A few weeks ago Stuart and I were visited by a former student of mine, now a wife and mother who spent many years living in Indonesia, which is her husband’s home. Karin will soon move to Bangladesh, where her husband will be working for Habitat for Humanity, and she hopes to continue online work for her master’s degree in education. Karin told me that one of her life-changing experiences came in 1995, when she took a course called Women and U.S. Cultures with me during a semester when I was clinically depressed. “Why did that class matter so much to you?” I asked. “Because you had the courage to ask for our help,” she said.
After 15 years, I still remember what hell that semester was. I operated on only one cylinder — sleeping little, unable to focus my thoughts. I sometimes took an hour to get out of bed; at meals I tasted nothing and could hardly lift the fork. I gazed at my image in the mirror one Sunday morning and did not recognize the face.
After Karin left my house, I rummaged in the basement to find the packet of letters students and colleagues sent me that dark semester. The folder is about two inches thick, and the letters, now beginning to yellow after 15 years, still move me to tears.
Each week of that class, I felt the eyes of about 30 beautiful young women and a few beautiful young men on me, as I opened my mouth and began to speak. I thanked them for their prayers and invited them into the course content. I was afraid, I told them, but they gave me strength to keep putting one step in front of the other. They studied hard, carried out group projects, entered into deep conversation about what they were reading and writing. At the end of the course, having returned almost to my normal high level of energy and joy, I wrote those students a four-page single-spaced love letter. We wept and cried together.
I am grateful to Karin for reminding me of that class. One of my fears in 1995 was that if I showed my students my weakness, I would be a poor role model. It turned out that the opposite was true. It could have been otherwise.
Amazingly, a year after I wrote that letter, I accepted an invitation to the Goshen College presidency, a role I enjoyed for eight years and which led to my present work at the Fetzer Institute. I could never have imagined as I struggled to move my heavy carcass out of bed, that these words of my therapist would actually come true: “If you go through this lonesome valley step by step, not only will you be a better role model than if you try to evade or deny your weakness, but you may discover that, instead of an obstacle, your depression will be a teacher whose humbling lesson you need before you can hear a greater call to a fuller life.”
She was a wise one, that therapist. And I will always love the students whose devotion to literature and cultural study was a form of healing. Now that they are walking their own lonesome valleys, I pray for each one and remember the poem sent to me by my dear student Katie, who sent me a water color painting and whose tender spirit reached me through these words of Emily Dickinson,
How many flowers fail in Wood–
Or perish from the Hill
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful–