“Good morning, Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning, which I doubt,” said he.
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
“Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”
I wish my kids called me Eeyore. There’s something lovable and romantic about the stuffed donkey with the buttoned-on tail that always seems to go missing. I could imagine myself walking through a pleasant wood as a solitary raincloud tracks my every move, my damp ears drooping to the ground. “Oh, Eeyore,” they’d say, “let’s go to Pooh’s and have some hunny.”
Instead, my children call me “Crabby Ima” (that’s Hebrew for “Mom”). My younger child keeps insisting that I need a pin, or a hat, or a sticker with bright red pincers, a warning that today Ima isn’t exactly a Pooh Bear.
Parenting is hard. Parenting in a pandemic is hard. Parenting when you’re part of a maligned or oppressed group is hard. Parenting when you have past personal or transgenerational trauma is hard. And parenting with depression is hard.
Sometimes, people don’t get it. They’re Pooh, assuming we all can, and we all just are refusing to muster the gaiety and the song-and-dance and the here-we-go-round-the-mulberry bush. “I’m depressed,” you try to say. “Why? What do you have to be sad about?” they reply. Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing.
If you search “Judaism” and “depression,” you’ll quickly come upon the life and work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism. Nachman, and his great-grandfather, brought a combination of deep learning and intuitive, emotional spirituality to his Jewish practice and teaching. To Rebbe Nachman is attributed the saying, “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.”
Sometimes I get annoyed reading Rebbe Nachman’s words, as if they’re more of the same: smile, and you’ll feel better. The sun’ll come out tomorrow:
מִצְוָה גְּדוֹלָה לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד, וּלְהִתְגַּבֵּר לְהַרְחִיק הָעַצְבוּת וְהַמָּרָה שְׁחֹרָה בְּכָל כֹּחוֹ
It is a great mitzvah to be happy always, and to strive to distance bitter and black sorrow with all one’s strength. (Likutei Moharan II 24)
To strive, lehitgaber, to overcome. It’s from the same root as gever, which also means “man” or “male.” I see it on the page and I cannot help but think, Man up. Boys don’t cry. Don’t be such a wussy. What do you have to be so sad about?
I don’t really think that’s what Rebbe Nachman, or Judaism in general, could possibly expect of me: to fake it till I make it, act happy, and ignore my Eeyore-ness. Rather, Rebbe Nachman takes an important step that so many people who have never experienced clinical depression do not know how to take: he validates the blackness, the bile, the sad and scary pit.
Rebbe Nachman assures us, […] גַּם לֵב נִשְׁבָּר הוּא טוֹב מְאֹד, “[…] also a broken heart is very good.” Yet, he warns us that we can become lost in the brokenness if we have no place to direct that sadness, that bile, that brokenness and depression. Bind the sadness, give it the boundary of time, he suggests: give yourself an hour a day to sink right on into it. For Nachman, the Place to which we direct our depression is God.
Nachman’s way wasn’t exactly a macho, stoic refusal to feel. Not at all. His practice was to dedicate time to go out to the woods, alone, in hitbodedut, a lonely solitude, and plead and pray to a God who listened. A God who could reply to Eeyore, Don’t worry. You need not give Me any song-and-dance. I can hold your sadness, because I am Vast. But I can also hold Hope. And I can hold you.
Some years ago, a rabbinic mentor of mine asked a group of us to each bring a verse from Psalms that expressed our spiritual state. I could practically feel his pity oozing over me when I read my selection; I could hear in his subsequent concern about my depression, which comes in waves, which allows me to function at an extremely “high” level when judging by capitalist standards of productivity and education, which also contributes to my empathic nature, my personality, and all my strengths — I could hear only judgment. Depression would make me a failure, he implied. Depression would get in the way of my making a real and lasting impact.
Here’s the thing: depression is a part of human experience. And it is a part of my human experience. I am a very responsible, help-accepting, self-driven depressed person. It is not a flaw or a fault. And when I searched for a Psalm that spoke to me, I found in an ancient and sacred text, the lines that spoke to me:
דָּ֭מִיתִי לִקְאַ֣ת מִדְבָּ֑ר הָ֝יִ֗יתִי כְּכ֣וֹס חֳרָבֽוֹת׃ שָׁקַ֥דְתִּי וָאֶֽהְיֶ֑ה כְּ֝צִפּ֗וֹר בּוֹדֵ֥ד עַל־גָּֽג׃
I resemble a great owl in the wilderness, an owl among the ruins. I lie awake; I am like a lone bird upon a roof. (Tehillim/Psalms 102:7–8)
I’m not sad about it. It’s a metaphor. I resemble. I am like. Depression washes over a person, like Eeyore’s raincloud, and shapes the way we see the world. But the cloud isn’t us. The depression isn’t us.
Rebbe Nachman says that depression is the opposite of יִשּׁוּב־הַדַּעַת, yishuv ha’da’at, a settled mind. I can relate to that, and perhaps you can, too: Depression does sometimes interfere with our ability to make clear decisions, to focus on one task. It’s not stubbornness, though Milne depicted it as a donkey, that stubborn creature who refuses to move. And yet, donkeys are reliable, plodding but sure-footed creatures. They’re wary of danger and take their time. Not the worst thing to be.
The approach I take to most things, especially to mental health, is dialectical: a refusal of binary thinking that embraces reality while continuing to seek change. Marsha Linehan made this approach popular and accessible; her method refuses the invalidation that compounds the suffering of far too many people who struggle with depression. There’s no “get over it,” no “somebody else has it worse,” no “what do you have to be so stressed about?”
Parenting while depressed isn’t here-we-go-round-the-mulberry-bush. It isn’t excellent home-schooling lesson plans or enthusiastic crafts. But it isn’t insurmountable.
The lesson I teach my children by parenting with depression is multifaceted: Human beings cry, and that’s okay. Sometimes motivation comes from within, and sometimes it comes from without (the dishes in the sink, or the need my child has for a snack, both of which get me off the couch). Sometimes joy is easy to muster, and sometimes it isn’t. Through it all, you are loved, and cared for, and safe.
I take my hope from validation: it comforts me to know that I am not the only Eeyore in the world. It comforts me to be able to say, Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. It comforts me to say yes to the reality of depression, while simultaneously saying yes to the call to put one foot in front of the other, to parent while crabby. It comforts me to stop trying to be Pooh Bear and joke about my depression with my kids, to smile and turn my hands into pincers as they laugh at our reality.
I take my hope from Jewish tradition, which embraces the dialectical approach that speaks to my mind, body and soul. It’s the tradition that contains the complex emotional drama of the Psalms, with their depths and heights. I am a lone bird on a rooftop, yes. But I know, too, that there is constancy and hope in the world. I know “that You are You” (Tehillim/Psalms 102:28). Like the Psalmist, I end my prayer with a thought not only to myself, but to the future beyond myself: “May the children of Your servants dwell securely and their offspring endure in Your presence.”
The mulberry bush will still be there, tomorrow.