World Mental Health Day, the Mayan Apocalypse, friendship, and other things

When the calendar turns to October, I remember the Mayan apocalypse of 2012. For me, that apocalypse was centered in the month of October, focused most distinctly on the tenth day of October. The Mayans maintained a complicated calendar which reset after many years, and the end of our year 2012 coincided with one of their reset times. For most people, the Mayan apocalypse was nothing, just as the switch to 2000 had been nothing. But my life was hit by apocalypse in October 2012.

Much of the apocalypse was mechanical and financial. Every vehicle in the household seemed to break down that month, requiring towing and expensive repairs. (Since the household included young adults, you can imagine some of those cars were old, used models, prone to breakdowns.) As we were dealing with that jolt, the family desktop computer stopped working, requiring replacement and including the loss of some documents and programs. As soon as we replaced the computer, we also had to replace the printer. Some other appliance also required repair at that time—the oven, I think, or maybe the refrigerator. It seemed as though everything was falling apart.

My feelings regarding that turmoil became focused on the announcement that a prized and precious coworker was leaving to take a new position at another job; her last day was the tenth of October. We had worked together for the past five years. Her presence had made work more enjoyable, and her assistance improved the quality of my work. We had no romantic attachment, but—given the chaos of the apocalypse—I came to regard her departure as the worst crisis of the month. Every October reminds me of that month. Songs on the radio bring back memories. Songs and stories I have written keep those memories alive. I received with a sense of irony the news that October 10 is World Mental Health Day, given that I entered a breakdown of sorts on that day eight years ago, one which led to counseling, medication, and a new perception of anxiety and depression.

The day the calendar changed this month is the day that history repeated itself, as another coworker announced that she was leaving for another job, choosing October 10 as her last day. We have worked together only two years, and never as closely as in the previous case. Yet she is a coworker I have liked, respected, and admired—a person who probably would be a friend if we had met at church or in some community activity. Common sense and CBT are keeping this change from becoming a crisis, but the coincidence of dates is disconcerting and ironic.

Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall is, primarily, the story of a failed romance. One of its subplots is a portrayal of friendship. Alvy and Rob are so close that they have a nickname for each other—the same nickname; they each call the other “Max.” I have had some Max-like friendships in the past: people whose thoughts and feelings and lives seemed to mesh with mine. A children’s rhyme teaches us to “make new friends, but keep the old: one is silver, and the other gold.” Aside from family, I have not been successful at holding on to the gold, nor have I acquired much silver in recent years. The truth is that I find it easier to confide my Mayan apocalypse experiences to my virtual friends on the Internet than to share them with anyone I see face-to-face on a regular basis.

When the virus crisis began to change our lives this spring, I thought I would achieve much productive writing. Instead, my writing has been mired in other issues. I have finally, this month, completed a first draft of my book about Christian faith and depression; but I know that this book will require more than the usual editing and polishing before I can send it to Kindle to be published. I have other book ideas, largely supported by writing I already have done. The energy to bring those projects to completion is also lacking. Since school days, I have prided myself on completing projects before they were due. Now, some of my most important writing is being done on the last day, with very little progress taking place before it is almost too late.

I knew for a while that I would write a post about John Lennon on his eightieth birthday, October 9. The night before, as I lay in bed, I composed what I wanted to say about the Walrus. In the morning, I got to a computer and typed my tribute. When I posted it, WordPress linked the post to related posts I had written and published before. I clicked on the first linked post, which I wrote two years ago. I was stunned to see that the previous post was all but identical to the newly-crafted post. Not that I would expect myself to have new insights into John Lennon that came to me in the past two years; but it seems like one more symptom of stagnation that a new production would so closely ape the work I did two years ago.

Mental health has many facets: sudden appearances of illness and long declines into illness, exercise of self-control and loss of control to situations or bad choices, being conquerors or being victims, seizing control of life or surrendering control of life. These issues are complex; they raise questions not easily answered. Generally, the one-day-at-a-time approach is best, with confidence that “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.” And the Lord who is control provides help and blessings along the way, when we have eyes to see his grace. We all struggle; we all help each other to get through these times. J.

Tropical depression Beta

I have already used all my tropical depression jokes. The rain began before dawn yesterday, brought by Beta, and it has continued right up to the present. The gentle splatter repeats drop by drop, minute after minute, hour after hour. Already autumn has begun. Mornings are dark and cool. We won’t change our clocks until November, in the senseless pretense that we are saving daylight to use in the evening. It would be easy to remain in bed, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain. But there are tasks to accomplish, deeds that must be done, and a tropical depression is no excuse to be lazy.

All year I’ve been working on a book about depression—the inner kind, not the weather kind. My working title remains The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. Thinking about depression, analyzing depression, describing and discussing depression: these are depressing things to do. The first draft is nearly done, but I expect to do a lot of rewriting, reorganizing, and other editorial work. Yesterday I tried to summarize the ideas found in The Dark Night of the Soul, and I realized that I will have to sit down and read the entire book again to be able to share it properly.

Last night I was reading in the family library. On a whim, I reached out and grabbed a biography of Ernest Hemingway and read the last fifty pages. His own story, as you may recall, does not have a happy ending. In some ways I relate to Hemingway—we were both born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, and both of us write. Of course his writing brought him fame and fortune, something my writing has not been able to achieve. He traveled and saw more of the world than I have seen. Also, I don’t own a gun. But I’ve read Hemingway’s novels and short stories. Even though we disagree about some important matters, I admire Hemingway’s ability to see the world and to describe it vividly. I also admire his ability to see into people’s thoughts and feelings and to describe them vividly too.

Twenty-five years after Hemingway died, his publisher printed an edited edition of one of Hemingway’s unfinished projects. Garden of Eden is a powerful novel, at least in its abridged form. It describes sordid and ugly actions by sordid and ugly people, but its narrative is not easily forgotten. Ten years ago a movie was made from the novel, although it was not widely distributed. I happened upon a description of that movie recently, which may have contributed to my impulse to read again about the author.

Many things combine to create a tropical depression. Clouds and rain and wind are only part of the story. We are what we eat; but we also are what we read, what we remember, and what we ponder. We cannot always choose our frame of mind; often it is imposed upon us. Some days we can do no more than take one step at a time, firmly confident that each step measures a little more progress toward our destination. J.

When I find myself in times of trouble

John Cassian (360-435) wrote that times of trouble come to the Christian from three causes: as a result of that Christian’s sin, as an attack from Satan, and as testing from the Lord. Regretfully, Cassian did not offer any clues how to discern which of these three is the result of any particular trouble. Moreover, he did not address the likelihood that a trouble may come from two of these causes or even from all three at once.

The best defense against the first source of trouble is a life of continual repentance and faith. Repentance is not a practice that can be accomplished once and concluded; repentance is an ongoing condition, a continual element in the Christian life. In his model prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray “forgive us our trespasses” immediately after praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Like our need for food, our need for forgiveness comes each day. Each day we sin and need a Savior; each day our Savior is present for us, removing all our sins by his work. Each day we turn to him in faith, trusting his promises. Each day he keeps his promises. Therefore, if trouble should come because of our sin, the work of Christ removes that sin and ends that trouble. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we have is not a result of our sins—because those sins are already forgiven and forgotten by God. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we face must be an attack from Satan (or from the sinful world around us) or a test from the Lord, or (most likely) both at once.

In today’s world, tests are seen as examinations in school, exercises in which the teacher discovers how much each student has learned. God does not have to test us in this way; he already knows what we believe and the strength of that faith. The origin of the idea of testing, and its meaning in Biblical times, comes from refineries. Metals are tested by enduring heat: impurities are burned away, so that the surviving metal is more pure. So God permits Satan and the sinful world to test his people, putting us through the heat to purify our faith. God does not test us because he hates us, and God does not test us because he doubts us; God tests us to strengthen us and to purify our love for him.

Job was tested by Satan. Satan was permitted to strip away Job’s wealth and to kill Job’s children. He then was permitted to strike Job with a disease along the order of chicken pox or shingles. Job’s wife told him to reject God, but Job continued to trust God. Job’s three friends visited Job and sat with him in silence. (Their presence during his trouble was supportive friendship, a model that should be imitated.) Job endured depression, part of the test, and Job spoke about his problems. His friends tried to answer his questions, becoming part of his affliction and part of his test. They told Job that God does not make mistakes, that Job deserved whatever was happening to him, and that Job could end his trouble by identifying his sin, repenting, returning to God, and trusting God. Even in his depression, even in his questions, Job had not stopped trusting God. He rejected the suggestion of his friends that he deserved to suffer. In the end, God vindicated Job, telling his friends that they were wrong, but offering to forgive their sin against God when Job interceded for them.

God never answered Job’s questions about why Job was suffering. God did not tell Job that Job was being attacked by Satan (although God’s allegory of Leviathan, the sea monster, was a huge hint about Satan and his opposition to Job). Following the test of Satan’s attack, God restored Job’s wealth, giving him twice as property as he had lost. Ten more children were born to Job. They did not replace the ten children who had died; Job was now the father of twenty children—ten alive with him on earth, and ten alive with God in Paradise, waiting for the resurrection.

Job suffered, even though he did not deserve to suffer. His troubles were not caused by his sins; his sins were removed by his Redeemer and could not bring trouble to Job. Job became a picture of the Redeemer, of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Jesus also would suffer without deserving to suffer. He would endure the cross, not because of his own sins (for Jesus never sinned); he would endure the cross on behalf of all the sinners of the world, including Job, his children, his wife, and his friends.

In times of trouble, Christians can be pictures of Jesus, as Job was a picture of Jesus. We accept trouble, not because we deserve it, but because we are living on a battlefield. Satan and the sinful world attack the children of light. We respond by trusting God, the Source of life and light. Instead of examining ourselves to see what we have done to deserve trouble, we repent of our sins and trust God’s promises that all our sins have been removed. Testing strengthens us, burning away impurities, drawing us closer to God. Whatever hardship or loss we endure, we can use it to remind ourselves of the cross of Christ and the victory he has already won on our behalf. J.

Incomprehensible and unending love

Extracted from “The Child of Light and the Black Dog”: paragraphs that I wrote this morning–

Physical, mental, and emotional addictions often are bad responses to depression. Instead of seeking productive help, people allow depression to push them in patterns that are harmful, unhealthy, and only deepen the dark spiral into further depression rather than offering genuine relief from depression. Do bad spiritual responses to depression also exist? They do indeed, and they can be as dangerous and as harmful as physical and emotional bad responses to depression.

God’s love and forgiveness cannot be measured. There is no limit, no end, to the love of God and to his forgiveness. “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12). Astronomers studying the heavens have detected galaxies millions of light years away from us. God’s love is even bigger than that distance. Travelers can reach the north pole and the south pole, but those who travel east or west are never finished—no matter how long and far they travel, there will still be more east or west in front of them. So also, God has removed all our sins an infinite distance from our lives.

Jesus cannot love us too much. We cannot love Jesus too much. Jesus is pure and holy, and his perfect love can never be twisted or distorted. We are sinners, and sometimes our love for him is twisted and distorted. The Sadducees and Pharisees thought that they loved God, but their love for God was so twisted that they did not recognize the Son of God when they saw him with their own eyes and heard his voice with their own ears. They rejected Jesus and tried to destroy him. God’s people today can also lapse into twisted religion or distorted spirituality. We can be distracted from Jesus by the things we do in his name. Religion and spirituality can turn into idols, false gods that separate us from God and his love rather than bringing us closer to the God who loves us and who seeks our love and our faith.

We cannot love Jesus too much. But we can create an idol, call it Jesus, and love that idol too much. The Sadducees were devoted to the worship of God, the animal sacrifices commanded by the Law of Moses. They made compromises with the Romans and with themselves to ensure that the sacrifices would continue. Jesus of Nazareth seemed to threaten their Temple and their worship. Not only did he clear moneychangers and salesmen out of the Temple; he promised to be greater than the Temple. When our worship lives are bigger than Jesus to us, our religion and spirituality have become twisted. When we measure our connection to Jesus by the way our prayers and spiritual songs make us feel about Jesus, we have lost contact with the real Jesus. Our religion has become an idol, taking his place.

Likewise, the Pharisees were committed to learning God’s commands, obeying his rules, and teaching others to do the same. Yet when Jesus showed them how they were wrong about the Sabbath commandment and other interpretations they had added to God’s Law, they rejected Jesus and did not let him correct them. When our religious and spiritual lives center on the things we do for God, we are no longer honoring and worshiping Jesus. We honor and worship ourselves when we focus all our attention on the things we do for him. Our good works have become an idol, taking the place of Jesus in our lives.

Not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” belongs to his kingdom. To some of those idol-worshipers Jesus will respond, “I never knew you.” When those who call themselves Christians distort his religion into idolatry, worshiping their contributions and ignoring what he has done, they harm themselves and also hurt their neighbors. Many people turn away from Christianity and reject the Church because they see the idolatry and hypocrisy in the Church but cannot see Christ’s love. When a sermon becomes incomprehensible and seems unending, that sermon is no longer a picture of God’s love. When our spiritual lives center around what we do for Jesus, we are no longer serving him. We have removed him, and we are serving ourselves.

Depression tempts us into distorted spirituality. We want our broken lives to be fixed. We want to contribute to the solution to our problems. Throwing ourselves entirely on God’s mercy, allowing him to do all the work needed for our rescue, is not natural for sinful and depressed human beings. Total self-denial, total reliance on the Lord, seems like surrender to the forces of darkness. We want to make ourselves children of light. We cannot make that happen; only God can pull us from the darkness and change us into children of light. J.

Ebony and Irony

Two dozen years ago Alanis Morissette had a hit song called “Ironic” which was annoying, for the most part, because most of the situations it described were merely contrasts of opposites, not ironic at all. Getting a free pass when you’ve already paid for a ticket—that, I will grant, is ironic. But rain on your wedding day? Where’s the irony there? Meeting your dream man and his beautiful wife? Awkward, perhaps, but hardly ironic.

Here’s some genuine irony for you. Imagine an author whose latest project is writing a book about depression. He wants to describe the condition, offer some helpful explanations of depression and some workable remedies, and—most important—make it clear that Christians can face depression in this sin-polluted world. Christians should not feel guilty about being depressed. (What a spiral into deeper darkness!) Christians should let no one tell them that, if they had more faith, they would not be depressed. Christians should stop expecting joy and flowers every step of the way. They should believe Jesus when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sale.” Christians should rediscover the meaning of “the dark night of the soul,” the time when faith grows strongest because it has no distractions from the power of God’s promises.

So, this author tries to write. But the writing goes slowly, because… the author is depressed. COVID-19 shutdowns and mask wars on social media and the politicalization of every event under the sun has this author too discouraged to put into words his lessons on depression. He wants to address how physical challenges and mental challenges and emotional challenges and spiritual challenges can share responsibility for a person’s depression; he also wants to discuss how the solution to depression includes physical factors and mental factors and emotional factors and spiritual factors. Maybe the July heat and humidity and clouds and thunderstorms are interfering with the author’s creativity. Maybe the author needs to take a week’s break from news sites and social media. Maybe some spiritual enemy wants to keep this book from being written. Or maybe, just maybe, the topic of depression is just too depressing for some authors to address at book length.

Isn’t it ironic?

I had two dreams last night. In one of them, I was playing in the outfield for the Chicago Cubs. I was not in uniform and had not signed a contract with the team, yet there I was between center field and right field during an official ball game. Twice I had to field ground balls that had found their way past the infielders for a single. In the other dream, I was visiting an old flame. (I hope you know what that means; I’m in no mood to stop and define my terms.) To me, the visit seemed awkward and I felt that I should leave. But she said she was happy for me to be there and encouraged me to stay. Now that I am awake, the dream puzzles me. It would far better match my frame of mind, short-term and long-term, if I had wanted to stay and she was insisting that I leave.

What does it mean?

We have passed the half-way mark of the eventful year 2020. I have the instrumental portion of Kansas’ “Song for America” running through my head, which is a worthwhile soundtrack for this summer afternoon. The cats are resting; the house is quiet except for an occasional outdoor rumble. I hope that your day and your summer are going well. J.

A fun little quiz about depression

  • 1. Depression is:
    • a. A passing feeling of grief or sadness at a time of loss or stress.
    • b. A long-term period of despair during which nothing, including life itself, seems to have any value.
    • c. A sensible reaction to this messed-up world and my messed-up life.
  • 2. Depression can be recognized as:
    • a. Feeling out-of-sorts, unhappy, and a bit gloomy.
    • b. A long period (generally three months or more) during which sadness and gloom prevails and nothing seems to offer any joy or reason for hope.
    • c. Any typical day.       
  • 3. Depression can be defined as:
    • a. A person’s choice not to be happy or content.
    • b. A symptom that something is wrong in a person’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health (or some combination of the above).
    • c. Definitions are pointless. Depression is depression. 
  • 4. Christians respond to depression by:
    • a. Calling it a sin, based on verses such as “do not be anxious about your life” (Matthew 6:25), “Be strong and courageous; Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed” (Joshua 1:9), and, “Cast all your cares upon Him, because He cares for you” (I Peter 5:7).
    • b. Recognizing that godly people with strong faith can still face depression, based on verses such as “And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough now, O Lord; take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers’” (I Kings 19:4), “Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord” (Psalm 130:1), and, “My soul is sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).
    • c. Ignoring it, since nothing can be done about it anyhow.        
  • 5. When it comes to depression, Christians should:
    • a. Trust in the Lord and not turn to doctors, counselors, or medicines, because they are worldly, and trusting them means not trusting the Lord.
    • b. Thank the Lord for doctors, counselors, and medicines, receiving these blessings as gifts from him to help us continue living in a sin-polluted world.
    • c. It doesn’t matter.   
  • 6. The best help a Christian can offer someone who is depressed is:

a. Tell them to cheer up, remind them to pray, and encourage them to increase their faith in God.

b. Spend time with them, listen to them, pray with them, and let them know that it is OK to seek help from worldly professionals as well as from the Bible and the Church.

c. Nothing makes any difference anyhow.

  • 7. When people talk about committing suicide, their family and friends should:
    • a. Ignore them, since they’re only trying to get attention and don’t really intend to hurt themselves.
    • b. Listen to them, assure them that they are loved and needed, and encourage them to get professional help.
    • c. Be glad that they won’t have to deal with that person much longer.
  • 8. When a Christian succeeds in committing suicide, he or she:
    • a. Has committed an unforgiveable sin and is barred forever from God’s presence in the new creation.
    • b. Has succumbed to temptation and committed a sin, but is still covered by the grace of God which forgives all sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
    • c. Has won a victory over the cruel and oppressive world in which he or she was living.
  • 9.Depressed people who make life-threatening choices—including abuse of drugs and alcohol, cutting their skin in non-fatal ways, eating too much, or starving themselves—are:
    • a. Making mistakes that are unrelated to depression and suicide and should be handled as individual (albeit bad) decisions.
    • b. Choosing a slower form of suicide which is still sinful, since they are not caring for the bodies that God created; however, their choices should be discussed within the context of their depression.
    • c. Free to do whatever they wish, since they are only hurting themselves.
  • 10. Depression is:
    • a. Most common among teenagers and the elderly, among the poor, and among people dealing with other physical ailments.
    • b. As likely to oppress people of any age, gender, economic status, overall health, and religious beliefs.
    • c. It doesn’t matter.

SCORING YOURSELF ON THIS QUIZ:

For every A, give yourself one point; for every B, give yourself two points; for every C, give yourself five points.

If your score is nine or less: you need to improve your math skills.

If your score is ten to fourteen: you need to learn more about depression.

If your score is fifteen to twenty-four: you understand depression better than the average population.

If your score is twenty-five or higher: you need to be getting help. Talk to a religious or medical professional about your feelings. Allow trusted family members and friends to know what you are feeling. Contact someone who can work with you—even over the telephone. Understand that you are a valuable person, your life is worth living, and you are in the midst of a temporary situation that can be resolved.

J.

The wellness continuum

Some people want to live. Other people want to die. This would seem as simple a choice as yes or no, as on or off. But (as is the case with so many things in life), the situation is not as cut and dried as it seemed. My post last Friday resulted, in part, from thoughts I’ve been developing for months about a continuum in wellness, one that includes two extremes, but also a broad middle area that touches neither extreme. As in any continuum, many possibilities and positions exist. I’ve labeled six positions on the wellness continuum, fully aware that many more could be identified and described.

One extreme to the continuum is the suicidal position. A person wants to die. Many options exist for this person: gunshot, strangulation, stabbing or slashing of veins and arteries, massive poison, deliberate car collision at high speed, jumping from a high place… the list goes on and on. My point is that some people are so depressed, so discouraged, so far from finding any meaning to life, that they simply want to end it all.

Less extreme is the risky position. Some people abuse alcohol and drugs, not because they want to die, but because they don’t care about the risk. Some people drive recklessly, not because they want to die, but because they simply don’t care what happens to them. Trying to reason with these people, to warn them that they are endangering their lives, is not helpful. They may not be suicidal—they may not be seeking death today—but they are unwilling to change their habits for the sake of having a longer, safer, or healthier life.

Then there are those who are apathetic. They don’t take drugs or drink to excess; they don’t seek death for themselves. Yet they also do not take care of themselves. They eat and sleep and work, but they get no exercise. They are as happy eating junk food as they are with a healthy diet. Frankly, if a doctor told them that they had incurable cancer, they would not be distraught. They would just as soon die as live, and sometimes they envy the people who have already died and are not facing the worries and troubles of the present world.

Other people are proactive. They pay attention to nutrition, to exercise, and to the right amounts of sleep. Their intake of coffee, chocolate candy, red wine, salt, sugar, and fats is moderate, within healthy limits. The follow the advice of their family doctors and of other health professionals. Yet maintaining a healthy body is only one of their interests, and it is never their primary interest.

Yet other people are obsessive. Their constant preoccupation is health and wellness. They carefully monitor what they eat and diligently avoid anything that might be even slightly hazardous to their health. They might even resent the weekly forty hours of work in their careers which limit the amount of time they can spend in the gym building and strengthening their bodies. Nothing matters more to them than health and wellness, and they are scornful of people who maintain healthy bodies while sometimes indulging in the luxuries that might pose a threat to perfect health.

Finally, a few people go beyond excessive to the point of being phobic. Fearful of germs, they avoid all human contact. They isolate themselves to protect themselves from a dangerous world. They sleep in tents that protect them from the outside air, even the air in their own houses. They do nothing with their lives, because their one and only interest is in preserving and protecting their lives.

Clearly, these six positions are merely landmarks along the wellness continuum. The extreme positions are obvious; the lines between the intervening positions are blurred. The same person in different positions can land in different points along this continuum. From day to day, the same person might shift toward one side or the other on this continuum.

For that matter, a second dimension exists for this continuum. A person might be proactive in some areas, apathetic in others, and even risky in still others. One person is careful about diet and exercise, yet is a heavy smoker. Another person is moderate in all other life choices but is a menace on the highways. Just as the conservative-liberal continuum in politics is limited in value (because most people are conservative about some issues and liberal about others), so this continuum offers a way of looking at ourselves and others in regard to wellness without completely explaining every person, every decision, and every action.

This understanding might improve communication between people with different perspectives on wellness. A medical professional might well say to a heavy drinker or heavy smoker, “You know, you are killing yourself with this bad habit,” and the sincere and honest communication has no effect. Someone might say to the body-builder, “Sure, you look great… but get a life!” and the sincere and honest communication has no effect. To those on the spectrum closer to death, reasons need to be offered to value and preserve life. To those trending toward obsession and phobia, reasons need to be offered to show that living is more than health and wellness. No ideal center point exists where all of us can meet and live happily ever after. We will all differ from one another in a number of ways, including the wellness spectrum. But knowing that more options exist on this spectrum beyond “I want to live” and “I want to die” might begin the process of making us able to talk to one another about health and wellness. J.

Life and the Black Dog of depression

In the 1979 movie All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (like the movie’s director and co-writer Bob Fosse) is a successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director who lives life on the edge. He drives himself at work, he drinks and takes drugs, he sleeps around, and he pushes himself to the limit. He both figuratively and literally flirts with death (the literal Death portrayed by Jessica Lange). All That Jazz can be viewed as a brutally analysis of Fosse’s own life, but it also speaks about the choices many other people make in their lives.

What drives people like Joe Gideon to live life on the edge? Often the cause is emptiness within. Stressed by life with its ups and downs, they embrace the downs and overlook the ups. They choose death over life, not suddenly and violently, but gradually, deliberately, and knowingly. The Black Dog of anxiety and depression has more power over them than they have over themselves, and it drives them over the cliffs of despair.

A Christian understands why unbelievers feel this way and act this way. A Christian might wonder why a fellow Christian feels this way and acts this way. Jesus tells us not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). Paul identifies the greatest gifts of the spirit as faith, hope, and love. If a Christian has no hope, one may suppose, that Christian also has no faith.

I know a man—I’ll call him Martin. Like me, Martin has struggled for years with anxiety and depression. Like most people, this spring has been difficult for Martin: fear of the virus, fear of damage to the economy, fear of violence in the streets, fear of what might happen to himself, to his family, to his job, and to his neighborhood. Martin has not turned to all the wrong answers that Joe Gideon tried. Martin has been faithful in his marriage. He has taken no illegal drugs and abused no prescription drugs. Martin does try his best at his job, but he is not driven to work to the point of exhaustion. But Martin does consume alcohol. He calls himself a “heavy drinker.” That mistake recently put Martin in a very uncomfortable position.

Martin was sitting in church next to his wife when the preacher began the sermon. One of the first things the preacher mentioned was the distress felt by family members when one of them drinks too much. Martin wondered whether his wife had been talking to the preacher about his drinking. (She hadn’t.) The preacher went on to speak of other things, including the grace of God and His power to overcome all evils, even those we bring upon himself. Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher began to list the many idols people put in the place of God, and he dwelt particularly on the sins of alcohol and drug abuse.

As the sermon wound to a close, Martin felt as if things were going dark. It was not like entering a tunnel; it was more like on television when the picture fades to black. He heard the Amen to the sermon; he heard the congregation begin to sing the next hymn. The next thing Martin remembers is lying in the aisle of the church with an usher pounding his chest, performing CPR.

Martin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spent the afternoon in the emergency room; then he was in another room for observation for another twenty-four hours. The hospital workers paid closest attention to the working of Martin’s heart. (And, it appears, Martin’s heart is good.) But Martin admitted more than once to the hospital workers that he is a heavy drinker. One of those workers told Martin that he had been admitted with an elevated alcohol content in his blood. In her opinion, he had suffered an alcohol-related seizure. (Other hospital workers said it was not a seizure; aside from blacking out, the symptoms of seizure were absent.)

Martin went home after promising to quit drinking. He was given a drug to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Along with follow-up visits with his family doctor and with a cardiologist, Martin also followed up with his pastor. They discussed the sin of alcohol dependence, and they discussed God’s grace and forgiveness.

Depression is not a sin. Depression is a symptom that something is wrong—whether physical or emotional or physical. No one cure fits all kinds of depression. A great many factors need to be analyzed: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, fear, guilt, and chemical balances in the body. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—bears a strong feeling that life is not worth living. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—feels unneeded, unwanted, and unloved. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—will take risks with his or her life. Some risks are sudden and violent: a gunshot, a self-strangling, a strong poisoning, a deliberate car crash. Other risks are slower and less certain: drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, overeating or undereating (anorexia), and more.

I cannot suggest much advice about how to help a nonbeliever in this situation, Perhaps persuade him or her that family and friends do care, and that he or she is contributing positive energy to them and to the world. Perhaps ask if they want to live to see their daughter’s wedding, meet their grandchildren, watch those grandchildren grow. Many things in life have meaning apart from God’s blessings; but God’s blessings are the greatest reason of all to keep on living.

The Christian is promised a better life in a better world. This promise is not motivation to end this life and start that new life as soon as possible. This promise is motivation to do our best in this lifetime as we prepare for the better life that is coming. “You will not kill”: this applies, not only to the lives of our neighbors, but also to our own lives. We are managers of the bodies God has made. He intends for us to take care of them. Christians who smoke, Christians who drink to excess, Christians who overeat or who starve themselves: these are not false Christians who have lost their faith. These are sinners who need a Savior and who already know their Savior. These our brothers and sisters who need and deserve our love and encouragement. These are part of the family of God, the body of Christ, whose struggles are more visible than the struggles faced by every Christian in this world.

Joe Gideon flirted with death. So did Martin. In a way, so does every sinner, even those sinners who are simultaneously saints. Viruses and terrorists are not the only dangers in this world; sometimes we are dangers to ourselves. But God says, to Martin and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). J.

I have a dream

It began at a gas station. I had just filled the gas tank of my car, and I was prepared for a long drive home. I had not been home for a while, and I was looking forward to returning.

The service road was crowded with traffic, so I had to wait a bit for a gap before I could leave. But soon I was on my way, merging onto the Interstate. Almost immediately I passed some construction, and some of the vehicles in front of me pulled over into the site, but I kept on driving.

The next thing I knew, I was on Washington Street in my childhood hometown. Some trees next to the street were in bloom, covered with flowers. I pulled a branch to my face and sniffed, but I smelled no odor.

After that I was home. I knew people were sleeping, so I was moving quietly from room to room. Suddenly, I heard the Beatles singing “Paperback Writer.” I knew that my alarm was going off, and my first thought was worry that the alarm had been playing every morning while I was away.

Then I woke. My alarm was playing “Paperback Writer,” as I had set it to do last night. I had not been away from home, and my alarm had not been disturbing my family during my absence.

Most of the dream makes sense: my returning home after an absence, my departure somewhat delayed by traffic, passing through construction—all that I understand. But I am trying to decipher the odorless flowers close to home.

Any suggestions? J.

A national tragedy

Yesterday, January 28, was the thirty-fourth anniversary of the space shuttle disaster. Seven astronauts died when their ship exploded seventy-three seconds after lift-off. The memory of this event gives poignant context to the tragic news from this past weekend, the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and several friends in a helicopter crash.

The death of a celebrity is always major news, especially when that celebrity is still young and active. Whether it’s a shooting, a drug overdose, a suicide, or a vehicular crash, the shock of the sudden loss becomes an international event. People come together in their grief, even though they never met the deceased. These heroic figures have become part of our lives. Their mortality reminds us of our own mortality. And, I suspect, we transfer the grief of our personal losses onto the larger event. If we are privately mourning the loss of a family member or a friend, or if we are living surrounded by troubled lives, the chance to join with millions in sorrow over death brings a cathartic relief to our hearts.

I’m a little too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy. Most people over sixty can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of his death. Many of today’s college students are too young to remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For them, that event is merely one more episode in history, like Pearl Harbor and the Maine and the Alamo.

In my novel I Remember Amy, the main characters talk about national tragedy the night of the Challenger explosion. Here is an excerpt from that book:

“If only for a day or two, the world seems so different after something like that happens,” I commented.

“But it usually is only a day or two,” you reminded me. “Except for the family and the closest friends, most of us have gotten over it and gone back to life even by the day of the funeral. I promise you that, by the weekend, nothing will seem any different than it was yesterday or the day before.”

“You’re right, of course; and I guess that’s the way it should be. We can’t go on thinking about all the bad things that happen, or we’ll be overwhelmed by sorrow and loss. But it seems as though some of these things should change us more than they do.”

“Some of them are too big to change us. If they don’t happen to us, or to the people we love, they really don’t have any reason to change us, not even for a day or two. I think,” you added, with wisdom beyond your years, “that sometimes we save up the emotion of our big personal losses and hurts, and we let it pour out at a time like this, when everyone is shocked and hurting. Then we can hurt together; and then, after a day or two, we’re all allowed to feel better again. It’s our way of letting go of our personal pain, to be able to share it on a day like today.”

In 1986 I wrote a song—“Keep Flying High”—to commemorate the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion. A few years ago, when my mother had just died, I found comfort in singing that song and dedicating it to her memory. However it happens, death remains the enemy. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. But Jesus went on to conquer death and to share his victory with all who trust in him. Remembering Kobe Bryant, or any other celebrity we have lost to death, we find true comfort in the victory of Easter and in our guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. J.