Late on a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, I joined in a community sing. Neighbors of all ages, socially distanced across front yards on both sides of the street, sang along to a pick-up band. The band started with songs for the children in audience. It’s been a long time since I’ve sung “The Alphabet Song”, but I still know my ABC’s. Then we sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, and I knocked it out of the park. After some more songs – the band was great! – we closed the concert with a rollicking rendition of the ‘70’s classic “Lean on Me”. Wow!
Our neighborhood sing was in response to Minnesota Public Radio’s invitation to sing a song together with people from all over the state during a simulcast. This is becoming a weekly gift to us from MPR. The station chooses a different song each week to raise our spirits during the pandemic. “Lean on Me” was an especially good choice. Besides honoring the rock and roll legend Bill Withers, the writer of the song who had died only a couple of weeks before our sing, it also contains a message that we need to hear during this challenging time.
The song begins, “Sometimes in our lives we all have pain/We all have sorrow.” As I sang these words, I needed to blink back tears. I wasn’t the only one. All of us are living with the pain and the sorrow of the pandemic. Pain dredges up more pain, and the song brought back the most painful time in my life, the moment when the doctor in the ER said, “I’m taking the decision out of your hands,” and admitted me to the psych unit. My life would never be the same.
That was over fifteen years ago, and I can go days at a time now without thinking about it. In good part this is because my recovery from the depression that landed me in the hospital has gone well. I’m quick to say there’ve been setbacks, and I’m careful each day to attend to what is mentally healthy for me, but most days I’ve happier now than I’ve ever been.
Will my life stay this way? A few months after my first hospitalization, I had a relapse and a second hospitalization. I’ve never felt close to another one, but these are scary times. I’ve learned to cope with significant stress, but nothing like what we’re facing now. The news about COVID-19 feels like a heavy weight that could drag me down. I felt it as I sang the first lines of the song.
“Lean on Me” has a great chorus, and it calmed my fears. As I sang in my neighbor’s yard, I felt like the words were written for me as a person living with depression.
Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you to carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on
Recovery from mental illness begins and is sustained by other people. You aren’t going to recover or stay well by yourself, and you don’t need to. Many people, both professionals and loved ones, can and want to help you. In their different ways they’re saying, “Lean on me.” I learned this when I first asked for help, when I first told another person how bad I was hurting. Because I’ve got others to lean on, nothing can drag me down, be it depression or COVID-19.
In our faith, we hear again and again that we do not need to face the hard things of life alone. We hear this in the “fear not” message of the angels; we feel It when we join with others in prayer. As I learned the words in confirmation, Psalm 23 tells us, “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” To me the psalmist is saying that God will be there when I need somebody to lean on. I’m not sure about lots of things, but I know this is true.
It took a while, but it finally dawned on me that our community sing was a show and tell. We were there together, distanced but together, singing about needing other people to lean on. I get it. You can’t be scared when you’re singing together. The other people are right there. We’re going to get through this. I’m going to get through this.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness. He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies and Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps.