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“Life on Saturn or the Gifts of Depression”

Cheryl L. Ackerman

Walpole Unitarian Church Dec 21, 2014


            In recent years, the term “melancholy” has been replaced with the more clinical & serious sounding term, “depression.”  This subtle shift of how our culture perceives this aspect of our soul creates a negative judgment and less appealing quality.  It is perhaps why a person who is depressed is generally seen as someone who is maladaptive; someone who needs to be separated from society nehind the locked doors of psychiatric hospitals to be treated….and hopefully cured. 

          During the Middle Ages, melancholy was closely identified with the Roman god, Saturn, and the sixth planet of our solar system that was named for him.  “To be depressed was to be ‘in Saturn,’ and a person chronically disposed to melancholy was known as a ‘child of Saturn’.”  (Thomas Moore)  This connection between depression and the planet Saturn makes a great deal of sense to me because when I’m caught in its grip, I feel as though I’m marooned in an isolated, distant, hostile, cold and desolate place.  I feel so very alone, but actually this is not the case.  In fact, on average, a person will experience two prolonged periods of significant depression over the course of their life.

          So, why then is this topic so difficult to talk about?  Why is it so hard to communicate such a widely shared experience?  During the past few years of my involvement with this church, and particularly being a part of the Worship Committee, I’ve been searching for a way to approach this topic that I’ve come to know so well, yet know so little about – depression.   But how? How can it be framed within the context of a worship service?  How can it be given a voice and a valid place in our hearts? 

          Last year, I read Thomas Moore’s, Care of the Soul.  Reading his book didn’t, by and means, ‘cure’ my depression, but it did forever change the way that I experience it.  In his chapter, “Gifts of Depression”, Moore writes “Melancholy gives the soul an opportunity to express a side of its nature that is as valid as any other, but is hidden out of our distaste for its darkness and bitterness.” (Thomas Moore) 

          “Fake it ‘til you make it.”  This is a slogan that’s widely used in the ‘treatment’ of addiction, as well as for mental health issues, with which lately I have come to strongly disagree – especially as it applies to depression.  By denying its existence, the vast emptiness of depression may well leave us, but it will most likely be replaced with – nothing.  We could be denying ourselves its greatest gift of all.  Perhaps, when we honor depression (note: not the same as wallowing in it) and give it a strong voice and valid place in our soul, we can allow it to “…carve out an interior space where wisdom can take up residence.”  (Thomas Moore)

          Many Renaissance gardens were intentionally designed to include a dark, shaded and secluded area which as dedicated to Saturn, known as a bower. In this space a person could sit quietly and enter the persona of depression.  Over the past couple years, I’ve had the privilege of keeping our tower clock wound.  Often, while I was up in the steeple, I would sit for an hour or two in total silence, with just the sound of the pendulum to keep me company.  In a very real sense that space served as a bower for me and it has been an invaluable resource in getting through a very depressed time in my life.

          Somewhere along the way, our culture seems to have lost this desire to honor and respect the saturnine qualities of depression.  Our public buildings and institutions are often referred to as ‘centers’, disallowing the centrifugal nature of Saturn – its need to pull away from the center.  We design our hospitals and schools with ‘common areas’ for gathering and community but offer no spaces for withdrawal and solitude.  Even the word ‘depression’ has become synonymous with literal failure.  Areas of urban decay, with their boarded up homes and failed businesses are referred to as depressed areas.  The catastrophic failure of the economy is called a depression.  When that same vilified term is used to describe an aspect of our soul, it becomes an unwelcome intruder.  Our natural impulse is to ignore it; to hide behind a mask of cheerfulness, busy ourselves with less meaningful activities, and numb it away with substances and behaviors.  Failing these strategies, we are often diagnosed and treated, medically or otherwise.

          Is it possible that there are valuable lessons to be learned from searching the deepest and darkest recesses of our soul?  Are there new insights to be gained by shifting our perspective from viewing depression as a disease in need of a cure, to honoring Saturn in his more traditional role of teacher and healer?  A couple months ago, during our worship service at Hallelujah Farm [in Chesterfield, NH] Antonia spent some time with our kids to teach them (and the rest of us as well) about how death in nature could be viewed as merely a single point along a continuous circle of life. 

          In her example, a mighty oak tree will eventually reach the end of its usefulness and die, but then the decaying remnants of that tree will ultimately provide the nutrients and rich topsoil which will sustain new life….and the cycle continues. 

          Certainly depression can lead to suicide and death, in a very literal sense.  But it also causes a more figurative death and decaying of our soul.  Perhaps, it is by giving voice to that sense of emptiness and decay within us that we will be provided with valuable nutrients and rich topsoil which will nurture and sustain the wisdom of fresh insight, self-awareness and understanding, both of ourselves and of the world of which we are a part. 

          “To go within ourselves and then emerge more whole.  Perhaps with that deep awareness of the unknown, and unanswerable but with a sense that we are part of that web of living.”  (Rev. Telos Whitfield)

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