when reasons fail

Reasons fail spectacularly when the subject is depression. Last week, a well-meaning journalist or two (no, I can’t remember which) offered Kate Spade’s separation from her husband as a ‘reason’ for her mental health struggles.

It would be great if depression and anxiety worked that way. Find the cause, fix the problem, job done. But they don’t work that way. Depression is depression and not just a grumpy mood (sort of like mine today), because it doesn’t obey reason. By that, I just mean that depression happens whether or not it’s warranted. I remember reading somewhere that suicides are more common in spring (no, again, I don’t remember: humour me, I’m having a bad day). Why? Because the new life that comes in spring is so incongruous with the cold, dark winter inside that it pushes people over the edge. The world looks beautiful, and that makes everything feel worse. See how that doesn’t make sense? (That is, unless you’re depressed. If you’re depressed, I am sorry; I know you understand this all too well.) Anxiety, though that’s not the main demon that haunts me, also eludes logic. We’re all anxious from time to time, about stuff that seems anxiety-producing for most people. That’s not disordered anxiety–it’s typical. So we might be tempted to think that an anxiety disorder is just like that, only worse. I suspect, however, that it is not only different in intensity but also in form. And although I don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder, I’m pretty sure that logic doesn’t cure it.

That’s not to say that bad things, painful things, frightening things, that happen in our lives do not contribute to depression (and anxiety and the rest). I’m a pretty functional person most days. By that, I mean that I can do the usual sorts of daily tasks at home and at work with the same amount of cheerfulness and grumbling as the average person. I try to be cheerful more than I grumble; sometimes I fail. This basically even keel is thanks in large part to some chemical help my brain gets so that it can stay focused on the task in hand. When things go wrong (sometimes even small things), though, distraction increases and despair looms. Then I don’t move between cheerfulness and grumbling: I go straight to complete despondency. Everything is going wrong, I am a total and complete failure, and the world would be a better place without me in it.

Hey, presto. I am no longer that even-keeled, basically functioning person. Now I am languishing under the boulder of depression, completely paralysed emotionally and psychologically. And I cannot shift that boulder, no matter how much I try to convince myself that there is no reason that it should be there. Reason has left me, and I am bereft. As long as the boulder sits there, I’m not going to get anything done. (Okay, sometimes I can do laundry, but that doesn’t get my articles written or my teaching prepped.) And I know from others’ accounts of their experiences with the world-ending psychological catastrophe known as depression that mine is nowhere near as bad as it gets.

The thing is, it isn’t the stress that caused my depression. Well-managed depression is like  a fault line that runs through someone’s mind. (There’s a lot to be said about mind/body/soul in depression, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight treats the subject very well in Darkness Is My Only Companion.) Most days, the landscape looks like solid ground. But on some days a small bump can trigger a massive tectonic shift. Coping mechanisms crumble, and the mind comes crashing down. My mind comes crashing down. And in the rubble, it’s hard to tell whether there is even an ‘up’, never mind figuring out which way it is. There, in the rubble, it can seem like the world has already ended. Suicide just brings into force the perception that’s already there. That perception is depression’s doing, and reason doesn’t really come into it.

When I reflect on my own psychological earthquakes, I think the only reason I am still around is the psalms. I’m serious. When I was a teenager, my inner life was a mess. (My outer life, too, but that’s a different story.) I have no idea how I stumbled into the psalms. I wasn’t a pious person. But boy did the psalmists know how to lament. They could say, ‘life totally sucks’ (my teenage lament) in the most beautiful ways. So for years (no exaggeration), I would conclude every journal entry with one psalmist’s question to himself: ‘Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me?’ And I would add his encouragement to that depressed self: ‘Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.’ In the psalms, I found my ‘up’.

That’s not to say that religious practice can save everyone; on my worst days I would forget that there even were psalms. But for the most part, the psalmists have been my companions in despair: just the right company for my recurring misery. And I am very grateful for them.

Deo gratias.

 

 

 

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Being human, part 3: the spiritual life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual life lately. Not, of course, that it’s ever too far from my mind. As a teacher of those preparing for ordained ministry, I always considered the pastoral and spiritual implications of the theology and ethics I taught. And as a person of faith, I have found the spiritual life an integrative force in my life, which often seems like a patchwork of roles and responsibilities and hopes and disappointments. Woven through the various scraps of fabric, there is this sense of purpose that draws in everything–yes, everything–and orients it toward a bigger-than-I reality.

Although my recent thinking about spirituality has been inspired by the situation of women in colleges and universities and the challenges facing them, I’ve been struck deeply by the universality of our need for spiritual well-being. An article by David Morstad, over at The Larger Table, points out that people with significant intellectual disabilities have as great a desire and need for spiritual nourishment and community–if not greater–than those with greater cognitive abilities.

A sense of spirituality–which might be as simple as the notion that there is a reality bigger than we are, that holds us and draws us forward–seems fairly standard and unobjectionable. The category of folks who consider themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious’ attests, I think, to this foundational place of spirituality in our lives. But that isn’t to say that ‘spirituality’ is somehow what religion is really about, or that the practice of any sort of religion or spirituality is the same.

What our various approaches to religion and the spiritual life should teach us, I believe, is not that religions are all the same, or even that ‘religion’ is a thing that means the same thing to people who practice different religions. Rather, our continuing openness to faith and spirituality, and the persistence of faith-based values within our society, ought to remind us that, however much divides us, there is much that we nonetheless share. Being human involves forming a view (insofar as our capacities allow us to do so) about what it is to be human, and this is a task that involves a great many of us in spiritual reflection in addition to philosophical and scientific study.

As Lent begins, Christians around the world pay renewed attention to the life of the spirit.  I hope that this Lent will be a time when the universality of our need for grace also awakens in me a deeper awareness of the unity of the human family. After all, Jesus’s prayer for us as he entered into his suffering was that we might all be one. May it be so.

Deo gratias.

 

the alternatives

I will admit that sometimes God seems callous and distant. You know those moments when your life seems adrift in a storm, and prayer consists mostly of panicked cries of ‘Lord, do you not care that [I am] perishing?’ Answers never come immediately when I pray that way, though if I am able to recall that Jesus is the ultimate storm-calmer, that’s usually ‘answer’ enough.

In the worst of those moments of faith-testing, I consider the alternatives. If the storm in my life is pure chance, and there isn’t really a God who can save me, then what? Well, I’d be out of a job, for a start. There’s not much point in teaching theology or writing books on the Church (my next project) if God doesn’t exist. But that’s not what pulls me up short–I fantasize about going to medical school (I’m older than Patch Adams, so it really is a fantasy) and saving as many children of the world as I could. Even without going to med school, I can think of work I might find fulfilling.

You might also ask about ethics, morality–how would I live? How would I order my life? I wonder about that, too. But I know some amazing people who believe a whole lot of different things; I have a respected friend who is an atheist, and other friends all over the world-religions map. Although as a Christian theologian and ethicist I think we have something unique and life-giving to offer, it’s not a moral vision. (We have one, and I think it’s good and true. But it’s not the main thing we have going for us as Christians.)

And there are all sorts of little things that would have to change about my life if I gave up on God. But that’s not the reason I don’t give up. (Of course some will argue that I don’t give up on God because the Holy Spirit continues to draw me to Jesus. Fair enough. But keep reading, anyway, please.) The real reason (now my students, if any of them are reading this, are going to laugh) I don’t give up is that it is a mystery.

I don’t mean just that there is a profound mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, which there certainly is. I mean that it’s all a mystery. The reason that bad things happen to good people is a mystery, whether you believe in God or not. Unless you believe, I suppose, in reincarnation, and blame the unwarranted bad things on sins committed in a previous life, it’s just a mystery. And here’s where I come back to God: I find myself making a choice not between a thing that doesn’t make sense and a thing that does, but between mystery-with-redemption and mystery-without-redemption. It’s always a mystery. But I come back to Wisdom 8:1, over and over again: wisdom ‘arranges all things delightfully’, even if that delightful arrangement isn’t revealed until the end of time.

At least that’s the way I see it. Maybe that’s the gift of faith; if it is, I can only say Deo gratias.