Literature Can Heal the Soul

“Time and time again I have learned that while medicines can heal the body, literature and inspired words can heal the soul.” -Seth Adam Smith

For me, reading and writing have been the most powerful tools to help me move forward. I love literature and historical stories and what they can teach us about life. Time and time again, I have learned that, while medicines can heal the body, inspirational words can heal the soul. Inspired words are like guideposts or constellations that lead us home.

There is an ancient Japanese legend that tells of a sacred mountain surrounded by a jungle. This mountain was sacred because it was the place where the community would bring the elders to die. This was done in honor and reverence for the people’s parents; it was their way of turning over their loved ones to the gods.

One day, a young man was carrying his elderly father to the top of the mountain. His father was very sick and frail. Yet, as they climbed, the old man would reach out and grab handfuls of branches and leaves from the nearby trees, and drop them on the ground.

About halfway up the mountain, the young man stopped and asked his father why he was dropping branches and leaves on the ground. Tears streamed down the old man’s face as he replied, “Son, I want you to find your way home.”

I think great stories and literature are like branches on our path. Our wise ancestors (or those who have gone before us) have left these stories for us so that we could find our way home—so that we could move forward.

Winston Churchill’s Battle With Depression

My guide through life has always been Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965), the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. His active and steadfast resistance to Adolf Hitler, along with his vehement refusal to even consider defeat, helped inspire his nation to victory against Nazi Germany. His strength of character and his determination to never give up—even in the most dire circumstances—has made him one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.

Standing next to the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London.

Standing next to the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London.

But Churchill was also a very funny man.

As some of you are aware, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt were actually very good friends. Once, while Churchill was staying at the White House, President Roosevelt decided to stop by Churchill’s room. The Prime Minister, who had just finished taking a bath, was pacing back and forth in his room—completely naked. When Roosevelt rolled into the room and saw Churchill in the buff, Churchill calmly replied, “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide from you.” [Source: TIME]

But there was something that Churchill did hide from the world—he struggled with what he called “the black dog” of depression. Researchers and biographers have since diagnosed him as someone who struggled with major episodes of depression.

Of Churchill’s battle with depression, psychiatrist Anthony Storr said this: “Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason, and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us [during World War II].” [Source: NAMI]

The full weight of Europe on his shoulders. He was, in many respects, a lone man standing against the full onslaught of Adolf Hitler—one of the most evil men in history. In studying Churchill’s life—his victories and defeats, along with his emotional obstacles and personal challenges—I am perpetually amazed by his indomitable will to fight his way forward.

In a speech delivered to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, Churchill rallied his beleaguered nation with these words:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Consider the context of these words. Not only was Churchill leading the charge against Nazi Germany, he was simultaneously leading a personal charge against his own depression.

With this in mind, the following phrase (one of his most famous quotes) is given even more power and meaning:

“Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

While writing about depression, I have felt discouraged many times. The process of creating books and blog posts about it has caused many different thoughts, feelings, and experiences to resurface. Some of these have been good, but most of them have been very difficult to recall. I am often confronted with feelings of despondency, depression, and insecurity. After all, I begin to think who am I? Who am I that the world should care what I have to say?

But in these moments of self-doubt, I have often looked at a photograph in my office of Winston Churchill. He doesn’t look back at me. Instead, he looks forward, into some distant horizon—as if to say, “Never give in. Keep moving forward.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in Morocco.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in Morocco.

Speaking of photographs, this photograph of Churchill and Roosevelt is one of my favorites—it speaks volumes about these two men. Please consider this incredible irony: Here are two leaders faced with tremendous challenges. One of them struggles with the darkness of depression; the other is bound to a wheelchair. Had they grown up in Nazi Germany, Hitler would have had both men exterminated for their imperfections. And yet, these two men—these two imperfect people—moved forward, and together, they defeated a darkness which had swept across Europe.

Never give in. Keep moving forward.

The Refiner’s Fire

The refiner’s fire is not a comfortable place to be. It involves intense heat and repeated hammering. But it is in the refiner’s fire that we are purified and prepared to meet God.

Kim experienced the refiner’s fire in a way she never expected. She had always wanted a large family. Her first son wasn’t even two when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that claimed his life. Her daughter was diagnosed with bone cancer. She lost her husband and another son to cancer.

In her refiner’s fire, she “began to think maybe I couldn’t do this. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough. Maybe I might fail. But the Lord wasn’t going to allow me to fail. I know that’s not unique to me. He does that for everybody.” She learned that the Savior does provide what you need to face tragedies with faith and confidence.

She emerged from her fire with a great deal of joy and a desire to use what she has learned to help others. “The greater our sorrow is, the greater our capacity to feel joy.”

Losing loved ones is never easy, but she was surprised. “I feel a great deal of tenderness towards my Savior because He really is so sweet. He really does provide what you need.”

The Tragic Story Behind St. Basil’s Cathedral

In Moscow, Russia, at the far end of Red Square, stands the iconic and beautiful St. Basil’s Cathedral. Once a church, this unrivaled structure was not built by a saint—nor was it originally made to memorialize any Christian virtues.

It’s construction was ordered by the Tsar, Ivan Grasni, otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible and it was to commemorate his victories in war.

Ivan the Terrible was an iron-fisted ruler whose brutal legacy has haunted Russian history and politics. Given to paranoia and fits of rage, Ivan conquered nations and killed thousands—even his own son.

But just outside the Kremlin walls there was one man whom Ivan feared—a peasant by the name of Basil.

Those who knew Basil considered him a prophet. He saw things which others could not and did things which others would not. In heat of the summer and in the cold winter, Basil would walk the streets with little clothing, giving whatever he had to those in need. In sharp contrast to the murderous, opulent tsar behind the Kremlin wall, Basil lived humbly and nurtured life.

On numerous occasions, Basil openly rebuked the Tsar, calling him to repentance. Racked with guilt—Ivan would send gifts to the prophetic peasant, hoping to appease him. But Basil would simply give the gifts away.

As the story goes, Basil gave Ivan a piece of uncooked meat during Lent. The Tsar, claiming to be a devout Orthodox Christian, refused the gift. Animal products of any kind were and are prohibited during the Orthodox Great Lent. Basil responded by asking the Tsar why he chose to follow the canon of Lent while he continued to spill the blood of Christians. Basil told Ivan that his murderous actions would doom him to hell if he did not repent. [Source: Russian Life]

Time passed, and Ivan continued to wage costly wars while Basil gave what little he had to a precious few. Ivan became more hated and infamous, while Basil became more loved and venerated.

When Basil died, Ivan was `overcome with grief and did something that no one expected. He left the Kremlin walls and carried the peasant’s coffin to the Cathedral where they buried him. The humble heart of a peasant had melted the heart of a tyrant.

They then nick-named the building St. Basil’s Cathedral—in honor of the peasant prophet.

The Forgotten Words of Jacob Marley

One of my all-time favorite books is A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. I didn’t always like it. In fact, when I was much younger, I pretty much hated it. I felt like it was over-commercialized and overused during Christmas.

A few years ago, while listening to an audio rendition of the book, I heard something that I felt like I had never heard before. The passage comes from that pivotal moment when Ebenezer Scrooge meets the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley, now a chained and tormented soul, is lamenting the opportunities he lost to serve mankind. This is what happens next:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!…Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

Marley's Ghost

Marley’s Ghost

Throughout my life, I have seen countless film and stage adaptations of this very scene. But that was the first time I had ever truly felt Jacob Marley’s words. As someone who is deeply introverted, that passage seemed to completely revolutionize my outlook on the world and my place in it. It made me see just how much I had been like Jacob Marley; that I, too, had walked “through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down.” I realized that the weight of my selfishness was one of my own making.

I was suddenly filled with a desire to move outside of myself, and make mankind my business.

To help me remember what I had felt, I searched online for an image of Jacob Marley that matched his message—an image of the sadness and regret in his eyes, an image of him inviting me to consider my ways and consider my business. I wanted to print this image out and hang it up in a place where I would see Marley often and remember the words that he had said.

But after hours of searching online, most of the images I found were either laughable or grotesque. There was no real image that matched Marley’s message of repentance.

My inability to find an inviting image of a humbled Marley led me to this realization:

I had never truly heard Marley’s message because it had always been drowned out by excessive, showy theatrics; lights, fog machines, heavy chains, and loud noises. Because of an overemphasis on the ghostly and ghastly, Marley’s message had been lost to me.

Not long ago, I shared these thoughts with Angela Johnson, an accomplished sculptor and a dear friend. I told her how I wished there could be an image of Jacob Marley that invited viewers to make mankind their business.

Two days later, Angela sent me an email with the subject header “Meet Jacob Marley.”

Imagine my surprise when, after opening the email, I saw—for the first time—the REAL Jacob Marley.

A clay sculpture of Jacob Marley, shown at different angles.

A clay sculpture of Jacob Marley, shown at different angles.

Angela had created a Jacob Marley door knocker, with the linens around his head serving as the knocker.

Overcome by emotion, I called Angela. I think I even managed to get out a few words before the tears started to roll down my cheeks. I couldn’t help but think of how beautifully symbolic the whole thing was. Here I wanted a sculpture of Jacob Marley to remind me that people are to be my business, and my friend literally made it her business to create that sculpture.

Within two weeks Angela had the sculpture cast in bronze and the real Jacob Marley was immortalized.

I am grateful to share this image of the REAL Jacob Marley—and the message it speaks without saying a word—with you.

Jacob Marley door knocker.

Jacob Marley door knocker.

My TEDx Talk – Books Don’t Create Movements…

Last month, I had the incredible opportunity to speak at TEDx in Sarasota, Florida. The title of my talk was “Books Don’t Create Movements, Movements Create Books.”

In my presentation, I shared some ideas on how to start a movement that will help you achieve your dreams (and I even reveal my own childhood dream…)

I am deeply grateful for the love and support of my wife, Kim, and for the support of everyone at Berrett-Koehler Publishers. In particular, I’d like to thank Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, my mentor and friend. If I accomplish anything good in my writing it is because of your encouragement.

Please watch the video and submit any comments or questions below. I will be writing a follow-up (with some behind-the-scenes info) for Monday’s post.

I’m Speaking at NAMI!

NAMI Utah Logo-full color

Exciting news! I will be speaking at the NAMI conference in Salt Lake City on Friday, November 14th.

NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI Utah’s mission is to ensure the dignity and improve the lives of those who live with mental illness and their families through support, education and advocacy.

This year’s conference will be held at the Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center (150 West 500 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84101). The Conference’s program is from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. If you would like to register or learn more, please click here.

Although I’d much rather be behind the scenes (or in the audience), I’m actually really excited about this. I’ve been working on my presentation for the past few months and I’m eager to learn from all of the other presenters.

I hope to see you there!

You Have A Superpower (No Joke!)

With all of the Marvel and DC movies coming out, it seems that the world is crying out for someone to save it—someone with a superpower.

That someone could be you. Would it surprise you to hear that you possess an actual, legitimate superpower? Well, you do. Each of us has the literal power to change someone’s life for the better.

Insignificant though it may seem, the ability to change someone’s life for the better is truly god-like—and I don’t use that term lightly.

When you think about it, what is more heroic—a display of strength and power or the ability to save a soul?

In my book, Your Life Isn’t For You, I share an experience I had while working at Anasazi, a wilderness therapy program for at-risk youth in Arizona.

Reinforced with the strength of trained medical and clinical staff, Anasazi offers a six-week course in nature: primitive skills, organic foods, hiking through canyons, and sleeping under the stars. The time spent in the wilderness allows the youth who take part an opportunity to detox from any drug abuse, and to simultaneously consider their “walking in the world.”

A few months into my job, I met a young participant, whom I’ll call Megan. Even though she was only sixteen years old, Megan looked like a fighter, someone who had gone through hell.

At first, working with Megan was very challenging. She had a prickly personality, and would often lash out with derogatory comments. Despite her anger, I resolved to look for the best in her. As I persisted in doing this, a most remarkable thing began to happen. The more I got to know Megan and learn about her life, the more I came to respect, admire, and love her. Her life at home and school was hellish, and I started to understand why she felt the need to put up so many defenses.

One day, I sat down with Megan to show her a list I had made. The list was a compilation of all the great things I had seen within her throughout that week—and it was no small list!

After I had finished reading it aloud, I looked up at Megan and noticed that tears were welling up in her eyes. I was shocked. I hadn’t expected that tough girl to react in such a way.

“Seth,” she whispered, “no one has ever told me anything like that before.”

A few weeks later, I met up with Megan as she was finishing the program. Despite the fact that her face was smeared with the dirt and grime of hiking through the wilderness, she shone as brightly as the sun. Her eyes, once heavy-lidded and filled with anger, now glowed with life and light.

You have a superpower!

You have a superpower!

In the years since, I have watched Megan go on to accomplish incredible things. She graduated from college, participated in humanitarian projects at home and abroad, and has started her own family. Wherever she goes, she exercises her own power to change lives for the better.

To this day, Megan still sends me emails, thanking me for what I had said to her all those years ago. All I did was help Megan see the greatness she already had within herself, but that one little thing changed her entire outlook on life.

You possess that same power to help others!

Using just your words, you can inspire someone to see the best in themselves. You may not be able to move objects with your mind, but you can reach out and help someone move forward. And although you might not be able to lift heavy weights or machinery, you can lift a heavy heart.

I challenge you to go out and change someone’s life for the better. Change many people’s lives! We can’t be everything to all people, but we can certainly help those around us move forward. Look for the best in people, and encourage them to see it for themselves. Reach out and lift those who are sinking in the depths of despair.

The world has enough fictional heroes. The world needs real heroes—real people with the power to lift the heavy-hearted.

The world needs heroes like you.

9 Ways to Fight Depression (and Win!)

As someone who regularly struggles with chronic depression, I’ve learned how very difficult it can be to move forward. Over the years, I’ve developed a number of ways that help me actively fight my depression. Listed below are nine of those techniques. If you are struggling with depression, I hope that these techniques can help you move forward in life.

#1 Believe You Can Fight Your Depression

Depression Suicide

Believe that there is hope.

In order to fight depression you must first believe that you can fight it. This step is so crucial that it’s literally half of the battle. You have to let go of the idea that it’s hopeless, stop thinking “I can’t do this,” or “I’m stuck.” You cannot fight anything if you’ve already accepted defeat.

In fact, I can’t even give you advice if you already believe nothing can help. It’s as author James A. Owen says: “If you really want to do something, no one can stop you – but if you really don’t want to do something, no one can help you.”

That being said, I will repeat the fact that I have chronic depression. It would be easy for me to say that I am a victim of my circumstances, but I refuse to do that. I did it for a few years, and those were the most miserable years of my life, precisely because I believed that everything was hopeless. I have since learned that, while I can’t always choose what happens to me, I can always choose how I react.

I choose to actively fight my depression.

Right now, I want you to decide to fight your depression. As soon as you decide that—and believe that you can do it—I promise that you will find the strength to do so.

#2 Speak With a Trusted Friend (or Two or Three)

When you have depression, your instinct usually is to hide your thoughts and feelings from everyone else. Depression thrives in darkness and isolation. The best way to see and to understand your depression is to shine the light on it, and communicate how you’re feeling. I know it seems absolutely terrifying to open up to someone about your depression– especially when it comes to sharing some of your dark and morbid thoughts—but it is vital to have a mental mirror. You need another person to know what’s going on inside of your head.

Find someone whom you trust, someone who is understanding, and share your thoughts and feelings with them. When you do so, you’ll be surprised to find out how many others have gone through similar struggles. I promise that, though depression thrives in secrecy, it shrinks with the force and strength of empathy.

#3 Seek Professional Help

If your depression is persistent and debilitating, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help. A lot of people are embarrassed to seek help for something that feels like an internal struggle. But if your depression is threatening your work and relationships, there is no shame in seeking help.

Think of your struggle like a broken bone. You wouldn’t hide your broken bone from those who could help, but would rush to a hospital to get the proper treatment. Psychologists and counselors are trained to handle all kinds of things. They have profound wisdom and experience working with mental health issues. You have nothing to be ashamed of but everything to gain in working with them.

You would do well to use every resource available to you, including those who have been trained to help

#4 Look for Humor

It’s no secret that depression kills joy. When you’re in the thick of depression, it seems almost impossible that life will ever be cheerful again. But there are ways to find joy in the journey—even when it’s dark.

When things get especially difficult for me, I do my best to seek out things that are humorous (reruns of funny sitcoms, hilarious YouTube videos, and ridiculous internet memes).

Despite what you might be tempted to think, there’s a lot of humor to be found in everyday life—even within depression. I think Allie Brosch of Hyperbole and a Half does a awesome job at illustrating the depth of depression, while also pointing out the humor. Check out Adventures in Depression, and Depression Part 2 (fair warning, she uses some colorful language).

Shortly after my suicide attempt, my brother Sean and I watched Better Off Dead, a quirky comedy about a guy who unsuccessfully tries to kill himself multiple times. Believe it or not, the movie actually helped me find the humor in my own situation.

Truly, laughter can be a real game-changer.

#5 Get Lots and Lots of Sunshine!

There’s a scene in Sword in the Stone where Merlin tells the witch, Mad Madam Mim, that in order to feel better she needs “lots and lots of sunshine!” Her response? “I hate horrible, wholesome sunshine!”

Depression Hates Sunshine!!

Mad Madam Mim is like depression; depression hates sunshine! Researchers have discovered that sunlight (which contains Vitamin D) boosts serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulates sleep, memory, and—here’s the kicker—mood! Healthy levels of serotonin mean a healthier, happier you!

Do you realize what this means?! Every day, the sun is literally offering us free happiness! Wholesome sunshine, indeed!

#6 Boost Your Moods

Whenever I’m feeling low, I tend to gravitate toward things that will drag me down even lower—sad music, depressing television shows, or real-life drama. Since my suicide attempt, I’ve realized that I simply can’t afford to feed my sadness. Instead, I try to boost my mood and feed the positive side of my nature.

As much as possible, I try to listen to upbeat music, watch comedies, participate in constructive activities, and stay in the sunlight. While it doesn’t always work right away, actively feeding the kind of moods I want to have definitely decreases the chance of another relapse.

Put another way, I try to avoid stepping in manure by staying out of the cow pasture. :)

#7 Diet and Exercise

Yup. You heard me. This stuff works! And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Whether you believe in evolution (survival of the fittest) or Creationism (“by the sweat of your brow”), mankind was designed to labor and find fulfillment in work. We simply don’t use our bodies like the generations before us. Being sedentary is quite literally making us depressed.

To quote professor and psychologist, Matthew Whoolery:

“Did you know what the best antidepressant is—for real? Exercise. A study done at Duke University Medical School found that 30 minutes of brisk exercise, three days a week, was as effective as taking an antidepressant. And the relapse rate for the exercisers was just 7%, while the relapse rate for the drug-takers was over 30%.”

Trust me, I know that depression saps the energy out of you. But just try going for a thirty minute walk in the sunlight (and listen to some upbeat music while doing it). It certainly couldn’t hurt.

#8 Serve Others

Time and time again, I have learned that loving service is one of our greatest (yet most neglected) resources for healing. In my book, Your Life Isn’t For You, I wrote that “in lifting another person, we also lift ourselves.”

But I think Gordon B. Hinckley said it best when he said:

“The best antidote I know for worry is work. The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired. One of the great ironies of life is this: He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.”

#9 Understand You Will Always Have to Pull Weeds

This idea is SO important! Please understand that life is about growth, not perfection. If perfection is your aim, you will always be depressed—because none of us is perfect. We all need to work constantly to improve our lives.

Our lives are like gardens, and we have to perpetually care for, cultivate, and weed them. There will never be a time when the weeding is forever done, just as there will never be a time when we are forever exempt from feelings of sadness, loneliness, or despair. These things will always try to resurface in our lives. The trick is to keep weeding. Don’t let those feelings overrun your life (or your garden). When you nurture and care for the fruits and flowers of your life, I promise that you will reap a more abundant life.

I hope these ideas have helped you find the strength and understanding to fight your depression. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you CAN do it.

Below is a great video on understanding depression. Keep moving forward!