Having It Out With Melancholy

Having It Out With Melancholy

I remember the first day I met Rita. She attended a Bible study I taught every Tuesday morning for senior citizens. It was our custom at the end of class to go around the room, ask for prayer requests, and pray for each other. Every week Rita asked the class to pray for the same thing—that Jesus would give her strength to make it through another week. Her request never changed. By the tears in her eyes each week, we could tell she was carrying a heavy load.

One day after class I asked Rita if she wanted to share her struggle with me. “It’s my husband, Bill,” she said. “His temper is so volatile. I don’t know if I can make it.” Rita was a quiet woman, barely five feet tall and ninety pounds soaking wet. Thinking I clearly understood the situation, I became angry. “I’m coming over tomorrow to straighten him out,” I said. “Leave this to me.”

The next day as I sat down in their living room, Bill cut me off before I could say a word. “I know why you’re here,” he said. “Rita told me she shared with you that we’re having a rough time. She’s an angel. She really is. She’s God’s gift to me. I know I’m difficult to live with, pastor, but I’ve walked a dark road.” Then he clasped his hands together, leaned forward, and told me a story that made me feel like someone had punched me in the stomach. Bill had fought in World War II and was taken prisoner by the Germans. They shuttled him around to different places, but eventually he landed in a death camp with a name I vaguely remembered from high school history class: Buchenwald.

Life at Buchenwald was horrific. The guards routinely stripped the prisoners and forced them to walk naked through the fields in the middle of winter. They played mind games, lining up the prisoners as if they were going to be shot and then sending them back to their barracks. Prisoners were beaten and tortured relentlessly; most were killed. The bodies of those who were murdered were thrown into pits of lime to decompose.

Bill told me about a comrade of his with a beautiful eagle tattooed on his back. The camp commander’s wife admired the tattoo, and one day Bill’s friend disappeared. A few months later Bill walked by the commander’s house, looked through a window and saw a lampshade decorated with his friend’s tattoo. Women in the camp were raped by prison guards and then, months later, the guards would wrap their legs with rope and force the entire camp to watch the women and babies die in labor.

When I met him, Bill had broad shoulders and stood at least six feet four. As he talked, he reached under the coffee table and pulled out a photo album and pointed to a picture of a skeleton on a stretcher. “Do you see that?” he said. “When they liberated the camp, I weighed less than ninety pounds.”

Poet Jane Kenyon is the only person who has ever come close to describing the despair Bill shared with me that day. In her poem “Having it Out with Melancholy,” Kenyon writes:

When I was born, you waited

behind a pile of linen in the nursery,

and when we were alone, you lay down

on top of me, pressing

the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on

everything under the sun and moon

made me sad – even the yellow

wooden beads that slid and spun

along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.

You ruined my manners toward God:

“We’re here simply to wait for death;

the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,

to live among blocks and cotton undershirts

with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes

and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.

I was already yours – the anti-urge,

the mutilator of souls.

That was Bill’s struggle. From the time he got up until the time he went to bed, he battled the “anti-urge.” No wonder he had mood swings. How does someone keep from committing suicide after experiences like his? Honestly, I couldn’t even talk. I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I literally couldn’t speak. I excused myself and went into the bathroom to try to regain my composure. I felt like I was going to vomit. When I came back to the living room, Bill sensed I was struggling; he graciously put his hand on my arm and said, “It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. Jesus will get us through this.”

I couldn’t have been any more awestruck than if I had personally witnessed the Red Sea part before the children of Israel. Bill and Rita’s perseverance was miraculous. How could they endure so much and still hang on to life and each other? Their story illustrates that while instantaneous miracles are amazing when they happen, they are not nearly as amazing as miracles of perseverance.

Why? Because God performs instantaneous miracles by himself. They’re amazing, but let’s face it, he is God—they should be amazing! Perseverance miracles, on the other hand, depend on God and human beings to happen. When perseverance miracles occur, the jury is always out on whether someone like Bill or Rita can get up the next morning and say, “I choose life!” Every time that miracle happens, I guarantee it is not because of the multiple antidepressants Bill swallows every morning. They help, I’m sure, but they’re not the main reason his clay jar stays intact.

Bill and Rita get up every morning and face another day because an “all-surpassing power” sustains them even in their darkest moments.



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