Public Depression and Feminist Spirituality by Linn Marie Tonstad


Linn Marie TonstadIn her recent book Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich examines the experience of depression through the genre of memoir as well as by the construction of an archive of depression. Her archive includes sources ranging from John Cassian’s discussion of the way monks experience acedia to analyses of depression as the result of racism and colonialism, to suggestions for spiritual practices of transcendence – daily habituated actions of repetition and physical wellbeing – that might contribute to rendering depression manageable if not curable. The book, part of the Public Feelings project, is fascinating for the scholar of religion on multiple levels.

First, in terms of teaching and mentoring, Cvetkovich’s analysis of depression as reflective of real states of affairs in the world, rather than as a (mere) biological fact, speaks to an experience that I, and no doubt many others, have every year. At some point, an activist student (usually but not always female) will either email me or ask for an appointment to talk about struggles she’s been having. These students are usually heavily engaged in struggles for queer causes, in learning about intersectionality, reading critical race theory or Karl Marx for the first time, or discovering feminist theology, and trying to live into such modes of analysis in their personal relationships as well as in their ‘public’ lives as activists, members of churches, future clergy members, or the like. And unsurprisingly – and very familiarly – such students get to a point where they ask questions about how to remain engaged in such struggles when the opposition – personal and structural – feels so overwhelming. What do I do when I’m at a party and one of my friends says something heterosexist? How do I remain committed to the cause to which I’ve devoted my energies when I see so many other causes needing support? I’m worried that I’m alienating my family by the ways in which I’m changing. How ought I to relate to parishioners who think that opening a soup kitchen constitutes the pinnacle of meaningful service to God and neighbor?

I never have answers to such questions, but I try to lead students through an analysis of their own deepest commitments, of where they find that they have to draw a line (I’ll speak up in these circumstances but not others; I’ll see this experience as a teaching opportunity but I won’t engage my family on this topic for the next year, and so on), and in consideration of which practices of self-care will allow them to remain lifetime activists rather than succumbing to the burnout that many of us know so well. Cvetkovich’s approach to depression is enormously helpful in this regard. It serves as validation, as a form of hearing into speech experiences that feel deeply personal and individual – and are – that yet reflect structural inequities, and that have real emotional costs for the persons involved. The next time I have such a conversation with a student, I’m grateful for new modes of analysis that Cvetkovich allows me to employ – and perhaps I’ll suggest reading Cassian!

Second, Cvetkovich’s turn to spirituality and forms of transcendence (paying attention to the ordinary through yoga, meditation, or crafting) as ways of managing depression, and her correlative defensiveness about such a turn, is enormously interesting and telling from the perspective of religious scholarship. Cvetkovich suggests that “spiritual practice” may serve as a “utopia of ordinary habits” (pp. 197-198), but she’s extremely concerned about the associations that such language might evoke in her readers. She takes for granted – and in most cases is probably right – that the spiritual or transcendent carries with it implications of escape from the ordinary, depoliticization, and a refusal of the materially existing world in favor of some bad-faith utopic alternative or privatization. Of course, the relation between immanence and transcendence is one of the dividing lines between Christian (and feminist) theologians working in the field today. Some believe that transcendence must be relativized or abandoned in order to take the presence of the divine in the ordinary seriously. Others suggest that it is just transcendence that permits a recognition of the radical intimacy of God to the world.

Wherever one might stand on such issues, Cvetkovich’s plea for scholarly seriousness around practices of spirituality, however construed, and her analysis of the racial and colonial implications of dismissal of such practices, opens another kind of door for scholars of religion to contribute to vibrant conversations around the nature of the self, the intersubjective and public aspects of ‘emotion’ or feeling (Cvetkovich works in a conversation known as ‘affect theory’), and the potential for religion to serve as a resource (as well as so often a hindrance) in recognizing and living inside a world filled with radical injustice as well as everyday glory.

Finally, since one of the ordinary habits that Cvetkovich examines is crafting, and its recent importance as a feminist practice, Cvetkovich raises important questions about the nature of feminist politics currently, about its limitations, transformations, and possibilities. Crafting as a political and anti-depressive act seems both promising and reflective of just the forms of privatization that others might associate with a category like spirituality. I’d be interested to hear from readers who practice crafting or participate in knitting circles about whether and to what extent such participation serves as a spiritual, political, social, or ‘ordinary habit’ that opens up ways of living into feminist forms of life.

(I wish to acknowledge Larisa Reznik, PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and feminist theologian extraordinaire, for directing my attention to the book in the first place, and for raising a slightly different version of the final question in private communication.)

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology. 



Categories: Academy, Activism, Feminism, Racism, Social Justice, Spirituality, Women's Spirituality

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10 replies

  1. Hi Linn,….having been an artist since age 5, a musician since age 18, a male-feminist a year later, and basically a left-handed, right-brained person, I can easily relate my life-long personal struggle with depression to the oppressive condition of the world—a world held in the destructive grip of patriarchy. And yes, “crafting” has always proved a way out for me. The only subject I scored A’s in throughout the 12 years of my early education was art. The rest of my subjects suffered F’s, D’s, and C’s. But, back in the 50’s and 60’s they passed me to the next grade despite my dysfunctional left-brain, which, as you know, the educational system is based on.
    What’s been giving me hope lately is what’s being referred to as the Return of the Sacred Feminine. I’ve been experiencing a significant boost in the selling of my art, as well as finding steady gigs as a musician. I’ve been saying to my friends and colleagues for years that, if you want to know how the economy is doing, or how much the world is advancing on the human level, then all you have to do is ask an artist.

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  2. hmm when you mentioned “crafting” I thought you meant rituals of the Craft or witchcraft. Starhawk has written on this subject, suggesting that rituals that connect us to the immanent source of life or the earth itself can help to sustain activism over the long haul.

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  3. A great conversation to open, the horns of a dilemma where many of us live, struggle and dance. Thank you!

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  4. Hi Linn, This is a really gorgeous piece. And one of those rare moments when I read exactly what I need to. I haven’t heard about this book, so deepest gratitude for bringing to my attention. There is so much that resonates with me even in your few paragraphs. I have struggled with depression for a long time–and I can trace it back to the very questions and struggles you hear from your own students. I thought that the freedom of academic life would be the answer to this and at first it was, but has since become its own source of sadness. In this midst of my turmoil with academia I took up quilting–just a year ago. The shift in my self-understanding was so radical. A couple hours at my sewing machine would leave me with a sore back, but a also a feeling of delight and calm that I had trouble accessing elsewhere. I’ve been thinking of writing about this for a while–so I’m glad to have a small space to begin to sort out my thoughts. I am now writing every day–trying to meet a manuscript deadline and my desire to quilt has diminished quite a bit. I come home every day wishing I had a project to work on, but my sewing now suffers under the same expectations for perfection and accomplishment that my writing does. This is exactly why I needed to your post today–I think it’s time to start sewing again.

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  5. Thanks, Linn. This is a very timely post for me, since I just did a future visioning and one of my next steps is to schedule some craft time every month.

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  6. I so wish we could hear from Barbara G. Walker, feminist theologian and knitter-par-excellence! It is hard to find balance in life, especially when She changes everything She touches! Flexibility is something I’m trying to work on in my retirement years – both in body and in mind – to be able to respond to the constantly-changing world we live in – because just when I think I’ve almost achieved balance, things change.

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    • Ain’t it the truth, Katherine! As a result of all those constant changes in my life, I offered a workshop at our Central Midwest Unitarian Universalist Women’s Conference on “Resilience,” since I figured I needed to learn more about it myself.

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    • Yes, I know about change, Katherine! In my long healing journey with abuse and depression, every time I find something that works, something inside shifts and I have to find a new way of coping. By now I have quite a raft of skills. I like that She changes everything She touches. Perhaps there is a reason for the constant shifting and changing.

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  7. I’ve only recently become aware of the movement to consider crafting a spiritual act. I have always been a crafter and artisan. In the early 70s, when my mom taught me to weave and I learned to dye wool with plants and spin with a spindle, as well as sew, I felt that I was somehow backward, doing all the “traditional” women’s activities that women were supposed to be getting away from.

    Working with my hands, sewing, dyeing, making herbal wreaths, has always helped with the depression I’ve struggled with for many, many years. The depression is biological, spiritual, emotional.

    My crafting has spiritual elements, connecting with the spirits and healing of plants and Great Spirit, and being meditative. In fact, it’s really the only way I can be meditative, along with gardening. My crafting also has elements of stealth eco-activism. Anytime I teach someone what plants can do and they start to understand that plants are valuable, they will (I hope) start to respect plants a little more, start to care for them and our Mother Earth a little more.

    I don’t know if what I do connects directly to being a feminist. I no longer worry about the rights of women, more about humane rights of all and how to make life decent for all–women, men, plants, animals, the ocean…

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