A couple weeks ago I started reading a book called Weakness Is Not Sin by Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D. I wouldn’t have picked up this book had I not known Wendy personally during a short period of my life. From December 2001 to December 2003, I served as an LDS missionary in Quebec and Ontario, Canada. For the majority of that time, Wendy and her husband, Dave, presided over our mission. They are both extraordinary people and were a huge blessing and source of learning to me as a missionary.
I have a distinct memory of Wendy discussing weakness and sin during a missionary training. I remember hearing that lesson more than once, but despite its repetition, it’s not one I completely grasped regardless of my desire to understand. So when I saw a book called Weakness Is Not Sin by Wendy Ulrich pop up on Amazon, I immediately ordered a copy, although I didn’t plan on reading it immediately. I suppose I was saving it for a rainy day.
At several points in my life I have struggled through episodes of anxiety and depression. It has been hard to know what to do and where to turn in these moments. It’s so easy to feel alone and isolate yourself. During one of these moments I spied Wendy’s book on the bottom shelf of the bookcase in my bedroom. I remembered Wendy's wisdom and I wondered if her book could help me find the relief I was searching and praying for.
Throughout the book, Wendy refers to a verse from the Book of Mormon, Ether 12:271, many times. It’s a verse that gets thrown around a lot among Mormons—and rightfully so, it carries a powerful message—but only in one or two instances have I exerted great effort to apply it in my life. This verse speaks of God’s power to turn man’s weakness into strength:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
As I’ve considered this scripture and read this book, viewing my depression as a weakness—not something to be ashamed of or feel guilty about—has opened a whole new way of looking at depression. I have found myself seeking strength2 and patience through humility and prayer. And I have been able to find self-assurance and satisfaction in the fact that I have been working through this particular weakness in a healthy and proactive way.
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Growing up I was the shyest, most closed-up kid I knew. In my ninth grade algebra class I had a crush on the girl I sat next to. I think her name was Lisa. I remember one night as I went to bed so frustrated with my inability to talk to her that I cried myself to sleep.
Part of what was so frustrating was that not only could I not talk to Lisa, but I couldn’t talk to anyone about the fact that I couldn’t talk to her. I was so afraid of how others might treat my oh-so-tender feelings. I was 18 years old—18—before I could tell someone else that I liked a girl. Not the actual girl but someone else.
I’m still a fairly shy person. I’m not particularly fond of this fact and it’s something that I’m working on. In the meantime, I’ve developed several compensating strengths3 to counteract that. Expressing myself through writing is one of these strengths. Writing is not always ideal, though, because if I’m not careful, it can create a crutch that I use to avoid expressing myself in real time with real people.
Another compensating strength is my ability to share myself with trustworthy people. You might ask, How is sharing yourself different than overcoming shyness? Well, I still have difficulty opening up in groups with people I don’t know very well. This is especially true when there is someone in the group that I would like to get to know better.
What I’m saying is, it’s gotten much easier for me to share myself with people I trust. I know that might be a normal thing to grow into as an adult, looking back at 14 year-old Myke with all those pent-up emotions, crying himself to sleep, the progress seems very significant.
So when I struggle with depression and anxiety, communicating that struggle with others has been an important way for me to gain insight, strength, peace, and relief. Now, this doesn’t mean I share the details of what I’m going through with everyone. The circle of people with whom I share the particulars is fairly small and rightfully so. But I want to share the generalities of what I'm going through with a larger audience for the following reasons:
One. It just feels good. Experiencing life—a composite of good and bad—with another person or other people is simply better than going at it alone.
Two. I often don't know what I'm thinking or feeling until I express it. Whether in writing or vocally, I learn so much about myself when I let someone else know what's going on in my mind. Through conversation, as another individual contributes his or her ideas concerning my experiences and thoughts, as he or she asks questions I wouldn't think to ask, I learn exponentially more than if I were to hash things out on my own.
Three. Sharing myself can help others. I know this because I have received so much strength and comfort when others have been frank and honest in sharing their struggles, whether they are similar to mine or not. When I am open, it allows others the opportunity, if they want it, to share what they’re going through and what they need. It allows me to be a friend to them. And it gives me an opportunity to practice my strengths, to be a good listener, to be compassionate, encouraging, and caring.
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I wish I knew how to be permanently free of my depression and anxiety, or at least how to better manage them. I suspect that I will deal with these issues in one form or another throughout my entire life. I am learning how to be OK with that fact. And while I wrestle with that idea, I am learning that my anxiety—almost always a precursor to my depression—comes not from circumstances and other people, but from how I react to those circumstances and people. I am slowly learning how to act instead of react4 (that too is the pursuit of a lifetime).
And while I would love to be free of this weakness, this predisposition toward anxiety and depression, I can't help but be grateful for it because it has helped me develop compensating strengths that serve me so well, strengths that will also be of great benefit to the people I love.
Notes, Asides, Post-Scripts, and Acknowledgements:
1I feel that Ether 12:27 sometimes is not very well understood by Mormondom at large as so many of us seem prone to feel guilty and ashamed of our weaknesses when these weaknesses—which are not sins, not something to repent of—are simply part of the human experience. As Wendy puts it, "Weakness is the great equalizer, the human trait we all share" (p. 106).
2I think a big part of strength lies not in being free of weakness, but in what we do and where we turn when we come face to face with our weakness.
3Wendy mentions the development of compensating strengths as one of the ways that God helps us overcome weakness.
4Act or react: my cousin Jenny has shared a few recent experiences on her blog that have helped me realize the powerful nuance between these two similar words. This post explains it well.
Where possible, I have tried to explain when certain ideas came from Weakness Is Not Sin and not my own brain. The best way for you to find out is to read the book. Really, I can't recommend it enough. (And I haven't even finished it yet.)