Houston Graduate School of Theology

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Self-care through Deep Calm

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By Dr. Jerry L. Terrill, Director of the Counseling Program and Professor of Counseling at Houston Graduate School of Theology You do not have to sit outside in the dark.

If, however you wish to look at the stars,

You will find the darkness is necessary.

--Anne Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during some of the darkest days of World War II. While we know Churchill to be a brilliant, inspirational speaker and leader, it is often forgotten that he suffered from deep depression throughout his life. He termed his depressive episodes his “black dog.”

Depression is the number one mental health issue that counselors, ministers, chaplains, and physicians face in our day-to-day world. Persistent depression then causes dysthymia, creating an existential lack of meaning and anhedonia (a lack of pleasure), which affects much of the general population. Rather than experiencing the dark moods, we need to experience something like Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) wrote about in Scivias (Liber Scivias Domini, “Know thyself”). These twenty-six visions enabled her to experience true joy in the cloistered life. Hildegard was a genius who found peace and self-care in writing texts on biology, botany, medicine, and theology, and in composing music that is still played today.

The Apostle Paul understood the need for self-care. He noted, in 2 Cor 12:7-10, that he was given “a thorn in the flesh”: “three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. . . . That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Self-care means, as Paul suggests elsewhere, becoming “completely humble and gentle . . . patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2).

Self-care, as described by Jonas (2006), is the hesychasm, the emptiness, the quiet within. This leads the individual to apatheia, the deep calm associated with being present in the moment. Often apatheia is gained as a result of a day free of work, a day of rest, a vacation to “get away from it all,” which brings a new sense of completeness and wholeness—a life that is free of self-centeredness and egocentrism. St. Ignatius of Loyola called this “holy indifference.” Self-care also may be achieved through “mental health” days that enable the care giver to care once again, moving from the darkness of the “black dogs” in life, to hope, joy, and pleasure in life, characterized by a renewed sense of calm.

Perhaps this summer, rather than a frenzied vacation focused on amusement, you might consider getting away—just to find a place of calm and, as Dillard recommends, to take a look at the stars that may only be seen through the darkness.