Commentaries August 11, 2014 on Church, Culture and Commerce
Curbing the Black Dog: How Leaders Deal with Depression
by Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D.
“I know why logs spit . . . I know what it means to be consumed.” – Winston Churchill
“Black Dog” (1971) is one of the most recognizable songs performed by the British Rock Band Led Zeppelin. Ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Times,” the melody’s title is a reference to an old black Labrador retriever that wandered around the Headley Grange recording studio while the band was composing the lyrics. Analogous to the aged, yet sexually adventuresome hound, the song’s “Black Dog” protagonist opines his dearth of female companionship.
Apart from its carnal overtones and use by Celtic folklore to describe death’s nocturnal specter, the phrase was used by the English lexicographer and essayist Samuel Johnson (1780) to describe his personal struggles with depression. Prime Minister of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill, subsequently popularized the “dark” phrase by referring to his own melancholic mêlées as his “black dog.”
Churchill’s “black dog” played a major role in his personal and political maturity. In addition to serving as one of England’s most popular prime ministers, it was Churchill’s experience with depression that ultimately inspired his exceptional speeches, 43 books, and extensive correspondence. In fact, noted psychiatrist Anthony Storr (Churchill’s Black Dog, 1997) insists that it was Churchill’s recurrent episodes of melancholy that actually facilitated his ability to realistically assess the threat of Germany and boldly defy Hitler’s malevolent European ambitions. In the end, it was the legislator’s uncanny ability to curb his “black dog” that contributed to his enduring legacy.
Depression is without a doubt one of the most common “maladies” of our time. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression affects 17.6 million Americans a year and is the leading cause of alcoholism and drug abuse. Statistics predict that 1 out of every 5 citizens can expect to deal with depression in their lifetime. Apart from losing over 2 million work days each year, and costing the nation $30-$44 billion, when left untreated, depression is the number one cause of suicide.
Due to its widespread effect, depression is often referred to as the “common cold of emotional diseases.” More specifically, it is a mood problem noted by pervasive sadness, disappointment, and hopelessness. The depressed person usually has difficulty finding pleasure in life, has feelings of intense loneliness, and has limited energy to engage in life activities.
Surprisingly, apart from its pedestrian indices, depression has long been identified as an occupational hazard of leadership. Despite the debilitating problems that mentally stressed and depressed people face, there is growing evidence that some leaders may possess qualities that make them more effective in times of crisis. Erroneously deemed immune to emotional fears and contextual uncertainties, the historical record supports the notion that leaders are actually predisposed to the “black dog’s” annoying barking. In addition to Churchill, Isaac Newton, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all alleged suffers of the, oftentimes, debilitating malady. Abraham Lincoln’s encounters with the black dog were so severe that his friends were frequently compelled to remove razors and knives from his reach!
Ordinarily assigned only negative features, Aristotle (4th BC) was the first to suggest depression’s positive merits. According to the famed Greek philosopher, “all who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, had a melancholic habitus . . . indeed some suffered from melancholic disease.” Like Aristotle, Charles Darwin (19th AD) understood such melancholy as a force that informs and “leads one to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The controversial naturalist often referred to his brawls with depression as “fits” that actually helped him to more acutely focus on life’s most essential problems.
Refining the opinions of his predecessors, Ralph Waldo Emerson (19th AD) referred to depression as a characteristic of “divine discontent,” the “still, small voice within” that informs the psyche that something is wrong and requires attention. Understood in this fashion, the “black dog” of depression was able to provide the famous poet with valuable opportunities to introspectively deal with his dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Thomas Edison (19th – 20th AD) and Albert Einstein (20th AD) were likewise intrigued with depression’s positive aspects. While Edison insisted that, “restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress,” Einstein alleged that problems are never solved on the same level that they are first encountered. Like Aristotle, both famous scientists believed that human situations can only be improved by leaders who are willing and able to effectively rise above moods of personal disquiet.
Webster defines depression as a “a psychoneurotic or psychotic disorder marked especially by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration.” In order to numb the body and mind during times of stress, frustration, and bleakness, the brain releases curative chemicals. Unfortunately, when this melancholic shock absorber falls out of biological balance, physicians recommend the use of medication and specialized interventions to deal with depression’s more dangerous clinical grade.
In its milder manifestations, however, depression can provide a “net mental benefit” to sufferers who are willing to engage in what neuroscientists J. Anderson Thomson and Paul Andrews call “analytic-rumination.” According to their article (Psychology Review, 2009), fixated rumination “triggers chemical reactions in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex” (VLPFC), an area of the brain associated with intense focus and analysis. Analytic-Rumination Hypothesis (ARH) proposes that depression “evolved as a psychosomatic process” whose function is to minimize disruption and sustain analysis of problems by: (a) giving the triggering problem prioritized access to processing resources, (b) reducing the desire to engage in distracting activities, and (c) producing life-style changes.
Like Thomson and Andrews, Nassir Ghaemi, professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, supports the view that depression played a significant role in the lives of famous leaders. According to Ghaemi, “depression makes leaders more realistic and empathetic.” On the other hand, while they make great leaders in normal times, the non-depressed may be held back in times of crisis by what psychologists call “positive illusion,” a mild-to-slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them. Remarkably, Ghaemi’s research discovered that depression correlates with the more analytic-minded leader that may be prone to exhibit high degrees of empathy, sensitivity, and concern for how other people think and feel.
The aforementioned hypotheses suggest that leaders can and should learn how to curb depression’s “black dog” restless characteristics with the strong leash of honest introspection and analytic resilience. In addition to monitoring situational factors, lifestyle and health practices that can influence the onset of depression, leaders should also learn to engage a healthy course of rumination and, thereby, inspire inventive creativity. Like a fever that boosts the immune system, depression can be favorably employed as a cognitive refinement tool for the sculpting of vital leadership qualities.
The following diagram briefly outlines a 5-step process of analytic-rumination that can be identified from a careful analysis of an Old Testament episode involving the Prophet Elijah (I Kings 19). Elijah is one of the most interesting of all biblical characters whose life was so filled with uncertainty that by today’s standards he would be considered a prime example of bipolarity. At times, Elijah was bold and decisive, eager to courageously demonstrate the power of God. On other occasions, however, he was surprisingly fearful and tentative. A thoughtful examination of his most severe encounter with the “black dog” provides leaders a valuable paradigm for dealing with depression.
Five-Step Process of
Step 1: Physical Convalescence. Elijah’s encounter with the “black dog” of depression unexpectedly began only one day after his illustrious victory over 450 pagan prophets on Mount Carmel (I kings 18). Having learned, that in response to his triumph, Queen Jezebel ordered his death, Elijah dashed into the desert for shelter (I Kings 19:3). Like so many people who seek to escape their respective depression by sleeping, Elijah pleaded for God to “let him die” as he fell into a two-day slumber under a juniper tree. God’s response, however, was not in keeping with the prophet’s despondent petition. On the contrary, in place of expiry, the Lord directed an attending angel to benevolently nurse Elijah back to physical and spiritual health with bread and water.
Step 2: Analytic Rumination. Nourished and strengthened by the seraph’s material and spiritual provisions, Elijah was directed to “arise” and begin a journey (I Kings 19:7). Understood as the inauguration of a process of analytical rumination, Elijah’s 40-day trek to Mount Sinai (where Moses received the Ten Commandments) most certainly included a mental analysis of the circumstances that resulted in his precarious situation. Unfortunately, although God had sent him to the famed mountain summit for the purpose of discerning a more comprehensive perspective, Elijah’s incomplete “fixation” drove him into a cave-focused cycle of rumination – a classic prisoner of depression’s destructive maquillage.
As Elijah would soon learn, however, emotional liberation begins when leaders are willing to look away from the dark shadows cast by the “black dog” on the back walls of their respective self-hewn caves of anxiety. Only by courageously turning towards the grotto’s opening can victims of despair break the unhealthy spiral of negative rumination and begin to discern the gentle voice of vocational possibilities.
Step 3: Spiritual Rumination. As Elijah ultimately realized, mental analysis is never adequate for overcoming depression. According to the Old Testament narrative, an inner voice fortunately interrupted his unhealthy ruminating preoccupation. “What are you doing here,” God asked (I Kings 19:10)? The question was actually a summons for the prophet to reexamine his priorities. However, rather than acknowledge that he had lost trust in God, Elijah’s reply was, at best, an arrogant vitae of past accomplishments, and at worst, a tragic expression of self-pity.
Having been granted an occasion to safely vent his frustrations, Elijah was subsequently instructed to stand at the cave’s opening where God would reveal a solution to his quandary. At first, extraordinary and powerful forces of nature occurred. A great wind, an earthquake and fire appeared. But God’s Word was not in the temporal elements of earth, wind, and fire. According to rabbinic tradition, it was only when Elijah stopped focusing on himself and the mundane forces of creation that he was able to distinguish God’s Voice. Paradoxically, the divine dispatch was not conveyed in great and terrifying fanfare but, akin to Emerson’s prescription, in a “still and gentle voice” (I Kings 19:12).
Step 4: Vocational Re-Engagement. “Go!” is one of the most important words that God has ever spoken. Analogous to the command that the Transfigured Jesus gave his disciples to descend and serve the people waiting below (Matthew 17:1-13), God instructed Elijah to get off the mountain and return to a world that he was running from. “Go back and get busy with the work that I have called you to do!”
The fastest way to defeat depression is to stop its endless cycle of self-pity. When confronting depression, leaders should, therefore, learn to take their eyes off themselves and “go” – invest in the circumstances of others. In the end, God leveraged Elijah’s disquiet – his dissatisfaction – to fashion a new assignment. He was told to return to Israel through Syria and there to anoint two kings and a prophet. “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram” (I Kings 19:15).
Elijah was accustomed to being the progenitor of the remarkable and astounding! However, like Churchill and other noted historical leaders, Elijah had to discover the depression-busting power of still and gentle servanthood. Consequently, what the wind, earthquake, and fire could not do, the small, still voice did!
Step 5: Collaborative Associations. Apart from re-commissioning the prophet’s energies and talents, God assured him that he was never alone, and that a successor (Elisha) would be provided as a worthy partner for the successful advance of his new assignment.
Leaders should never battle depression alone but align themselves with mentors, spiritual guides and other professionals that are capable of providing appropriate counsel, insight, and encouragement. Unfortunately, when Elijah went into the wilderness he left his servant behind. Recognizing the burden of his future vocational responsibilities, however, God provided Elijah with a new confidant and co-worker upon who he later “threw the mantle” of his vocational call (I Kings 19:19).
Leadership is not fulfilled by turning inward but by turning outward and ministering, encouraging and motivating others to accept their vision. There is, consequently, no greater antidepressant for curbing the “black dog” of depression than by establishing collaborative partnerships. Consequently, by informing him that he was not alone, and that 7,000 people had indeed refused to bow down to the pagan gods of Baal because of his recent countersign on Mount Carmel, God provided Elijah the vocational validation he so desperately required.
The Old Testament chapter that chronicles Elijah’s battle with the “black dog” of depression concludes with a most wonderful image. Physically strengthened and spiritually renewed, Elijah re-engages the arena of his prophetic responsibilities with the faithful support of a protégée name Elisha who “followed and ministered unto him” (I Kings 19:21). This partnership continued until Elijah ascended into heaven “with the fiery chariot of Israel and its horsemen” (2 Kings 2:11-12)!
One cold night towards the end of his long illustrious career, Churchill experienced his own particular moment of personal revelation concerning his lifelong encounters with the “black dog.” Sitting before a large stone hearth in a house in the south of France, the prime minister grasped an important insight from the fire. “I watched the blaze in silence,” he later wrote. “The pine logs hissing and spitting as they were burning away . . . and then it hit me. I know why logs spit,” I thought. “I know what it is to be consumed!” In that brief moment, Churchill finally understood why he had challenged the House of Commons (1940) to stop Hitler’s barbarous holocaust. “If we fail,” he insisted, “the whole world will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
Like Churchill and Elijah, most leaders will certainly find themselves one day before the blazing fire of personal disquiet. Confronted by the “black dog” of depression they too will be challenged to answer the queries associated with their respective struggles. “What are you doing here . . . why do the logs of life split?” In the end, Churchill’s revelation is the only answer that can appropriately curb the hellhounds that seek to “consume” the timbers of the contemporary leader.
Prudently approached, depression can provide a valuable opportunity for the heavy logs of status-quo self-centeredness to be split and consumed by the nurturing fire of “divine discontent.” Only in this fashion can leaders effectively employ the leash of spiritual introspection, healthy physical routines, and new collaborations to re-invigorate their vocational engagements and effectively curb their respective “black dogs!”