This week I decided to skim over the Preseli Mountains (a range of hills really) to go, as a treat, to Marks and Spencers, a 50 minute drive away. I took the dogs, and parked on the highest point, to give them a run. My foster-dog, Piko, is a sheep chaser so he had to stay on the lead but Percy and Pip ran off happily, excited and full of joy. We met a youngish bloke who stopped to make a fuss of all three of them, telling me that he loves dogs but can’t have one because he works full-time, and then that his old sheepdog died a few weeks ago, up in Sunderland with his parents. They’re self-isolating and he lives down here so he hasn’t been able to see them, or his old dog, for months. That dog was his companion all through his teenage years, they went to sheep trials together, camped together, were inseparable. As we walked on, talking about isolation and loneliness and all the usual stuff, he told me that as a single man he’s sinking into despair, and he doesn’t know how to keep on going. For the purposes of this blog I’ll call him Guy, because he was a definite guy, hiking boots, hairy calves, bearded face. He was at the end of a three hour hike, while I was pottering around the car park, so we took a circular route for a while, and then we went on a little mini-hike on a level track (at my usual pace of 4 miles per fortnight – he must have felt that he was in slow motion).
I suffered from depression for chunks of my life, and in my twenties after a rough start in life and a bad first marriage, the black dog could floor me, defeat me completely. It’s never helpful to tell someone in the depths of despair that you know how they feel, but when the opportunity comes to walk alongside (literally and metaphorically) it’s good to take it and, mostly, to listen. It was a bright squally day, and the wind carried a suggestion of rain, but the sky was amazingly blue over the sea with great tumbling cathedrals of cloud inland, whiter than the whitest white. It was just wonderful up there, with Wales at our feet, the sea to one side, the distant chimneys of Milford Haven on the horizon, a patchwork of fields and moors below us.
After quite a few minutes, trying to understand first what his life is like, hearing the flat monotony of his lonely daily routine, I was able to tell Guy that I once saw the world as he sees it now. I told him about the hopelessness I once felt, empty and cold, about my attempted suicide, and how, when I was recovering in hospital my witty Military Police friends sent me a large bottle of joke-aspirin with the ‘Get Better Soon” card amended to read “Do It Better Soon.”
I told him how, as a non-Christian, I found a key that kept me going. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but for me it was the realisation that this misery would pass, fade. Sounds easy? It wasn’t – it took years to recognise that simple fact. I remember very clearly the effort that it took, the determination and sheer bloody mindedness to say to myself, in the very depths of suicidal thoughts “This will pass, just like it passed last time, and the time before. Hold on. Hold on.” It’s exhausting, jaw clenching, just dragging from one day into the next, such effort, such exhaustion. Guy’s eyes lit up at that “Yes. It’s exhausting. That’s right!”
My determination back then to ‘hold on’ wasn’t born of hope, or a promise of certain cure, it was knowledge born out of experience. I had been that way before. “This is not for ever’ was what I knew, and that kept me plugging on. Holding on. Even when my mind screamed disbelief and despair, my intellect said “This won’t last for ever. It never does.”
And we spoke about the cyclical nature of most depression, about Samaritans and counselling, about the unreliability of emotion, the strength and drag of emotion, the lies our emotions tell us, and then… then I told him about Jesus.
I told him that now, when the black dog creeps out of the shadows, as it does sometimes, I no longer say ‘Hold on, hold on.” Now, I say simply “Jesus”. Calling to him. Knowing he’s there, even when I feel that he isn’t. Knowing for certain, born out of experience, that Jesus is steadfast and present and reaching out. The only lasting true answer to all our broken-ness. I think Guy, big and young, was bemused to be called broken, but he got it – and I think he forgave me burbling. You know, up there at the top of the world, on a fabulous day like that, talking about the God you love… you gotta burble a bit, eh? And I was well into it now, talking about Jesus. Not as smoothly as I do in the written word.. lots of stumbles and back-ups and loads of ‘you know’ as I shamelessly name-dropped, again and again, about this God I know, about our relationship. Amazing! Me and God! I mean…me!
That makes me smile and reminds me of someone – someone who’s a terrible, terrible, incorrigible name dropper. She’s sort of famous for it. We met for coffee a few weeks ago and she claimed a close acquaintance with the biggest name she’s dropped yet. EVER! I had to put a hand to my mouth to hide a grin. How I missed being able to hurry over to Jane’s cottage (she died last year) , where she would have been waiting with glee for the name-drop news… I can hear her now, “Come on, count up… how many MP’s, Booker Prize Winners, Nobel laureates, members of royalty today?” If she was still here, she would have done a little dance of delight, and together we would have chortled with satisfaction.
I hasten to say that my name-dropping friend is not a fantasist. She really has met all these luminaries, in a long life full of achievement and adventure. It’s just funny, and endearing too, because she basks a little in the reflected glory of people I don’t give a hoot about. Whenever we meet I have an old ditty playing in the recesses of my mind, “Lloyd George knew my father, father knew Lloyd George.” That’s one of the few names she hasn’t laid claim to.
Names are powerful. They summon an image to mind. A reality. The name of Jesus is the most powerful name the world has ever known. As we spoke about him, he came into our minds, into our awareness you could say. I’m sure his name meant more to me than it did to Guy, but there was a common sort of ‘background knowledge’ between us. We were in one of those scattered-rocky places and I sat on a granite slab and turned to Biblegateway (iPhones are great!) and to a verse that says it all, from Psalm 40 “I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.“
Guy grinned and said he knew the slimy pit. I said I knew the cry, sometimes a simple word, ‘Jesus.’ The power of the name of God, and the Word of God (here comes a memory of Jane again – Psalm 40 and that verse was something we often turned to in her last few months).
Up there on the Preselis, two tiny blots on the landscape, there was no denying the might and power of the creator of the Universe, but we thought too about the silent meekness of a crucified man, the soft breaths of a child born into poverty, a man living simply and humbly, alongside the mighty roar of triumph as the gravestone rolls back, the rocks split, the earth shakes, and the Son of God rises again. Past and present and future. Up there, under God’s great canopy, we – both of us – spoke the name of Jesus. And there was all of history in that name, all of existence, all of time. Time stood still in that simple sound. Every thought or deed of love, every longing of the heart since time began, reflected and honoured in that one simple name. Jesus. Yes, yes, maybe the name held more meaning for me than it did for that young bloke at that moment, but at that moment, on that inch of earth, we both were near to Jesus.
I don’t know what my walker friend made of our conversation, but I hope that he went away with thoughts of recovery rather than despair. I never did get to M&S. I have a small zip-up Bible in my car and I offered it to Guy but he wouldn’t take it, saying it was too ‘good’. Shame. Next time I’ll have a paperback edition. But he made a note on his phone of Psalm 40.
Some of you, right now, are fighting with the lassitude of lock-down, a sense of ennui, emptiness, even ‘what’s the bloody point?’. I think maybe half the world is struggling with thoughts like this. In the Times yesterday a ‘counselling psychologist’, Sarah Davies, warned about the effect of long term lockdowns, saying that the signs we may be suffering from burnout include “irritability, fatigue, hopelessness, memory difficulties, disturbances in sleep or eating habits, increased anxiety, and maladaptive coping strategies. You may experience racing or self- critical thoughts; even panic attacks and obsessive compulsive behaviour. Stress is as much physiological as it is psychological,” she adds. “Physical manifestations might include racing heart, palpitations, IBS-type symptoms, muscular tensions, aches and pains, and headaches.”
Flip me! Good job I didn’t recite all of that list to Guy. He’d have careered off down the hill and flung himself in the Rosebush Reservoir.
If you are feeling down and defeated, can I recommend Psalm 40 to you, recommend calling on the name of Jesus? It’s not a magic spell, not an enchanted sound, but it could be a prayer. Wherever you are, however bogged down, cry out. If one word is all you can manage, one word is all you need. One word can be a prayer. And prayers are always heard. Don’t be alone. Call on him. He is the answer.