A Review of
Learning to Be: Finding Your Center after the Bottom Falls Out
Juanita Campbell Rasmus
Reviewed by James Laurence
In August of 2020, a year that was like no other, former First Lady Michelle Obama shared that she was suffering from a “low-grade depression.” She named the pandemic, race relations in the U.S., and the political strife surrounding it all as contributing to her depression. When many of us heard this, we were more relieved than surprised, as it sounded all too familiar. In fact, a Census Bureau Survey found that one in three of us are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety this year.
This is one of the reasons why I am thankful for Juanita Campbell Rasmus’s new book, Learning to Be: Finding Your Center after the Bottom Falls Out. This book takes “a contemplative look at the journey of depression,” as Juanita Campbell Rasmus describes it, and offers its readers a number of spiritual practices that can be helpful for anyone living with mental health challenges. This is a book for our time, in other words, written by someone who has been there, learned from her experience, had time to reflect on it, and is now sharing her hard-earned wisdom with the rest of us. For anyone who feels as though the bottom has fallen out, and there are more and more of us that feel that way this year, this is a book to open with gratitude.
Pastor Juanita calls her major depressive episode “the crash,” and describes it in vivid detail. But there are many books written by people who have lived through depression, so what makes this one different? What I find helpful is the way in which Pastor Juanita integrates medical science and spirituality. She takes for granted that someone with a major depressive episode will be under psychiatric care and will be working with a therapist, and by taking it for granted, she normalizes it. And with those things assumed, Pastor Juanita shares her journey into discovering the spiritual component of her depression.
If all things work together for good for those who love God, as scripture assures us, then what good might God bring out of depression? In Pastor Juanita’s case, it was a “dark night of the soul” that was for her the beginning of freedom, and which led her to share her story. As she puts it: “I chose to share my story because all too often in Western culture, and especially in the church, we are reticent to discuss mental health along with the related spiritual implications.” In my experience, she is exactly right. Mental health, like many other issues, too often falls victim to the “science versus religion” divide. Depression is either viewed as a spiritual problem that can be treated solely with prayer, or as a health problem that can be treated solely with medication and therapy. Why can’t it be both – a health problem that has spiritual implications?
But what does that mean, in practical terms? Each chapter of this book concludes by addressing this very question, offering a “pause to reflect” section that invites readers to reflect on their own spiritual journeys. She encourages her readers to use the practice of examen as they read her book, “by reflecting each day in a journal or perhaps on your phone by asking yourself, What gave me life, awakened me, or moved me in this reading or during the day? Or How did I experience love? Jot it down. Next ask, What challenged me, left me puzzled, or stirred me? Where did I feel the absence of love? Jot it down. Then, after reflecting on both, give thanks for the awareness that each offered.” Her subsequent “pause to reflect” sections include encouragement to reflect on the role we played in our family system, to learn more about our personality through the Enneagram, to manage our daily stress through simple breathing exercises, and to reflect on what God is saying to us through the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina.
Pastor Juanita also spends time exploring the ways in which her personal situation in life affected her journey through depression, including her being a pastor, a woman of color, and a mother. She tells her story honestly and specifically, but in such a way that invites her readers to contemplate their own story.
Towards the end of her fine book, Pastor Juanita writes: “I see now that I had built my life on my own and only occasionally opened a window to God’s grace and transformative influence on me. I know God was seeking a deeper relationship with me. Now I am so very grateful that I know the robust fullness of the presence of God available to me in the vast hollowness that was depression.” This approach offers us all a way to reframe this year, and to look for the ways in which God is using this year’s challenges to seek a deeper relationship with us. This is a book that I found both meaningful and helpful to me personally, and one that I will be recommending to those around me living with depression or other mental health challenges, and to all have loved ones living with these challenges. In this year that has been like no other, the wise and heartfelt writing of Juanita Campbell Rasmus will be a blessing to all who desire to open the window a little wider to “God’s grace and transformative influence.”