Sometimes the tried and true sources of uplift just don't work. When you're really down in the dumps, the old reliable psalms and sayings, books and prayers and practices, may even make you feel worse. Words that once gave hope can sound hollow, mocking your futile efforts to beat the blues. "Yeah, sure, I've heard it all before," your Inner Ogre sneers, making you feel like a chump, a hick who's made a down payment to buy the Brooklyn Bridge from a fast-talking con man.
I found myself in that sorry state after some "minor surgery" (a contradiction in terms). I had sailed through a far more serious surgery five years before, scoffing at those who told me I might be depressed in the aftermath. Maybe the depression I missed then was really on hold until this lesser "procedure," but for whatever reason it hit me full force. I have no compunction about taking medication for such states, and tried one that helped in the past, but it had no effect. I worked my tried and true "spiritual remedies," but this time nothing clicked.
The powerful lines of the twenty-third Psalm had sprung me from despair in the past, but now only struck me as beautiful poetry. In an earlier time of crisis I went on an overnight retreat at a monastery and happened on a book called Abandonment to Divine Providence, written by a 17th Century French Jesuit, that seemed addressed to me personally. It lifted my spirits then and on many later re-readings, but this time it didn't help. Once before when words failed me, a yoga class restored my balance, but now I couldn't drag myself off the couch.
I hadn't lost my faith, but I had misplaced my sense of enjoyment in daily life and work. Life looked gray, even in Florida sunshine. I tried to zone out with our national tranquilizers: TV, movies, and radio. Most of the TV and film fare seemed as dull and tasteless to me as the food I made myself eat. The only thing that even held my attention was listening to sports radio shows, with their fans' arguments, opinions, and heated harangues, a kind of male version of tuning in to "Dr. Laura."
It was "Mad Dog" Mandich who drop-kicked me out of my doldrums. A former All-American football player at the University of Michigan and member of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, Jim Mandich hosts a popular call-in show on Miami's station WQAM. "Mad Dog" is rare among radio and TV pundits of any field for his sense of humor on subjects his listeners consider of life and death import, like The Dolphins getting beat by the dastardly New York Jets. As the home boys fell hopelessly behind in the waning minutes of a game Mandich was broadcasting, he told his listeners "The only thing they can do now is sacrifice a goat."
"Mad Dog" is characterized by his upbeat replies to the ritual opening line of callers: "How ya doin'?" Most program hosts brush by this boring routine as most of us do in our daily life, with a quick "Fine," "OK," "Good," or "Swell," but Mandich replies with a variety of responses that match his natural gusto:
"Only way I could feel better is if I was twins!"
"Life has been very good to me."
The last line is a recurrent theme, said not boastfully but with gratitude and appreciation, sentiments rarely expressed by the media - or by many contemporary Americans. In our whiney, victim-proclaiming culture, such a heartfelt statement seems like a lightning bolt, or an echo from an earlier era.
"Mad Dog" urges listeners to call him "If you're ridin' around with your windows down," an indication you're enjoying yourself in bright Miami weather. Now as I was "ridin' around" with my windows shut as tight as my feelings, a caller named Larry whose voice sounded as low as my mood, muttered the rote "How ya doin, 'Mad Dog.'?"
There was a slight pause and then Mandich's voice boomed out with the force of a cannon:
"Larry - every day's a holiday. Every meal's a banquet."
I broke out laughing - at "Mad Dog"'s unabashed joy in life, at my own self-pity and fear. I saw the precious time I was wasting by wallowing in worry rather than savoring the gifts of everyday experience. I had to admit to the Inner Ogre that "Life has been good to me," too.
The words that wake us from our comas of gloom may not always come from the usual sources, the ones we've depended on in the past. The message that gets you up off the floor might be delivered by a radio host instead of a prophet -- "Mad Dog" Mandich rather than Ezekiel. A line from a song can break a writer's block. A word of encouragement can launch a career. It may be a gap-toothed kid or a gray-haired stranger, the dry cleaner's clerk or the neighbor next door who speaks the "Open Sesame." Keep listening.