A Wake for the Living
Some of our best songs mythologize the night.
Bruce Springsteen rides into the eventide “to case the promised land.” Driven by desire, Roy Orbison divides the night, desperate to quench his flame. Patti Smith tells us her secrets “because the night belongs to lovers.” R.E.M. invites us to strip at the shore and swim to where a late-summer’s night kisses the quiet face of the water.
But, for many, night lingers long after the last chord fades. More powerful than myth or metaphor, it arrives empty of romance, without magic. Called by names like depression and doubt, this darkness settles over the soul indefinitely, persistent like the polar night which governs northern Alaska for several months each winter.
Jessica Kantrowitz knows what it means to move through the world with limited emotional and spiritual visibility. In her new book The Long Night, she circumvents the mistakes of Job’s friends, bearing greater resemblance to the up-all-night God of Psalm 121. Kantrowitz convenes a wake for the living, keeping watch with those who fear the night of depression will never surrender to sunrise.
Kantrowitz wisely slips around genre, aware that neither biography, theology or clinical primers alone can tell the intricate tale of how mind, body and soul serve and fail each other. The book assumes its form as a series of meditations—distinctly personal yet eminently relatable, priestly in the manner of Kantrowitz’s beloved guide Henri Nouwen.
Kantrowitz runs her fingers over the seams that connect seasons of significant depression and the dread which tiptoed through her childhood.
“My parents always tried to reassure me, but it seemed to me that because there were so many things that could go terribly wrong in this life, at least one of them was going to happen to us,” she writes of early anxieties.
Kantrowitz describes debilitating migraines, episodes of change and wrestling matches with body image—not to superimpose her experiences on readers, but as proofs of her empathy and the ever-present love of God. In a beautiful early passage, she parses the meaning of Jesus as high priest. Could he possibly know her every pain? Did he feel sick and sore in the same places?
“Somehow whether he’d known the specific pain of migraines and depression on earth didn’t matter: I knew that he understood,” she concludes. “... All my life, I’d wanted to be like Jesus in his witty repartee, his compassion, and his ability to comfort and heal. But instead, I found I related most to his twisted form on the cross, eyes shut in pain, not yet dead, not yet resurrected, not yet ascended.”
Taking readers by the hand and groping through the dark on our behalf, Kantrowitz draws on recent insights from the Enneagram and the ancient wisdom of lyric theologians and spiritual ancestors. She identifies the curved common logic which keeps us from seeing ourselves as beloved, and tenderly asks hard questions. In a chapter on death, she reaches out to the suicidal—not as an expert, but as someone accustomed to digging until she hits the heart of the matter.
“If you feel this pull toward death—whether passively in wishing you were dead or actively in thinking about ways to die—can you identify the real need beneath it?” she asks.
“Is it the desire to rest? Is it to relieve the pressure of work or family or other stressors? Is it because the alternative is failure or seeming failure? What would it look like for you to reach for more life instead of less? What if the thing that feels like failure, like something worse than death, is actually the way to a much better life? That’s what it ended up being for me.”
Kantrowitz shapes the night like clay until she begins to redefine it. She beckons us to expand our vocabulary of depression for the sake of demolishing needless associations and aspersions on people with dark skin. Perhaps we might learn to describe depression as “a mental haziness that grounds you as a boat in the fog” or “a deep, sheer pit with no handholds to use to climb out.”
Plowing further into the interior wilds, she asks readers to see their lives as marked by possibility, depression and all.
“Then, too, there is the way an ocean or a clearing in the woods looks under the moon and the stars,” she writes. “We wouldn’t see that beauty if it were perpetually daytime. The night itself is rarely pitch-black, but when it is, that is a kind of beauty, too. Depression is a terrible disease ... but the darkness that often accompanies depression has gifts to offer us—if we pay attention to them.”
Kantrowitz fills the book with knowing, affirming looks to her readers, mimicking a God who sees all yet loves as us we are. “It is powerful to have someone boldly say the very thing we’ve been ashamed of for so long,” she says of how another writer helped her.
Kantrowitz did just that for me, a writer with an anxiety diagnosis and intermittent depression, by connecting the confessions of the church to her own overthinking. On paper and at heart, it’s right to own up to what we have done and left undone. But some of us stumble under phantom weight.
“As someone who was never for a second in danger of living an unexamined life, this was unnerving,” she writes in my language. “What I have done is enough fodder for constant self-examination; what I have left undone is limitless.”
A faith that hinges on two great commandments—to love God with mind, body and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves—cries out for more books like The Long Night. Texts like these treat Christians as whole beings craving integration before the face of a perfectly-balanced God. They multiply our empathy, teaching us to lock arms with other faltering believers as we inch together toward light.
The more I meditate on Kantrowitz’s words, the more it seems she indeed hums one of our most soulful night songs: “When the night has come, and the land is dark / And the moon is the only light we’ll see / No, I won’t be afraid ... just as long as you stand, stand by me.”