Recently, on the fourth day of not feeling well – I don’t really know how to describe what I was feeling, because it didn’t seem to fit a simple label, just involved some achiness, no appetite, low energy, a weak feeling (a weak feeling? What kind of illness is that??) – I was browsing through my bookshelf and reached out my hand for an old volume. It’s called Darkness before Dawn: Redefining the Journey through Depression, edited by Tami Simon, founder and publisher of Sounds True.


The Power of the Right Words


Something drew my attention, but it wasn’t the word “depression.” It was darkness. And then I opened to the fourth chapter, an interview with Mary Pipher, whose first book (Reviving Ophelia) I read years ago. Tami Simon asks her about her view of depression, and she replies that she prefers the word despair because depression has been pathologized by pharmaceutical companies and mental health professionals. (She is also a clinical psychologist.) Here are her words: “Despair happens when our inner and outer resources are not sufficient to cope with the world as we’re experiencing it.” (p. 36) Despair, she goes on to say, is “a healthy response to reality in 2014.” If it was appropriate in 2014, I thought, it’s even more so in our current world…

Darkness, Despair. And then (exploring, Amazon, of course), I discover that in 2013 she published The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in a Capsized Culture, about our response to the global environmental crisis. I’m just encountering this book in 2024. I haven’t read it yet (have ordered it!), but somehow this is all coming together. What is really drawing my attention is the crucial importance of acknowledging darkness and despair in our present lives and global reality.


Personal and Planetary


And yes, having spent most of my professional life focusing on loss and grief, I now see them as both personal and planetary. In the context of climate change, many of us are experiencing grief for the losses that are taking place all around us – weather disasters and deaths, fear of impending loss, homelessness and helplessness, grief for the lives we had envisioned, for our children, for the loss of natural environments and creatures. And then, of course, there are unfolding changes in American culture and politics as well as international threats – all potentially gathering together, in the form of “darkness and despair.”

Loss and grief feel like unavoidable aspects of life on the planet – and we are encountering a new scale and momentum, as well as considerable doubt about whether there is still time to change the course we are on. “Clinical depression” is a recognized pattern that often has biological as well as emotional and cognitive components, and it’s widely recognized, of course. But the term does not do justice to the scale, circumstances, and timeline of our lives now. It is inadequate, to say the least. We can’t reasonably assign this clinical category to the multitude of us who are experiencing darkness and despair in response to the environmental and sociopolitical circumstances of our lives, both present and looming in our near future.


Waking Up?


The title of the Mary Pipher chapter in this book on “Darkness” is “Despair Cracks Open Our Hearts.” And despair, she suggests in closing, “is the portal to waking up.”

Can our hearts crack open? Can we wake up? What would that feel like? look like?

I am reminded of a longtime favorite poem by Christopher Fry, “A Sleep of Prisoners.”

The human heart can go the lengths of God…
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.

Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.

Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake…
But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

You may prefer to find another word for “God.” I often find myself drawn to the word “Mystery”. But whatever word speaks to you, in light of what we have created and what we are facing, can we hear the call in the closing question:


“Will you wake for pity’s sake?”



(Photo credit:  iStock imtmphoto, “Asian family on beach at sunrise.” This image evokes in me a sense of standing together, as a family, gazing at a new sunrise, and – wondering what the day brings? hoping for light and a peaceful day, together…)