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.

Five movies that made me say “Wow!”

As always, when I describe movies in this blog, I am merely giving my opinion, not claiming to be able to list the best movies ever made. I am not a movie critic, and I do not play one on TV. But each of these five movies struck me with awe the first time I saw them and continue to make me think after multiple viewings. Sometimes I watch movies merely to be entertained, but when I want to exercise the cells between my ears, these are the kinds of movies I like to see. SPOILER ALERT–There are likely to be spoilers in these descriptions. You have been warned.

All That Jazz (1979): I first saw this as a college student with a group of friends, and when the movie ended we all went next door to the hamburger place, looked at each other for a while, and then began to discuss the experience. In fact, we talked about it all weekend. Bob Fosse wrote and directed this movie about a stage and screen choreographer and director. The story is said to be semi-autobiographical; if it is, then All That Jazz could be regarded as a public confession of Fosse’s faults. Director Joe Gideon abuses alcohol and drugs, is unfaithful in marriage and unkind to women, and is so driven to succeed in his career that he neither tends to the relationships in his life nor takes care of himself. As a result, he lands in the hospital with heart disease. The movie centers around the Kubler-Ross theory of five stages of dealing with one’s own impending death. As these are repeated—first in a comedian’s monologue, and later as a song-and-dance montage—Gideon shamelessly and deliberately flirts with death, who is portrayed in the film by Jessica Lange. The movie is not only about life and death; it is about relationships, caring for other people, and ultimately about the broad gray area between life and art. Not at all a family-friendly movie, but strongly thought-provoking.

The World According to Garp (1982): This is the other movie I saw with my friends in college, and again we spent the weekend talking about what we had just seen. The movie is based on John Irving’s novel of the same name. Robin Williams plays the title character, an aspiring author. (Why is it that so many first novels feature aspiring writers?) The movie shows the entire arc of Garp’s life, featuring the most important people in his life, including his mother (played by Glenn Close), who is a feminist nurse; and a transsexual former football star (played brilliantly by John Lithgow). Like All That Jazz, Garp is not a family-friendly movie, but it will provoke thoughts and discussions about American politics, gender issues, family and fidelity, and the rights of the individual confronted with the needs of society.

Joe versus the Volcano (1990): If any movie could dispel my depression, this would be the movie. Among other virtues, it is the earliest pairing of Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan. Hanks plays the title character, Joe Banks, who is trapped in a mind-numbing job and suffering from a variety of unpleasant physical symptoms. His doctor informs him that he is a hypochondriac, but then reveals that Joe has a brain cloud, a symptomless infirmity that will end his life in a few months. The next day, Joe is approached by a billionaire with a startling proposition: since Joe has only a short time to live, the billionaire wants Joe to jump into an active volcano, a religious ceremony that will close a contract between the billionaire and a Pacific Island nation. In return, Joe is given unlimited funds to spend on his way to the volcano. A splendid series of characters then help Joe redefine his life on the way to the volcano, which the islanders call the Big Wu. Meg Ryan plays three roles—a coworker of Joe in the beginning of the movie, and later the billionaire’s two daughters. Not subtly, but also not in-your-face, the movie uses episode after episode to ask questions about the meaning of life. If we are all on the road to death, why not confront it as a hero? Along the way, though, we must each first ask and answer the question, “Who am I?” which Joe suggests is the only question that really matters. Joe’s religious experience while floating on a raft in the South Pacific is a bit overacted by Hanks, but still important to the plan of the movie. The recurring symbolism of a crooked road, paired with another symbol of unsinkable steamer trunks, help to hold this movie together as a celebration of life itself.

The Truman Show (1998): Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man who does not realize the truth to the saying that “all the world’s a stage,” since he is unaware that, since birth, he has been the star performer in a television show. Everyone else around him is an actor, and the sets and plot turns are being directed by Chrisof, who lives up in the sky (behind the image of the moon). This exercise in solipsism is set at the very time that Truman is beginning to notice inconsistencies in his life and beginning to ask questions about what is real. What if all of life is an illusion, run by mysterious forces far beyond our knowledge and comprehension? The nearly god-like character of Christof, who loves Truman and yet tortures him for the entertainment of others, seems to have no superior being. Only one character ever utters the name of God, and she is an actress who once tried to free Truman from the set of the show and bring him into the real world. The last few minutes of the movie are spine-tingling, as Truman is confronted with his world’s version of the Big Wu.

American Beauty (1999): Before I saw this movie, I thought it was merely a creepy story about a middle-aged man who pursues a high school girl. That is part of the story, but only part. Lester and Carolyn Burnham (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) are unhappily married, with a tidy suburban house, a bitter teen-aged daughter, and an odd family that has moved into the house next door. Lester’s empty life changes for the worse as an efficiency expert inspects the office where he works. Meanwhile, his wife is being romantically drawn to a competing real estate agent. Suddenly, Lester rebels against every meaningless aspect of his life and begins striving instead to live truly. Not all his choices are noble or even respectable, but his motivation is understandable. Meanwhile, his daughter’s romance with the drug dealer living next door opens the Burnham family to new adventures, none of them happy. This startling movie cannot be watched only once; it raises too many questions about the meaning of life and about what actually matters in life.

Happy viewing!

J.