to this day. But I take embodiment very seriously, and, of course, depression is a full-body experience and a full-body immersion in the darkness. And it is an invitation — at least my kind of depression is an invitation — to take our embodied selves a lot more seriously than we tend to do when we’re in the up-up-and-away mode.

Ms. Tippett: You know, let’s dwell with that for a moment, because I think one critique I’ve heard of how Christian tradition does not help people who are suffering from something like depression is that suffering itself, you know, by some interpretation, it would be said to be glorified. But you’re sort of turning that image around in terms of the way you’ve come to apply it.

Mr. Palmer: Yeah. I am. I mean, I think there’s a lot, unfortunately, about suffering in Christian tradition that’s hogwash, if I can use a technical theological term. It’s awfully important to distinguish in life, I think, between true crosses and false crosses. And I know in my growing up as a Christian, I didn’t get much help with that. A cross was a cross was a cross, and if you were suffering, it was supposed to be somehow good. But I think that there are false forms of suffering that get imposed upon us, sometimes from without, from injustice and external cruelty, and sometimes from within, that really need to be resisted.

I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death. I believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live life fully and well. Now, is that going to take me to places where I suffer, because I am standing for something or I am committed to something or I am passionate about something that gets resisted and rejected by the society? Absolutely. But anyone who’s ever suffered that way knows that it’s a life-giving way to suffer, that if it’s your truth, you can’t not do it. And that knowledge carries you through. But there’s another kind of suffering that is simply and purely death. It’s death in life, and that is a darkness to be worked through to find the life on the other side.

Ms. Tippett: Parker Palmer.

As we’ve updated and broadcast this program over the past five years, we’ve received a rich tapestry of listener stories about their experiences with depression, generating conversations that can be difficult to have elsewhere and conversations that we hear help many who discover them. Read those reflections, share your own with our community of listeners, find links on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.

After a short break, more of Parker Palmer’s reflections on the soul in depression. Also, psychologist, poet, and Buddhist thinker Anita Barrows. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett.

Today, “The Soul in Depression.” We’re exploring a growing body of thought on the spiritual aspects of clinical depression and its aftermath. Author and educator Parker Palmer, with whom I’m speaking now, experienced two crippling bouts of depression in his 40s. He recalls a particular thought offered by his psychologist, which helped him reclaim his life. The therapist said: “Parker, you seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend pressing you down onto ground on which it is safe to stand?” Today Parker Palmer writes theologically about depression. He even traces his own collapse back to his midlife conversion to contemplative Quaker tradition.

Mr. Palmer: You know, I think you could make a case that, as a friend of mine once did — I mean, I actually went to a friend at one point. She happens to be a member of a religious community, a sister. And I said, you know, ‘I’ve been on this wonderful Quaker journey, and I’ve been sitting in silence and I’ve learned to pray, and I’ve been feeling so much closer to God than I ever did when I was just clinging to doctrine. Why am I now feeling so full of death?’ And she said, ‘Well, I think the answer is simple: The closer you get to the light, the closer you also get to the darkness.’ And it was another one of those phrases, like the one that my therapist gave me, that I didn’t understand right away, but right away I knew there was some kind of truth in it that I needed to try to understand.

Ms. Tippett: Well, how do you understand that phrase now?

Mr. Palmer: I understand that to move close to God is to move close to everything that human beings have ever experienced. And that, of course, includes a lot of suffering, as well as a lot of joy.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And, you know, and, again, just getting back to the subject of this show, the fact that — I think the thing in the midst of a depression that feels so absent, I would say, is your very soul, right? The ground of your being has dropped out.

Mr. Palmer: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And I don’t even think I could think about God one way or the other. I had to put the idea of God to one side.

Mr. Palmer: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And yet some of the most profound observations that you’re making and that you’re saying that can be possible out of some depression are precisely about those aspects of human experience.

Mr. Palmer: Right. And, you know, as I said earlier, as best I can reconstruct it — and a lot of it’s hard to reconstruct because, you know, you’re so out of it that I don’t entirely trust my capacity to reconstruct it. But as best I can reconstruct it, like you, the thought of God, all of those theological convictions, were just dead and gone during that time. But from time to time, back in the woods, that primitive wildness was there. And if that’s all God is, I’ll settle for it. I’ll settle for it easily and thankfully.

Ms. Tippett: When you were talking about how Quaker tradition — that people know how to be silent, I was recalling that passage in what you’ve written about your depression, about the friend who helped you the most, who would just come be with you.

Mr. Palmer: Right. I’ll just tell that story quickly, because it’s such a great image for me. I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, ‘Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go, you know, feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.’ And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this, quote, “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day. And then other people would come and say something along the lines of, ‘Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person. You’ve helped so many people, you’ve written …’

Ms. Tippett: ‘You’re so successful.’

Mr. Palmer: ‘You’re so successful, and you’ve written so well.’ And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, ‘I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.’

There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.

Ms. Tippett: Parker Palmer is the author of many books. He writes about his depression in his book Let Your Life Speak.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Soul in Depression.”

Depression runs through the literature and poetry of every culture. From ancient Greece to the medieval Arab world and into the modern West. It was often approached with the term melancholia. The psalmist of the Hebrew Bible wrote repeatedly of the “pit of despair.” The 16th-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross penned the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” And there is a growing Buddhist literature on such themes.

My next guest, Anita Barrows, has been a practitioner of Theravada Buddhism for most of her adult life, and she has lived with depression as far back as she can remember, first of all, through life with her mother.

Ms. Barrows: My mother would say things like, ‘I talk to God. I talk directly to God, and he answers me.’ And I always sort of had the image when I was a child that God was this, you know, sort of old man, half-shaven, in a bathrobe who had a direct phone line to Sylvia, my mother, but didn’t do very much to help her. I was always — I thought, you know, ‘If she has such a direct line, why doesn’t he make her better?’

What I was told about my mother being in bed so much was that she had warts on her feet. It was kind of an odd thing to have been told. And the warts had a wonderful name. They had an Italian name. It was verruca, which to me sounded kind of like a Hebrew prayer, Baruch atah. And so I was sort of fascinated with the word. But I would sit outside the door to my mother’s bedroom, and I would hear her crying or just sort of wait for her to wake up. And that was very much the experience of my childhood.

I remember even a very strong sort of sensation walking through the door. We lived in an apartment during that middle part of my childhood, from the time I was about seven to 10. And I remember walking through the door and really feeling a change in the atmosphere from the sort of vivid outside world where I loved to be. Whatever the weather, I loved to be outdoors. And I would walk inside and I would feel a kind of permeable darkness, and that was my mother’s depression.

Ms. Tippett: That’s an amazing image. You’re already getting at something that I want to try to sort of bring into the light, which is depression is something many of us have experienced either ourselves or through others. And we talk about it from a medical standpoint and from a psychological standpoint, but permeable darkness is really — it’s really a good description of the wholeness of that …

Ms. Barrows: Yes, permeable in that I could sort of walk in and out of it myself, you know, and put my hand in it and feel what it felt like. And I think that, you know, it was certainly something that my mother lived with all her life, and it’s a state that’s familiar to me as well, although I have lived it differently from the way my mother did.

Ms. Tippett: Anita Barrows had own first struggle with depression at 17, after she left home for college. Then after the birth of her first, much-wanted child when she was 31, she suffered a major collapse. That depression had an organic cause, an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, and after many false diagnoses, it was easily treatable. But like all of us who’ve been touched by depression, whatever its trigger or form, Anita Barrows remains marked by the presence of this illness in her life, and she embraces it actively. As a psychologist, she cautions that the Buddhists embrace of inner darkness can be terrifying and even dangerous in the depths of clinical depression. But like my first guest, Andrew Solomon, she honors the interplay between darkness and light as a commonplace feature of life. She has explored this through writing poetry and translating the work of others. Together with Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, Anita Barrows created a stunning translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours. And as a psychologist who is also a lover of language, she complains that the word “depression” itself does not do justice to this human experience.

Ms. Barrows: It almost becomes a way of dismissing it. I see it much, much more as a kind of a minor-key chord that is a constant accompaniment to one’s life. I mean, I am …

Ms. Tippett: To any life? Or to the life of a person that’s …

Ms. Barrows: To many lives. Well, I think to the life of a person who is inclined in that direction. You know, Rilke loved the darkness, and there are many poems where he speaks about darkness in a way that really, I think, is what drew me to these poems. Can I read one?

Ms. Barrows: (reading)

“I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.
Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.
So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots
embrace:
a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.”

Ms. Barrows: “I love the dark hours of my being,” he says. I mean, I think that there have been times certainly in my life when, you know, the depressed mood — I mean, it’s such a terrible word. The dark mood. It’s a word that has taken on so many rotten connotations, you know. It’s sort of a medical term now. I want to redeem it from the medical and the clinical. There is a point in depression that is so devastating that only in retrospect would anyone want to say, ‘Well, I am glad I touched bottom, because now I know what that is.’ But this other kind of living with darkness, which is so familiar to me, I think is a very sort of spiritual place. I mean, there is a kind of ripening that goes on in that place, a quieting, a listening, a place of non-activity.

Ms. Tippett: Well, and also a loss of illusions about what activity will get you

Ms. Barrows: Exactly. All you can do in that place is kind of sit and listen and be, and be very simple. You know, Rilke again says, “Be modest now, like a thing ripened until it is real, so that he who made you can find you when he reaches for you.”

Ms. Tippett: Here is Anita Barrows’ reading of a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, which she translated with Joanna Macy and subtitled Love Poems to God.

Ms. Barrows: (reading)

“You are not surprised at the force of the storm —
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.
The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that when you plucked the fruit;
now it becomes a riddle again,
and you again a stranger.
Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.
Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.”

Ms. Barrows: Suddenly, in depression you are ripped from what felt like your life, from what felt right and familiar and balanced and ordinary and ordered, and you’re just thrown into this place where you’re ravaged, where the wind rips the leaves from the trees, and there you are. Yeah. Very, very much the soul in depression.

Ms. Tippett: And the word “stranger” in there, which is the complete alienation not only from others but from yourself.

Ms. Barrows: Ah, from oneself, exactly. That’s the worst of it.

Ms. Tippett: I don’t know — there’s just this paradox here that’s running through all the conversations I’m having about this subject and thinking, and you bringing it up again, which is that depression eventually can yield maturity and growth and a kind of spiritual insight and — “a bigger soul” is the way some people might say it — but in the moment, in the depth of that experience, that is what is completely out of the question, that kind of reflection.

Ms. Barrows: Yes, exactly.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, what does that mean? What is this?

Ms. Barrows: Exactly. No, I think that’s absolutely right. And I think that all of the talk about, ‘Oh, well, this will, you know, be really good for your soul or your character, this will make a better person of you,’ feels like absolute rubbish when you’re in the midst of the wretchedness of depression. But I think that in a way, I mean, it almost feels sort of physiological. If the soul were material, I think depression sort of works on it the way you could work a piece of clay, so that it softens and it becomes more malleable. It becomes wider. It becomes able to take in more. But that’s only afterward. In the fire, what you get is the fire.

And this is a poem called “Questo Muro.” It is a phrase from a passage in Dante’s Purgatory. Dante has been in the depths of depression, in the depths of the inferno, and he’s now working his way out of it toward Beatrice, who is — you know, you could call her the soul or the anima. And he and Virgil are climbing the mountain, and all of a sudden they get to a wall of fire, and you can’t go any farther unless you go through it. So this is my poem, and it really is a poem, I think, about finding the courage to persist, to go through that fire.

Ms. Barrows: (reading)

“You will come at a turning of the trail
to a wall of flame
After the hard climb & the exhausted dreaming
you will come to a place where he
with whom you have walked this far
will stop will stand
beside you on the treacherous steep path
& stare as you shiver at the moving wall, the flame
that blocks your vision of what comes after.
And that one
who you thought would accompany you always,
who held your face
tenderly a little while in his hands —
who pressed the palms of his hands into drenched grass
& washed from your cheeks, the tear-tracks —
he is telling you now
that all that stands between you
& everything you have known since the beginning
is this: this wall. Between yourself
& the beloved, between yourself; your joy,
the riverbank swaying with wildflowers, the shaft
of sunlight on the rock, the song.
Will you pass through it now, will you let it consume
whatever solidness this is
you call your life, & send
you out, a tremor of heat,
a radiance, a changed
flickering thing?”

Ms. Tippett: “Questo Muro” by Anita Barrows. Her most recent poetry collection is Kindred Flame. With Joanna Macy, she translated Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Here in closing are the final lines of one of Anita Barrows poems, titled “Heartwork.”

Ms. Barrows: (reading)

“The angle of light
is low, but still it fills
this space we’re in. What interrupts me
is sometimes an abundance. My sorrow, too,
which grew large through summer
feels to me this morning
as though if I touched it
where the thick dark stem
of it is joined to the root, it would release itself
whole, it would be something I could use.”

Ms. Tippett: Earlier in this hour, you heard Parker Palmer and Andrew Solomon.

The kind of reflection and learning that these voices have attained by way of depression can only come after a period of recovery and healing. If you or a loved one are currently suffering from depression, resources are available. The National Institute of Mental Health has a Web site, nimh.nih.gov. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill offers information about local support and resources. That number is 1 (800) 950-6264. You’ll find these and other links and resources listed on our Web site at speakingoffaith.org.

And last fall after the economy began to falter, we began an online project we’ve called Repossessing Virtue, a series of conversations with former guests addressing moral and spiritual aspects of our common economic present. We’ve found these perspectives to be fresh, wise, and challenging, so we decided to weave together some of these voices for next week’s program. And we’ll be producing a second radio program in the coming months dedicated to your voices. We’re hearing a lot of stories in the news about how people’s lives are changing in unanticipated and difficult ways. We’d like to take this a step further and ask how our common sense of meaning and morality is being tested and perhaps changing. Do concepts like trust or community, of reassessing what matters and what sustains you have relevance in your life in different concrete tangible ways? Has something or someone surprised you as you or those around you have faced hard economic realities? Look for links to add your experiences to our Repossessing Virtue series at speakingoffaith.org.

The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, and with help from Amara Hark-Weber and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.

Solomon is author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which won the National Book Award in 2001.

Palmer is an educator, activist, and author of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

Barrows is a poet and psychologist, and translator of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio

(01:11) Statistics on Depression

The statistics presented during the program can be found, along with further in-depth explanation, on the National Institute of Mental Health site for depression. They provide definitions for depressive disorders, causes and symptoms, treatments, and references for clinical studies being conducted.

Of the one in four women who will experience depression, many will encounter a form of post-partum depression. For more information, The National Women’s Health Information Center provides a solid foundation for understanding the symptoms and effects of this illness. American RadioWorks produced a probing piece, “Suffering for Two: The Bind of Maternal Depression,” which presents the mixed or conflicting advice that pregnant women face when weighing the impact of taking anti-depressant medication.

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(01:41–03:40) Music Element

“The Multiples of One” from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale

(02:42) Reference to Solomon’s Book

Andrew Solomon was awarded the 2001 National Book Award for The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. In awarding the prize to Solomon, the judges remarked:

“Practical, lyrical, and expository, The Noonday Demon provides a detailed and comprehensive cartography of the desolate landscape of depression. It is, as the subtitle tells us, an atlas, and like all compendia of maps and strange, unknown countries, it elucidates and renders knowable what otherwise might seem alien and frightening. In the process, this wise and learned book provides information and succor to those who have suffered from the disease and to those whose lives have been touched by it. Retaining the stringency of an acutely democratic attitude — never falling into sentiment — The Noonday Demon forces us to recognize the paradoxical movements of the human spirit.”

(03:15) Article in The New Yorker

In the January 12, 1998 issue of The New Yorker, Andrew Solomon published “Anatomy of Melancholy,” an essay that details the unexpected and debilitating depression that gripped his life for several years. In it, he writes:

When you are depressed, the past and the future are absorbed entirely by the present, as in the world of a three-year-old. You can neither remember feeling better nor imagine that you will feel better. Being upset, even profoundly upset, is a temporal experience, whereas depression is atemporal. Depression means that you have no point of view.

(04:19) Line Cited by Krista

The phrase cited appears in the last paragraph of Solomon’s book, The Noonday Demon:

The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself that I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery.

(07:14) Listing of Medications

Solomon lists several medications he takes to treat his depression. A number of them fall under the umbrella of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). SSRIs are a relatively new, widely used class of antidepressant medication, which includes such drugs with the commercial names of Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. These medications generally treat the organic basis of depression more effectively than older classes of antidepressants, and with fewer serious side-effects. It is believed that they work by allowing the body to make the best use of serotonin and in some cases other brain chemicals — or neurotransmitters — that are depleted when clinical depression is present. Concern has been raised that some SSRIs may heighten the risk of suicide, especially in children and adolescents.

(08:17) Passage from The Winter’s Tale

With relation to the use of medications, Solomon describes in the The Noonday Demon the current, ongoing debate about the natural or authentic self. He says this is not new, but an age-old debate that has been explored by writers such as Thomas Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism and even Shakespeare in the play The Winter’s Tale, which ends with the line, “The art itself is Nature.”

(08:41) Poem by Jane Kenyon

The line, “We try a new drug, a new combination of drugs, / and suddenly I fall into my life again” comes from the poem “Back” by Jane Kenyon.

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(10:10–11:30) Music Element

“Darkwood VII: The Picture” from Dark Wood, performed by David Darling

(12:53) Passage from The Noonday Demon

Solomon says that love is the most important feeling humans have. And, to truly experience love, Solomon adds, one has to be able to experience the great range of emotions—from immense grief to extreme joy. The sentence cited appears in the first paragraph of Solomon’s book, The Noonday Demon:

Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself. Medications and psychotherapy can renew that protection, making it easier to love and be loved, and that is why they work. In good spirits, some love themselves and some love others and some love work and some love God: any of these passions can furnish that vital sense of purpose that is the opposite of depression. Love forsakes us from time to time, and we forsake love. In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.

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(16:30–17:25) Music Element

“Ruins” from Death of the Dream, performed by Steve Heitzeg

(17:30) Essay by Parker Palmer

The essay Krista mentions is included in Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, a compilation of essays by Parker Palmer.

(19:15) Reference to 23rd Psalm

Palmer cites a passage from the Old Testament often read at funerals as a profession of faith in God’s protection and guidance — the Twenty-third Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

(20:53) Citation of Tillich

Paul Tillich (1868 -1965) was an American theologian born in Germany whose discussions of God and faith illuminated and bound together the realms of traditional Christianity, existential philosophy, and modern psychology. His 1952 book, The Courage to Be, which Parker Palmer references, was his most popular work outside the academy.

In his works — including his seminal publication Systematic Theology — Tillich discusses questions about the powers and limits of man’s reason, the nature of God, and the nature of being. He was convinced that the personal God of traditional Western theism must be discarded, but he also believed that religion was necessary for humankind. Tillich holds deep-rooted anxiety is part of the human condition, and cannot be eradicated by therapy. This passage from Systematic Theology illustrates Tillich’s view of the role theologians should play in contemporary society:

[He or she must] participate in the human predicament not only actually—as he always does—but in conscious identification. He must participate in man’s finitude, which is also his own, and in its anxiety as though he had never received the revelatory answer of “eternity.” He must participate in man’s estrangement, which is also his own, and show the anxiety of guilt as though he had never received the revelatory answer of “forgiveness.”

(21:27) Quote from Palmer’s Book

The following extended passage from Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak, appears in the section entitled “From the Inside Looking Out”:

I started to understand that I had been living an ungrounded life, living at an altitude that was inherently unsafe. The problem with living at high altitude is simple: when we slip, as we always do, we have a long, long way to fall, and the landing may well kill us. The grace of being pressed down to the ground is also simple: when we slip and fall, it is usually not fatal, and we can get back up. The altitude at which I was living had been achieved by at least four means. First, I had been trained as an intellectual not only to think—an activity I greatly value—but also to live largely in my head, the place in the human body farthest from the ground. Second, I had embraced a form of Christian faith devoted less to the experience of God than to abstractions about God, a fact that now baffles me: how did so many disembodied concepts emerge from a tradition whose central commitment is to “the Word become flesh”? Third, my altitude had been achieved by my ego, an inflated ego that led me to think more of myself than was warranted in order to mask my fear that I was less than I should have been. Finally, it had been achieved by my ethic, a distorted ethic that led me to live by images of who I ought to be or what I ought to do, rather than by insight into my own reality, into what was true and possible and life-giving to me.

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(24:14–24:30) Music Element

“Parlor Piano” from Death of the Dream, performed by Steve Heitzeg

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(24:50–25:26) Music Element

“Darkwood V: Earth” from Dark Wood, performed by David Darling

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(29:00–29:25) Music Element

“Sonate for flute & piano, Op. 77” from Joseph Jongen: Music for Flute, performed by Marc Grauwels

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(32:34–33:12) Music Element

“Threshing Time Memories” from Death of the Dream, performed by Steve Heitzeg

(33:45) Reference to Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is considered a conservative branch of Buddhism that adheres to Pali scriptures and the nontheistic ideal of self-purification leading to nirvana and is dominant in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Thought to be the language the Buddha spoke during the 5th century BCE, Pali is a dialect of Sanskrit and is the language of Theravada Buddhism. The Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism is composed of a collection of Buddhist writings, the Tipitaka, that are divided into three discrete sections.

A vast number of strains of Buddhism have emerged over time. Learn more about Theravada, Tibetan, and many other forms of Buddhist thought. At the core of each of these sects are the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

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(34:25–34:50) Music Element

“Variations for the Healing of Arinushka” from Piano Icons for the 21st Century, performed by Elena Riu

(34:50) Mention of Hebrew Prayer

“Baruch atah” is a Hebrew phrase meaning “Blessed are you” that often begins Jewish prayers and blessings.

(38:35) First Reading of Rilke Poem

The poem read by Barrows during the show is “Ich liebe meines Wesens Dunkelstunden” and was published in Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

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(40:50–41:18) Music Element

“Variations for the Healing of Arinushka” from Piano Icons for the 21st Century, performed by Elena Riu

(41:06) Second Reading of Rilke Poem

The following passage read by Barrows during the show was excerpted from “Dich wundert nicht des Sturmes Wucht,” as published in Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God:

Be modest now, like a thing ripened until it is real, so that he who began it all can feel you when he reaches for you.

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(44:48–45:05) Music Element

“Caprice No. 1 in A Major” from Midnight on the Water, performed by Mark O’Connor

(45:52) Reading of “Questo Muro”

Anita Barrows’ poem “Questo Muro” was read by the author and can be read in its entirety on the next page.

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(47:44–49:08) Music Element

“Threshing Time Memories” from Death of the Dream, performed by Steve Heitzeg

(47:44) Reading of “Heart Work”

The poem “Heart Work” was written and read by Anita Barrows.

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(49:09–50:52) Music Element

“Prelude No. 24” from Music For Two, performed by Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer

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(50:53–51:46) Music Element

“Caprice No. 1 in A Major” from Midnight on the Water, performed by Mark O’Connor

Recommended Reading

Image of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
Author: Andrew Solomon
Publisher: Scribner (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 576 pages
Image of JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH: Cloth Edition
Author:
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society (1999)
Binding: Leather Bound, 2040 pages
Image of Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
Author: Rainer Maria Rilke
Publisher: Riverhead Trade (1997)
Binding: Paperback, 166 pages
Image of WRESTLING WITH DEPRESSION
Author: William Hulme
Publisher: Augsburg Books (1995)
Binding: Paperback, 128 pages
Image of The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life
Author: John Tarrant
Publisher: Harper Perennial (1999)
Binding: Paperback, 272 pages
Image of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
Author: William Styron
Publisher: Vintage (1992)
Binding: Paperback, 84 pages
Image of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
Author: William Styron
Publisher: Vintage (1992)
Binding: Paperback, 84 pages
Image of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics)
Author: Pema Chodron
Publisher: Shambhala (2000)
Binding: Paperback, 148 pages
Image of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
Author: Parker J. Palmer
Publisher: Jossey-Bass (1999)
Binding: Hardcover, 128 pages
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