Safe Ground

Apr 16, 2011

Writing when I’m in a dark soul-space is not easy. So much energy goes into the obsessions of my mind and heart; little is left over for connecting to the outside world. My inner judge delights in my dour moods. It loves to throw self-righteous platitudes at me: “Christians are supposed to be happy.” ” If you just had enough faith, you’d trust God more.” “What do you have to be blue or down about? Just look at everything you have.” “Your relationship with Jesus is really puny.” Maybe all of those things are true (I hope not), but those words do nothing to lift me out of the morass I’m in. They just exacerbate my feelings of despair and magnify God’s apparent absence.

This morning I re-read a Parker Palmer book called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Parker Palmer is a Quaker writer, activist, and educator. In this almost pocket-sized 109-page book, he tells about listening for the interior voice of the authentic Parker, the one created as the unique image of God.

During a time of clinical depression a therapist said to him, ” ‘You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?’ ” Palmer says, “I started to understand that I had been living an ungrounded life, living at an altitude that was inherently unsafe.”  (page 66)

An unsafe altitude might mean my ego is too big, floating in the upper stratosphere somewhere. But it could also indicate I’m in some kind of psychic outer space. My legs and arms flail as I try to find some ground to stand on. It feels like I’m floating in someone else’s orbit. Being pressed to the ground gives me the chance to look inside and see whose life I am leading.  The reframing of depression as the intervention of a friend and not an enemy reminds me of Psalm 139:8. “If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there!” (MSG)  God could just be the friend pressing me down and saying “Ground to Sybil, ground to Sybil. Come back to the you I created.” These occasional episodes of darkness are painful and no fun. I want to escape them as fast as possible. The question for me is: How do I stay in that dark and scary but fertile place and listen to the Voice I need to hear? What feels like the “slough of despair” just might be Holy Ground.


  1. Hi Sybil,
    Thanks for the quote – and not least for the clear message about your own state of mind that it conveys.
    Over here in Copenhagen it is very early in the morning on Palm Sunday, and I am preparing for a happy and playful Childrens’ Service. At the same time, the emotions of pain and fear and anxiety from times of depression are very much alive beneath the surface. I will stay with them through the passionate days of Easter. Gethsemane is Holy Ground – the Easter morning Garden is the only place where it was ever said, “He is not here!”
    Love in the valley of darkness
    from Morten

    • Copenhagen! Across a vast distance, we share our journeys of faith. I was in Copenhagen in 2008 for three days. I would have loved to explore the country outside of the city too.
      Thank you for your response to the post. The preacher at my church today said that everyday life is a mini-version of Holy Week–a continuous journey from tragedy to victory. I think I believed for too long that if I was good, life would always be happy. I think I am becoming more a person of compassion by my experiences of sorrow.
      A blessed Holy Week to you.
      God’s Peace,

  2. Thank you for this post. Filing my taxes sent me into the regions of despair last week.


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