When I was in Haiti, high up in a mountain village, I was greeted every morning by a little girl who carried water for her family. The container was as big as her torso, perched perfectly on her sweet head. It seemed too heavy for such a tiny girl and I mentioned this to the pastor’s wife. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we’d like for everyone to have accessible water but really, it’s good for the children to carry water. It is the least of their battles.’ She, of course, was right. I was there to teach about PTSD but during my stay I was informed about their battles for education, gender equality, food insecurity, and opportunity.
‘Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ Plato
That was my mantra as I dove into inner-city ministry twenty years earlier. There were fun battles. Walking through a foot of snow to the latest ‘hole in a wall’ food haunt with friends. Teaching the Sunday School lesson from on top of the classroom table with some nice hip hop moves for ‘Moses’ and, my favorite – being ornery late at night and blaring Luciano Pavarotti into my Tupac driven neighborhood. And, there were dark battles. Perplexing injustice and violence, exhausting vigilance for safety, and the loneliness of pouring myself into others when I was still becoming whoever ‘I’ was. But there was something even more destructive that was leaving my soul ragged and orphaned. Depression and anxiety.
I attended small groups with other twenty somethings living in the city. I probably looked like I connected but internally, I felt void and unmoved always feeling like I was looking in. In staff and community meetings I was robust in debate but would give a big sigh as I crawled into bed feeling a mere shadow of my former self. The only time I truly felt myself was when I sang. I’ve always sang and performed but during those years, I loved worship because I felt alive, like my inner and outer being had finally merged for those few moments.
I remember helping some friends from the Jesus People apartment out of their car. We were talking about simple things. Familiar things. I was ‘spirited’ in my share of the conversation. As the wife gathered her belongings from the back seat her husband looked at me over the top of the car and said, ‘you know, Tam, it is okay to be angry.’ Me, a sweet Kansas girl happy to serve and eager to go that extra mile, angry? Shortly after that conversation one of the young women in our ministry told me, matter of factly, that I was just ‘not real.’ No one had ever said something like that to me. I was the one people sought out not dismissed.
Those two interchanges were simple, almost benign, but enough observation to slice into my façade. I was angry. And, I was submerged, not real and not accessible. I didn’t have a clue what that meant or how to deal with it so I did what any reasonable person would do and had a breakdown and left. It would not be the last time I would slowly, imperceptibly, fade away, and fall apart.
That was before I made frenemies with my nemesis. Before the devastating symptoms there are alarming whispers and I’ve learned to lean in and listen but, mostly, I’ve learned to care for myself. To those who are also the prey of depression and anxiety, this may mirror your own effort to be present instead of being submerged and fighting to breathe. Often and sadly, as a leader, or missionary, or, ‘person of repute’ as my mother would say – you do not get to be depressed or anxious. Which means you are a fool or crazy or, the very worst – needy.
After numerous battles fought, with some won but many lost, I decided that my truest offering might be to merge my 20 years of experience in ministry with the artful ministry of the soul – counseling. I know from experience that the demands of ministry, particularly in impoverished and vulnerable communities, can ‘out-crisis’ my crisis any day leaving me to silently fade and flat line. In combination, I know how vapid and confusing it can be, when faced with the challenge of serving in communities with a prevalence of trauma and consequential mental health decay, all while trying to honor culture and expressed felt needs. But my offer to you would be through my new mantra:
“Living well and beautifully and justly is ALL one thing.” Socrates
When I am not congruent in mind, body and soul, when I do not indulge in beauty and creating beauty, then justice seeking is really a mirage of intention. The Gospel tells me that I am free to float to the top, to engage, to wonder aloud about all these pains and to live in kindness because my battle matters too.
After becoming acquainted with the battles of the people in that mountain village in Haiti, what was it then that unnerved me about that tiny, little girl carrying water on her head every day? Quite simply, it was because it said, ‘I am in need.’ It was Christ, at high noon, asking for a cup from the shamed woman at the well. I get to share a cup of water with Christ when I admit, ‘I am in need.’ And when we all gather at the well, the water just might turn to wine. It’s most often not our choice what we get to carry in life, whether it is water or depression or injustice. The real battle is to be present, flatfooted and standing in our space in this world. I don’t allow my battles to remove me from my life anymore. I carry them, on my head if I have to, so I can live well and beautifully and justly. And that is kindness.
What hidden battles do you carry? What would it cost you to carry them on your head for all to see?
Tamara has over 20 years experience in urban, international, and diverse populations serving complex situations of individuals, teens and families in crisis. She founded and directed two nonprofit organizations in Chicago and Denver serving homeless families, teens, gang members and single mothers, with a focus on addictions, attachment, trauma and life skills. An undergrad student of theology, organizational development, and communications she holds a Masters in Counseling Psychology. Her areas of expertise are trauma and PTSD, addictions, pre/post adoption, therapeutic parenting and attachment, grief and loss and, of course, depression and anxiety. Tamara is a single, adoptive mother who resides in Colorado with her children who amuse her, pets who shed, and friends who make her laugh.