Thursday, October 6, 2016

Dealing with Depression: The Quotidian Mysteries - Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work" by Kathleen Norris

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work" is a book in praise of the daily grind. According to Kathleen Norris, what is considered routine is, in fact, deeply meditative and godly.

The word menial derives from the Latin to mean to remain or to dwell in a household. But somehow in modern times, menial jobs have come to be devalued and associated with the word servile. It is tragic that tasks, such as childcare, have been clubbed under servile along with garbage collection. Tasks that take up valuable resources and time in our daily life have been reduced to something beneath contempt. Yet they have to be done. You may be able to outsource some or all of them if you're lucky, but for most of us, they have to be done. And how awful it is that we do them with such reluctance and such unhappiness.

Norris talks a lot about the depression that dogs her and many others, making getting through daily tasks a burden. Depression, or acedia as she calls it, instills an indifference or even a hatred in the person for the life they're living and of the people in their life. Everything that others have looks better. "Exhaustion is at the heart of it, the simple inability to bear the thought of going on."

However, she says that persisting in doing the daily tasks and focusing on them in the present moment renews faith in self, in the ability to achieve things, and in the gratitude for the small successes. It is a quotidian mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation.

This is a very religious book, but there are moral questions and social questions she grapples with that can be taken without the religiosity.

People say that they will be happy when something occurs. But happiness happens where they currently are, not where they wish they were. So happiness is found in the daily life, not in some spectacular dream. An attitude of gratitude in everyday life is what helps to counter depression and find that hope and peace in what is, rather than what should be.

A simple task of walking, that steady rhythm of the body, of moving arms and legs, frees up the mind to creativity. Writer's block has been cured for Norris and many writers, not by pounding their heads against their desks but by walking. Robert Frost used to famously compose many of him poems on his daily long walks. To Norris, folding laundry, doing the dishes, and kneading bread have that same quality—where the hands are occupied rhythmically and the minds wanders creatively. To her this is akin to praying and to meditating. It's these scorned daily tasks which she seeks to ground her, which in turn help her keep depression at bay.

Daily household tasks have increasingly become a dilemma for women. Should they choose a life of the mind or a life of repetitive, burdensome work? And the right answer is both. To Norris, workaholism isn't the panacea it is meant to be. In fact, it can have the opposite effect of depression. Our culture has this image of a professional person who rises above humble unskilled tasks. However, these are false accomplishments, because the reluctance to care for the body and for the space around them are the first symptoms of extreme melancholia. Thus, shampooing hair, brushing teeth, drinking enough water, going for a walk are all dailies, but they are extreme acts of self-respect. They enhance one's ability to take pleasure in oneself and in the world.

Starting the morning off right is important, says Norris. I'm a great fan of Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. He believes religiously in his morning routine, the same thing every day of the week. The dailiness of it is soothing to his spirit and sets his day up in calmness and peace, which marches along with the busyness of the rest of the day.

Norris compares daily work to liturgy—it is never completed, but simply set aside for the next day and the next and the next—which have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.