Ethics & Public Policy Center

It’s a Blessing to Bear Your Friend’s Burden

Published in The Atlantic on March 3, 2019


People who are struggling with depression or other difficulties often assume that sharing their story with friends imposes a burden on them. In fact, the opposite is usually true: From a true friend’s perspective, being entrusted with the cares and burdens of another is a privilege. It’s an opportunity to dispense generosity, and a sign and symbol of trust. And when both people share with each other more of their inner worlds, more of their sorrow and suffering, the friendship is strengthened. In the words of the proverb, friendship doubles our joy and divides our grief.

In a sermon at the National Cathedral on February 17, Michael Gerson—a Washington Post columnist; a graduate of Wheaton College, one of the leading evangelical colleges in America; and one of my closest friends—revealed that he was recently hospitalized for depression. It’s been a condition he’s struggled with since his 20s, but recently his situation has worsened.

“I would encourage anyone with this malady to keep a journal,” Mike said. “At the bottom of my recent depression, I did a plus and minus, a pro and con, of me. Of being myself. The plus side, as you’d imagine, was short. The minus side included the most frightful clichés: ‘You are a burden to your friends.’ ‘You have no future.’ ‘No one would miss you.’ The scary thing is that these things felt completely true when I wrote them. At that moment, realism seemed to require hopelessness.” He added:

But then you reach your breaking point—and do not break. With patience and the right medicine, the fog in your brain begins to thin. If you are lucky, as I was, you encounter doctors and nurses who know parts of your mind better than you do. There are friends who run into the burning building of your life to rescue you, and acquaintances who become friends. You meet other patients, from entirely different backgrounds, who share your symptoms, creating a community of the wounded. And you learn of the valor they show in lonely rooms.

Over time, you begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of your sadness. The conscious mind takes hold of some shred of beauty or love. And then more shreds, until you begin to think maybe, just maybe, there is something better on the far side of despair.

His words had reach and resonance. I heard from people who know of my relationship with Mike, expressing how moved they were by what he said. One person who struggles with depression emailed several of his friends, saying he was profoundly grateful for Mike’s words. “I have bookmarked them so I can return to them when my own darkness closes in,” he said. Another individual, a pastor of a church in the South, said, “I applaud your friend Michael for sharing some of his story with such transparency. As one who has suffered depression myself, I can attest to the fact that knowing you are not alone makes all the difference.” And a person with a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, after listening to Gerson’s sermon, told me,

We’re getting better at being able to talk about brain disorders as medical realities, not with the myths that have contributed to silence and shame for so long. We have a long way to go; disclosures like this will get us there more quickly. He’s spot on in terms of chemical vulnerability—the reality of the incredible power it can have over our lives, the personal toll it takes, and the absolute need for hope and faith when the distortions convince the brain that lies are truths.

This is one of the most insidious effects of depression, especially when it is accompanied by isolation. Falsehoods about ourselves and the world around us go unchecked and unchallenged, until they warp reality. We begin to believe that what we’re experiencing is unique, and this in turn can make us feel like a freak, shameful, guilty. That’s why public figures speaking about their own struggles can be such a help to others. Their words put things in perspective and create a feeling of solidarity, even with people they’ve never met.

Mike told me he heard from people, some well-known and others he has never known, who told him that listening to him made them feel that way. “You were describing my life,” one told him. “I saw myself in the mirror … and cried,” another said. “Thank you.” These people found comfort in someone giving voice to their struggles, their fears—and their hopes. They didn’t feel alone, and they were reminded that there is no shame in seeking and finding support.

None of this will come as a surprise to those who work with people who are afflicted with conditions such as depression and addiction. The best programs recognize that support networks are essential. Group members “share success stories and honest accounts of setbacks,” as one such program puts it, “and use this emotional connectedness to inspire and encourage each other to keep going.”

Support groups for those suffering from depression offer validation of what people are experiencing. They allow people to share coping strategies. And because people in a given support group can relate to one another, they are more trusting of the advice they receive.

But there’s more to it than that, and for reasons that apply not just to those dealing with clinical depression. We all face struggles of one kind or another: It might be a marriage that is breaking apart; alienation from children, siblings, or parents; the death of a loved one; a frightening medical diagnosis; chronic pain; sexual abuse; the loss of a job; financial stress; or falling short of personal and professional ambitions. “Given the vulnerability of man and the pitiless storm of the world, tragedy is bound to happen,” in the words of the novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner.

Traumas and tragedies are hardly the whole of most people’s lives, and many people are blessedly free right now of major struggles. But over the course of a life, eventually the pain and the losses mount up. And because we are social animals, we are not meant to face them alone, in isolation. When we do, hopelessness grows.

The temptation during times of trial can be to withdraw, in part because we don’t want to appear vulnerable. There’s a natural fear that people will think less of us and might begin to look at us mainly through the prism of our struggles. But the cost of keeping our struggles in the shadows almost always outweigh the benefits. As one friend who has faced his own “dark night of the soul” put it to me, “Isolated people chew over their problems too much and distort proportion. Losing a piece of paper can seem like the universe is against you, and you think you have brain damage. That kind of thinking can only be prevented by some outside influence.”

The outside influence can be a therapist, a family member, a colleague, a friend, a clergyman. The essential ingredient is trust. In my case, I still vividly recall how, when I was in college, I finally summoned up the nerve to meet with the pastor of student ministries I respected in order to share a burden that I had carried alone for several years. In retrospect I was able to see it wasn’t that big of a deal after all—but the point is that, to me at that time, it sure felt like it was. As I was walking to this pastor’s office for our appointment, I nearly turned around and canceled. But I thought the better thing was to go through with it.

I still remember the relief I felt when I shared with him the things weighing on my heart and, in the process, felt the distortions I had created melt away. It took another person of wisdom and tenderness to correct my astigmatism, to help me see things for what they were. That moment created a bond between us that was never broken and, over the years, only deepened, until his death in 2015. That wasn’t the last time I have turned to others in times of hardship.

In the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we’re told about the paralyzed man whose four friends carry him to be healed by Jesus. Because of the size of the crowd, they create a hole in the roof of the house and lower the paralytic to see Jesus, who heals him.

Sometimes in life we are called to carry our friends; other times we need to be carried by them. Blessings can be found in both.

Peter Wehner is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues.

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