Sunday, July 15, 2018
Sathya Silva, 2016 MIT graduate, doctorate in Aeronautics and Astronautics, human performance investigator, NTSB
Silva is one of twenty-five portraits, interspersed with photos of campus sites, in this beautiful book by Daniel Jackson, photographer and Professor of Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The book was published in 2017 by MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is dedicated in part with words of a blessing prayer from his own religious tradition.
Blessed be the One who makes darkness pass and brings light
(blessing prayer from the Sephardic liturgy)
“Depression may seem to be an unpromising topic for an uplifting book.” writes Jackson in his Introduction.
Pursuing his “inkling”, Jackson created Portraits. I say “create” rather than authored, because Jackson needed the help, courage, and honesty of many many people to give shape and bring light to his idea: that people suffer in silence and shame because of the social stigma placed on depression, a powerful stigma that keeps people from healing, binds them in shame, and isolates them in darkness. Stigma, I believe, can also be a source of violence because it is rooted in fear, and fear annihilates, from within or without.
I first heard Jackson and two of his portrait subjects interviewed on WGBH’s "Greater Boston." Inspired, I bought the book, read it, located Jackson through the faculty email list, scheduled a time for a conversation, then made my way in high noon July heat to MIT. Miraculously, I did not get lost (my wont). I entered this world of Science—a foreign land to me. Honestly, every wall, not simply inside classrooms, was white board. Most were filled with scrawls of equations of what looked like ancient cuneiform. I gawked. And they think religion is gobbledegook!?
When I left, after an hour and a half of one of the most exhilarating conversations I’d had in some time, I was invigorated. The heat didn’t seem so heavy as I made my way home, wondering, remembering.
Depression and addiction run all through my family on all sides. Both were always unmentionable, disguised, as in “Wasn’t Uncle XXX affable tonight?” This uncle was drunk. This uncle was depressed. These two often go together. Two cousins, one from each side of my family, committed suicide. I think my dad was depressed and alcohol temporarily unlocked his mood. My own children and theirs are not immune. I get it. Things are better today with psychotherapy and medication, yet no therapy heals unless clients are willing and able to tell the truth about their deepest inner struggles. One reason I eventually trained to become a therapist is because I believe in the healing power of story—true story told to a compassionate other who listens. You can tweak behavior and cognition ten ways to Sunday, and it helps. Still, it’s surface mechanics.
Jackson found, as I have, that to break the barriers of secrecy, privacy, and anonymity we set up to protect ourselves from being ourselves, is no easy task. It takes tons of energy to keep yourself a secret—energy that is withheld from living your life fully. Secret-keeping diminishes your aliveness, mutes your identity. Jackson long ago gave up asking undergraduates to place name tags on their desks, because, although they would say their names when asked, there was a tacit commitment to anonymity. “It seemed to me that anonymity was unwittingly stigmatizing depression even more.” The same is true of addictions, although I understand the need for anonymity in early recovery to build trust in Twelve Step support groups.
With a sparkle in his voice, Jackson told me: “The subversive message of this book is that not all of us are ‘normal’”—appearances to the contrary. He set out to break the code of privacy, to celebrate these storytellers, put their names in the light as if to say: Here I am in my own words, and here's my face.
I asked Jackson what the most exciting thing was for him about this project, beside the flood of responses he got to his invitation to “come out” with depression. He said: “Most exciting and unexpected to me was the fact that these people, while in the very midst of despair, asked the most profound life questions, and derived remarkable insights from their struggles."
Spirituality is about the depth dimension of experience, and Jackson’s book accesses that beautifully and without judgment. Spirituality also has a social dimension. Stunningly, most of these depressed people found that the consistent presence of friends—friends who showed up and kept showing up, never giving up on them—were a foundational factor in their ability over and over to choose life, their own life.
Religion too was a healing factor for many portrait subjects. Why? You’d think there would be more anger at feeling abandoned by God, empty promises, or not being rescued from the darkness. Religion provides structure, hope, prayer, community, ethical guidelines, and the simple assurance of a sacred Presence who cares about each person—no matter what.
Jackson thought that the role of chaplains at MIT was misunderstood. “Chaplains offer a perspective—of much value and different from that of science.” Having been a chaplain myself in several settings, I’d say there is little more powerful than praying with a frightened vulnerable person, touching with permission, anointing with healing oils, blessing, listening forever. I can’t say how but it lifted me, the patient, and perhaps the family, out of the drear of cold, hard reality—momentarily and always.
I was saddened to hear Jackson say that, although his colleagues were supportive, the adjective “religious” at MIT was generally used to discount or dismiss an idea or concept as fanciful.
One subject, Rosalind Picard, Professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences and Faculty Chair of the MIT Mind-Hand Heart Initiative, challenged this attitude: “I grew up as an atheist, and I know religion is not a comfortable topic. And religious practice is not the only protective factor. But at MIT, we have to talk about all these pillars of well-being.”
We do not have much time to gladden the hearts and minds of those who travel the way with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind, and the blessing of the One who brings light into darkness be upon you and within you this day and always. AMEN. (Amiel, paraphrase)