07 August 2009

Sometimes You Have No Idea

I recently recommended Pastor Peperkorn's little book, I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression, and I reiterate that recommendation now; not only for my brother pastors, but for anyone who struggles with melancholy or suffers from depression, and also for those with family and friends who struggle and suffer in such ways. Along with that, I offer the observation that sometimes you have no idea that someone you know and love is groping along in that darkness of depression; which suggests the need for care and concern in every case.

Reading Pastor Peperkorn's book has been deeply moving to me, but it was a rather difficult thing for me to do. I put it off for awhile, not simply because I've been so busy (which is true), but because I knew it would be a hard read. It is a humbling thing for a friend to bare his soul in such a courageous way, and it scared me more than a little to get too close to that profoundly personal revelation. I'm very glad to have read what he wrote, especially because he has used his experience as an opportunity to confess the Gospel and to serve the faith of others. I am comforted and strengthened by his words, and better equipped to care for others in turn.

I've known Pastor Peperkorn for many years now, and I count him among my dearest friends and colleagues. Our years at the seminary overlapped, and I was very glad for the privilege of participating in the laying on of hands at his ordination. Although our paths do not cross in person as often as I would like, we have communicated regularly over the past decade and a half. In particular, our lives intersected and we worked together on various different projects from 2004 through 2006. In fact, I was probably closer to Pastor Peperkorn during those two years than I have been at any other point in our friendship. There was the 2004 Convention, and already the preparations leading up to it that spring. The following year was the "Dare to Be Lutheran" Higher Things conference in St. Louis, and then the synodical worship conference in Kenosha that same summer. On the heals of that, as I was preparing to serve as the chaplain at "The Feast" the next year, Pastor Peperkorn was one of the key people I consulted; I regularly sought his advice and learned from his past experience. I spent a couple days in his home in February 2006, when I spoke at a pre-Lenten retreat that he and Pastor Berg hosted.

I was reminded of these things as I was reading Pastor Peperkorn's book, because those events and that time period coincided with the ever-increasing grip of depression that had settled upon my dear friend and colleague. I was somewhat aware of the stress that he was under, the anxiety that he felt, and some of the sorrows that he had suffered, and yet, I really had no idea of the darkness that was creeping over him. It has sobered me and stopped me in my tracks to realize that now. I'm not beating myself up for not realizing what was going on. Many others were unaware, too, and even Pastor Peperkorn himself did not recognize what he was suffering until the tail end of that time. But that is precisely my point: sometimes you have no idea what is going on with your neighbor. No, let me rephrase that, because my point is not to lecture anyone else, but to admonish myself. Sometimes I have no idea what is going on with my neighbor. Which means that I ought to be erring on the side of care and concern for my neighbor, and not allowing myself ever to be careless or cavalier in my conduct or conversation.

It may not be given me to know my neighbor's heartaches and burdens, and it may not be given me to address those concerns. Sometimes, yes, but not always. Nevertheless, I am given to love my neighbor at all times; and love does no harm to the neighbor. It is true that I do cause hurt to my neighbor, usually without intention, and sometimes in ignorance, but also because of my sin; I do and say things that I shouldn't. With Luther, I am grateful for the recourse of the Fifth Petition, and for the neverending grace and forgiveness of God in Christ. But forgiveness is no excuse for carelesssness. Whether I know my neighbor's pain or not, I should not add to it by speaking with anything less than gentleness and kindness.

About the same time that I was reading Pastor Peperkorn's book and realizing these things, it happened that my own Mom was undergoing surgery. I hadn't known until a couple weeks ahead of time that it was going to be more than just a simple outpatient procedure. She would be in the hospital the better part of a week — the same week that I would be at the Higher Things conference in Grand Rapids; in fact, her surgery in Illinois coincided with the first day of the conference. I was feeling very anxious for her, and frustrated with myself for not being able to be there with her and my Dad. It weighed upon my heart and mind throughout that day and most of the next; and it really wasn't until the next day after that, when I was finally able to talk to my Mom by phone, that I was set at ease by how things had gone and where they stood.

In my usual fashion, I didn't really talk to anyone about how I was feeling. On the one hand, I didn't want to rain on everyone's excitement with the conference, but on the other hand, truth be told, I preferred to retreat into my cave and largely withdrew into myself. I retreated into the dark and left everyone else in the dark as to why. In retrospect, it's easy to see that wasn't the right approach, but that is not the point at hand.

Of course I ran into lots of friends and colleagues at the Higher Things conference, and many of them greeted me jovially, really with the lighthearted teasing of friendship and affection. But their well-intentioned comments felt to me like barbs and left me cold and sour inside. Clearly, none of them meant any harm; I know that, and I don't hold anything against them. None of them could have known anything about my Mom, and I certainly didn't communicate anything about it. Instead, I turned away from my friends, retreated further into myself, and no doubt left everyone wondering what my problem was. So I offer no criticism of anyone else for any of this, but there is a lesson here for me again.

Sometimes I have no idea what my neighbor is feeling or going through. And sometimes my neighbor happens to be someone like myself, who doesn't communicate what's troubling him. The point is that I ought to speak to my neighbor with tenderness and care, even if I have no idea of what is going on with him; perhaps all the more so if I have no idea.

Looking back, I don't recall that I said anything careless or cavalier to my dear friend Pastor Peperkorn when he was going through such a personal hell. I hope that I did not. Perhaps I was aware enough of his stress and fatigue to be more considerate than I might otherwise have been. Even so, in the case of a good friend with whom I was working closely, I had no idea the extent of his burdens, hurts and fears. So how many other people do I talk to and communicate with on a regular basis, whom I know far less? Should I be excused from being considerate of them because of my ignorance?

I'm not suggesting that there is never a time for jovial banter and affectionate teasing between friends. That would be a shame. Sometimes such lighthearted fun is helpful to the burdened heart, especially when it is offered in compassion by one who is sharing those burdens in love. That grows out of genuine conversation, out of sympathetic knowledge rather than ignorance. But apart from that, and prior to that, how should I best greet and approach my neighbor? It seems to me that, until I know otherwise, I might do well to speak and act with the same sort of kindness and gentleness and careful consideration that would accompany my conversation and conduct with someone who is mourning the death of a parent, a spouse, or a child. It seems to me that, as a pastor, I ought to approach every conversation with the possibility in mind that the person I am speaking to may be struggling with depression or even on the brink of despair. Not for the sake of being pessimistic, but for the sake of being kind. In any case, God forbid that I should increase the burdens of my brothers in Christ, even if I have no idea what those burdens may be.


Susan said...

I've been thinking about this all week, Rick. There are so many things that I'd love to talk to you about. I can't really say I have loads of comments to make, because too many of my thoughts about your post are still unformed and fuzzy. But there is the one thing that I do want to say.

No matter how deep the depression, no matter how near despair I have been, it has never been a problem to me to have the people around me joking and laughing and being light-hearted. Sometimes I'm just not up to being around people and may hole-up at home or avoid friends. I remember talking about this with Todd once, about how sometimes it is just so draining to be around the very people who could lighten your burdens, and what a conundrum that can be. Sometimes a depressed person needs the jokes and the smiles and the banter of friends, and sometimes she just can't be around it no matter how much she needs it. But when I'm there with the friends, it has been a lifeline to know that the people around me are being jovial ... even when I cannot participate. It's almost like there's some proof in the world that not all is black and sorrowful. Maybe I can't be part of that light and joy, but it exists out there somewhere. And that's actually helpful to know.

The only time "jokes" have been a problem is when I can't tell whether they're insults. If someone has been snapping at me a lot recently and the relationship has become strained, then a teasing/insulting "joke" will deeply hurt.

I haven't read the book yet. I have it. I intend to read it. Soon. But right now I'm thinking it would overwhelm me, so I'm dawdling.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thank you for your comments and insights, Susan. These thoughts of yours are very helpful and appreciated.

The distinction that you make between the banter of friends and the sort of teasing that borders ambiguously on insult is close to what I have intended to distinguish. Genuine friendship includes lightheartedness, humor and good fun; but these things occur within a context of love and a real relationship, so they are necessarily enveloped in care and consideration. Even friends can become careless at times, but that is overcome by the constant of love.

The trouble is that even friends can sometimes be oblivious to what is going on inside their fellows. Assumptions of whatever kind are usually dangerous; although we can hardly avoid them altogether. It has simply been a reminder to me, recently, that I have to guard myself against assumptions, and not proceed on my assumptions as though they were necessarily right. The is part of the Eighth Commandment, narrowly speaking, but it also belongs to the "Second Great Commandment," largely speaking, according to which we love the neighbor as ourselves and do no harm to the neighbor.

Along with that, I encounter lots of people who are not already friends. First impressions can be deceiving -- and that goes both ways. For myself, it has seemed to me that my response to people and my interactions with them ought to proceed with a degree of caution and compassion, rather than leaping out of the blocks with jovial banter and teasing. Whatever my good intentions may be, how can my neighbor know, in such a case, whether I intend to be kind or insulting or cavalier? He needs to know me first, before he can receive such things as love. And I need to know my neighbor, as well, before I can know how to love and care for him.

So it is really a matter of erring on the side of gentleness and kindness, courtesy and respect. I'm not good at reigning myself in that way; hence I admonish myself.

God bless you, Susan, and thank you again for your comments.

Susan said...

Hi, I'm back with another question about this post. I'm puzzling about something. Sometimes the burdens we bear are because of someone else's sin. If it's not a public sin, and if we are covering our neighbor's sin, that doesn't stop it from being a problem for us or our loved ones as we endure the sin committed against us or the resultant problems. But talking to a friend about the situation would make me feel guilty for not "putting the best construction" on the person who has sinned against me. It seems to me a very different thing to share the grief of your heart when your mother is having surgery, as opposed to when sharing your grief would mean exposing someone's sin. But if that were right, then does that mean we're left alone with the grief and the struggle?