Health of the Self
Rev. Douglas Taylor
This past week Gallup polling released results from its annual ‘Health and Healthcare’ survey which it does every November since 2001. In this poll, Americans are asked to report on their own mental or emotional wellbeing. You could say your mental health is “excellent, good, only fair or poor.” Since the onset of this polling, the results have been rather consistent, around 85% of respondents rating themselves either Good or Excellent. The range over the years has gone at high as 89% and down to 81%. Until this year, of course, when the numbers dropped to 76%.
This is not a crisis. But it is a notable variation in an otherwise rather consistent trend. It’s like the whole world is sad and stressed. The obvious culprit in this scenario is the CoVid-19 pandemic. People are feeling constrained and uncertain about the future. There are financial concerns and health concerns weighing heavily on people’s minds – which exacerbates one’s sense of mental wellbeing.
The analysis of the polling results gets even more interesting when you notice some of the demographic subgroups and how they responded. Nearly every subgroup saw a decrease the number of people reporting themselves to have excellent mental or emotional wellbeing: both male and female, Republican, Independent, and Democrat, married, non-married, white, non-white, all the age ranges and income brackets. The news is that women dropped by more points than men – but women dropped 10 points while men dropped 8. (A notable exception is the political affiliation, but remember the survey was done just after the election last month so Democrats dropping by a small number and Republicans by a larger number is easy to interpret.)
In general, the trend is that across-the-board fewer people report their mental and/or emotional wellbeing as good or excellent. There is one additional anomaly in this report that I’ll come back to in a few minutes. But let me first ask:
How are you doing? This has been a rough year. Would you say your mental and emotional wellbeing is excellent or good? Would you rate it as fair or poor? How are you doing?
Me? I would not rate my mental health at Excellent or even Good this year. It has not been a good year for me. It has been good in the past – I think most of the time I have served as minister to this congregation my mental health has been good. But this year my mental health has been fair to middling with bouts of awful. I have been struggling mightily this year with depression.
I tell you this for two reasons – and neither of those reasons is that I need you to take care of me. I have my colleagues and friends; I have my family and my medical professionals to support me. I mention my own struggle not because I need you to fix me or save me. I am getting the help I need.
Instead, I mention my own struggle with depression for two reasons in particular. First, to serve as a witness. You may be in a bad spot yourself. Mental illness has a weighty stigma clinging to it. In her book Stubborn Grace, UU minister Kate Landis talks about how religion in particular would in the past (and in some corners still today) equate mental illnesses with moral failings or displeasure from god. To this day, people bury their shame and hide in secrecy rather than reveal something like the struggle I’ve been in. So, I bear witness. This is hard enough without adding secrecy and shame to the mix. You may be struggling with a mental illness. You are not alone. God is not against you. Your faith community can be of support to you.
The second reason I mention my own struggle is for acknowledgement. You may have witnessed me these past nine months stumbling now and then; and you may have thought to yourself, ‘he’s not doing well.’ I share my struggle to acknowledge what you may have wondered about. You were right. Part of what happens in my depression is I drop important things, I forget things, I get exhausted and can’t follow through on things. So, I offer this as acknowledgement. I’ve been working on ways to overcome these difficulties. I have some tricks and strategies to keep up with it all. If you’ve been concerned, I want you to know you have a good eye, trust yourself, thank you.
And, if you have not been concerned – if you had no idea how much I have been struggling, don’t feel bad, I am very good at hiding my struggling. I am working on not hiding so much. I’ve been working on not hiding for years. I shared with key leaders and staff what I’ve been going through a couple months back.
And if you are wondering about your own mental wellbeing, I encourage you to find support. This is not a time in which to deal with difficulties alone.
There is a snippet of a song I find keeps returning to me – it is from a music ensemble called Silver Mt Zion. https://soundcloud.com/ifnotnow/when-the-world-is-sick-1 “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” Such a compelling statement, an indictment, and acknowledgement, and a calling back into our better natures. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.”
The whole world is sick right now. The Covid-19 pandemic obviously, but in other insidious ways as well. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” And when the world is sick – how much harder it is for you to keep your head up and keep yourself in a positive frame of mind. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” We are not going to be stuck like this forever. We are going to round this bend, we will turn this corner, the planet will swing on its axis and the sun will shine more again, and it will happen soon – sooner than you expect. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” This too shall pass.
If you find you need a little extra support right now, a little more than you usually do to get through, by all means, reach out and connect. Now is not the time to hide or to push through on your own. Because I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.
Something turns the ache and pain around, or at least frames in within a context of hope. Something else is happening beyond just this pandemic, beyond just my depression, beyond the suffering you and others experience. Something else is also going on. Something leads us to dream we are beautiful and strong, leads us to become more beautiful and strong.
There is a delightful little surprise in that Gallup pole I mentioned at the beginning. The poll said that everyone is feeling a little worse off than last year. Some demographics are less bad, but everyone has lost ground their self-assessment of their mental and emotional wellbeing. Every demographic except one. There is one subgroup that actually gained ground, one subgroup whose numbers increased from 2019 to 2020 in their assessment of their mental and emotional wellbeing. It is the category of people who attend religious services weekly.
This is like finding an article that says people who eat a lot of cheese live longer and I eat a LOT of cheese so I would send copies of that article to all my friends and family as proof that I’m going to be okay. (Except in the real example it is about going to church rather than about eating cheese, so I probably still need to cut down on how much cheese I eat. But that’s a topic for another sermon perhaps.)
Over this past year, people who attended a worship or prayer service weekly showed an increase how many of them say their mental wellbeing is good or even excellent.
In her book Held, Rev. Barbara Meyers talks about the value of religious community in healing and recovery, in mental wellness. She says
“People heal in relationship to other people, and acceptance in a community where their presence is honored and where they can be honest about the mental health challenges they face is central to recovery and to living with their situation.” (p23)
In her book, Meyers lifts up the Eight Dimensions of Wellness. Included in the list of eight, as you might expect, are emotional and spiritual wellness. The list also has social, intellectual, and environmental wellness; along with physical, occupational, and financial wellness – which some may see like a stretch. But when you think about it: if you do not have physical or financial wellness, you are more susceptible to being unwell emotionally or spiritually. Mental Illness resides in our brains and as such, effects our entire being.
And week after week, we here in this congregation talk about bringing your whole self to the experience of worship. We talk about needing to nourish our intellect as well as our spirits and our emotions. We talk about service – physical and financial ways to help the world around us. We are a community of healing. Our faith communities are not therapy centers. Instead we are centers of hope and humanity. We are not medical professionals. We are simply communities of caring people. Who better to heal the broken than those of us who are also broken?
There is an old and deceptively light book entitled, The Gospel According to Peanuts which is brimming with wisdom. In one strip, Linus is sitting there, eating his sandwich, and he becomes absorbed in his own hands. “Hands are fascinating things.” He says, “I like my hands, I think I have nice hands. My hands seem to have a lot of character.” His sister Lucy looks up with a puzzled expression while Linus goes on. “These are hands which may someday accomplish great things…. These are hands which may someday do marvelous works…. They may build a mighty bridge, or heal the sick, or hit home runs, or write soul-stirring novels.” And then he turns to Lucy with a flourish saying, “These are the hands which may someday change the course of destiny.” Lucy looks at his hands, looks up at Linus, and says, “They’ve got jelly on them.”
But we’re the only ones here to take care of each other. We all have jelly on our hands. Annie
There is no one but us. There is no one to send, not a clean hand or a pure heart on the face of the earth or in the earth—only us… unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and uninvolved. But there is no one but us. There has never been. – Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (1977)
We are a congregation of jelly-fingered people, of struggling lovers of life, of brokenly half-woke wanderers trying to find our way through to the next day. And the way we are going to make it is by helping each other. By shining God’s love on one another’s woundedness.
Over the years of my own journey with depression and as a witness to the journeys of others with various other mental illnesses, I can tell you that our congregations save lives. Our congregations serve as centers of hope and simple humanity. We spread the message that God is not a bully counting our sins and ready to fling us into punishment and suffering. The world is not rigged, we declare, it is not designed for catching us in mistakes.
When we falter, when we slip, we are here to help each other. Do not hide your sadness or your pain, we are here to help each other. That’s the amazing thing about this or really any religious community that is doing the work of the spirit – however that manifests. We are God’s hands, helping each other to rise again. Our hands, our jelly-covered, broken, grief-stained hands are the hands of grace in a world of heartache.
How are you doing? Are you holding on? I need you to hang in there. I can help. Me? I’m better than I was earlier this year, but I’m still kinda battered. But I know how we’re going to make it through. I’ve seen the kindness and the care that runs like a golden thread throughout this community. I have witnessed the grace. I have experienced our healing. And I have dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.
In a world without end
May it be so
May the salvific simplicity of friendship surround us
May the grace of God’s love pour over us and through us
And may all that hinders and isolates us be hushed
in strength of that simplicity and of that grace.