Christmas decorations

If I said I was having trouble raising energy and enthusiasm to decorate for Christmas this year, most people would probably assume that this is a virus-crisis problem. But, the fact is, the last several years I have lacked energy and enthusiasm for celebrating the Christmas holidays.

The Salvageable family has so many Christmas decorations—and has had so many for most of our years together—that long ago I started a custom of adding one decoration a day to the house from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Day. The first decoration, which makes its appearance on Thanksgiving, is a clock which plays one Christmas carol to mark the hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (It assumes that we all want to sleep between ten and seven.) Then, day by day, more items would appear: wreaths, hangings, tabletop displays, books, music boxes, candles, mugs, china, and so on. It became a game for the children, guessing which decoration would appear next, searching the house to find that day’s new decoration. I even kept lists from year to year, keeping track for myself the order of items to put on display. Big projects like hanging lights from the eaves or putting up the tree would be reserved for weekends. Smaller decorations would appear during the course of the week.

The holiday pattern was broken a few years ago when we had a fire May 5 that damaged a storage shed/workshop and its contents, including our Christmas decorations. Our insurance company served us very well, paying to replace the building and those contents that were permanently damaged and paying to clean the items that could be restored. They refused to consider trying to clean our artificial tree, but the same tree has remained in service after surviving the fire. (It was not in the path of the flames, being scrunched into a box on the floor, and so smoke scent was the only problem with the tree… and we were able to air it out pretty well that spring and summer, first in the garage and then in the new shed.

Our most valuable decorations—including two hand-crafted ceramic manger scenes—were successfully restored. Some items were scarred, such as the hand-sewn tree skirt; it has stains from the smoke and heat, but it looks no worse than any tree skirt that has survived for years in a family with children and cats. We got rid of a few things that we didn’t really like anyhow. But the cleaning of the items that summer and fall returned them to us in new packaging and boxes which have made it harder to locate and bring out just one item a day, as I did for years before the fire.

So now things appear as I have time and energy to pull them from the shed. Today, for example, I am ready to pack up the special china in the china cabinet—plates and cups and saucers that are on display year-round but used only on Thanksgiving and Easter—and replace them with the special Christmas china that will be on display for about a month and used on Christmas Day. If it rains today, I’ll get the china out tomorrow, and this evening I will instead hang more Christmas cards on the wall.

When I was little (and, I am sure, even before I was born), my parents would hang Christmas cards on the living room wall. They had red and green ribbons that they stored the rest of the year; but, as Christmas cards came in the mail, they would add them to the display until, by Christmas Day, the living room wall was covered with dozens of cards from family and friends, just as my parents had signed and addressed Christmas cards to dozens of households around the beginning of December.

I began pursuing the same custom with our household, using white ribbons instead of red and green. But years ago I noticed that we were not receiving dozens of cards each December. So I stopped discarding the year’s cards after Christmas and instead collected cards over a number of years, discarding duplicate pictures and pictures I found unappealing. We now have over one hundred cards hanging in our living room, and I have more than one hundred more to put on the hallway wall tonight or tomorrow.

The tree is different this year. Last winter we added a kitten to the household. He is now full-grown, but still filled with energy and curiosity. So instead of putting up tree and lights and ornaments on the same day, we decided to put the tree up last Saturday, to add the lights a couple of days later, and to hang the ornaments this coming weekend. So far he has taken to the tree well—curling up on the tree skirt, not trying to climb the tree. On the other hand, he has cleared the windowsill of candles that we usually display there. Other years we have survived young cats climbing the Christmas tree, but he is the first cat we have had in the family who demanded access to the windowsills even through the Christmas season.

I am decorating this year as I decorated every other year, but it’s mostly for the benefit of the rest of the family, not for myself. Last month I changed radio stations in the car to avoid the annual tradition of playing Christmas songs wall-to-wall from the middle of November until the end of December. (It wouldn’t be so bad if they would include traditional carols in their playlist; instead, it’s holiday drivel like “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus” and “All I Want for Christmas is you.” Some mention of the Reason for the Season would at least make it palatable, but the reality is far from sacred.) We have our Christmas DVDs set aside—Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 edition), A Christmas Carol (the 1951 edition), A Christmas Story (1983), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and a few more—but I haven’t taken the time to sit down and watch any of them yet.

In short, my Christmas perspective is expressed by a quote from “When Harry Met Sally”: Boy, the holidays are rough. Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Years. Except that we have two seasons to handle: the Advent season which precedes Christmas, and the twelve days of Christmas which begin on the 25th of December and continue into January. None of the decorations will come down until after the 12th day of Christmas. But the satisfaction of boxing them for another eleven months and returning life to some semblance of normal sounds very appealing to me on this 11th day of December. 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.

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.

Five stages of waking up

Some people greet each day with a smile. They open their eyes and thank God for another day to be alive. They consider themselves blessed to be able to get out of bed once again and get started on a brand new day—the first day of the rest of their lives, they say.

Others do not wake so quickly and easily. Leaving bed is a chore and a burden. The new day holds no promise of good things to come. They would prefer to delay its beginning for a while.

In fact, recent studies have shown that the second group of people goes through five stages while waking and getting out of bed. They may not experience them in the same way, to the same degree, or even in the same order. Still, the pattern is regular enough to be described. The five stages of waking are anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

ANGER: That blasted alarm clock! Why does it have to be so loud and so early? If the alarm clock is not to blame, if the sun is shining through the window or the birds are singing, the anger is no less. And if waking is due to the neighbor mowing, the anger is all the greater.

DENIAL: It’s not morning, not yet. Someone has made a mistake. I set the alarm clock for the wrong time. And what business does anyone have getting up so early in the day? I need sleep more than I need to get up and get anything done this morning.

BARGAINING: This is why snooze buttons were invented. Just ten minutes more in bed, or maybe just five minutes. (I learned in college—without the help of professors or textbooks—the dangers of denial and bargaining when combined with a snooze button. For this reason, I always place the alarm clock across the room from the bed. I cannot switch it off before my feet have touched the floor.)

DEPRESSION: I’ll just stay in bed. The rest of the world can get through the day without me. I have nothing positive to contribute. Sleep is the only thing I’m good at. (This is no joke. People battling depression report that getting out of bed is the hardest task of the day. Counseling, awareness, and—in some cases—medication can be helpful in this regard.)

ACCEPTANCE: In most cases, the anger and denial and bargaining and depression are swallowed by the real need to start the day. The bedcovers are pushed back, the feet hit the floor, and its on to the bathroom to start the routine: brush teeth, shower, comb hair, get dressed, and whatever else needs to be done before breakfast and the first mug of coffee.

Lest perchance thou dost believe that I am inventing all these stages out of thin air, consider how William Shakespeare depicted them (although not in the proper order) in Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 5:

 

JULIET (Denial)

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear;

Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

ROMEO (acceptance, depression)

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,

No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

JULIET (denial, bargaining)

Yond light is not day-light, I know it, I;

It is some meteor that the sun exhal’d

To be to thee this night a torch-bearer

And light thee on thy way to Mantua.

Therefore stay yet, thou need’st not to be gone.

ROMEO (denial, bargaining)

Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death,

I am content, so thou wilt have it so.

I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye,

’Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow;

Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat

The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.

I have more care to stay than will to go.

Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.

How is’t, my soul? Let’s talk, it is not day.

JULIET (anger, depression, acceptance)

It is, it is! Hie hence, be gone, away!

It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

Some say the lark makes sweet division;

This doth not so, for she divideth us.

Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes;

O now I would they had chang’d voices too,

Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,

Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.

O now be gone, more light and light it grows.

ROMEO (depression)

More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!

 

 

Of sin and sickness

At one extreme we can see that we each need to take responsibility for our own lives. We all made choices, whether good or bad, and then we have to live with the consequences of those choices. If we have problems in this world, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

At the opposite extreme, we can see that we are all victims. We are shaped by things we cannot control: by DNA, by our environment, by chemicals in us or around us. When we make mistakes, and when we have problems, we deserve compassion rather than judgment.

We all land somewhere between these two extremes. Sometimes when we try to talk about responsibility, we talk past each other, addressing ourselves to the extreme position we think we are hearing rather than to what the other person is actually saying. What can be said, then, to try to find a meeting point where genuine discussion can take place, consisting more of light than of heat?

  • A sin is still a sin. When any of us does what God forbids, or fails to do what God requires, God holds us responsible. He does not allow us to blame the devil, or the way our parents raised us, or television, or video games, or whatever chemicals might have been involved.
  • Sin damages creation, including people. “The wages of sin is death,” and all the other pains and sorrows that afflict people in this world are likewise the results of sin. There is no one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering, though. Sin can be regarded as a pollution that corrupts the entire world and harms all people.
  • Life is not fair. God is just and fair, but evil is random and unfair. God limits the harm done by evil, but he permits evil to happen so people can see the difference between good and evil and prefer what is good. Moreover, if God were limited to being just and fair, the sacrifice of Jesus could not redeem and rescue sinners. God permits the injustice of evil so he can provide the greater blessings prompted by his love, his grace, and his mercy.
  • In one sense, every problem in this world is a spiritual problem. Because all problems flow from sin—from rebellion against God—the only ultimate solution for all problems is the righteousness of Christ and his redemption.
  • On the other hand, we are living in a material world. Nearly all of our problems will have a material component. In this sin-polluted world our bodies are vulnerable to accidents, injuries, diseases, allergies, poisons, and the like. In addition to the benefits of God’s grace to take away our sins, we need doctors, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, counselors, and other professionals to help us with our problems. At times we need medicines, casts, crutches, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and other material assistance to support us with our material problems.
  • Mental and emotional sicknesses, including anxiety and depression, also have material components. Among the possible causes of mental illnesses are poor nutrition, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, current stress, previous trauma, abuse, chemical imbalance, physical illness, side-affects of treatment for physical illness, guilt and shame over ongoing sins or past sins, and many more.
  • Among the appropriate responses to mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, are a physical check-up, faith-based counseling, secular counseling, medication, and hospitalization. Because these illnesses have so many different causes, no single response deals with all cases. A medication or a faith-based counselor that restores the health of one person might be unable to help another or even harmful to another.
  • Mental illness is not a choice. While it might appear that one can address another person’s eating disorder by providing him or her with food, much more is happening inside that person than a choice not to eat. People with depression do not want to feel depressed; they want to feel better. While examples can be given of mental illnesses that began with bad choices—substance abuse and addiction, for one—the person with the illness cannot and should not be expected to fix his or her problems by his or her own strength.
  • Healthy living and good choices can reduce a person’s vulnerability to many illnesses, including mental illnesses. However, they do not guarantee perfect health. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or depression can all strike a person who has made good and healthy choices for a lifetime. None of these illnesses is the result of a particular sin or of committing more sins than the healthy person without that illness.

I could go on. Much more remains to be said. Perhaps this is enough, though, to begin a useful conversation. J.

Is depression sinful?

I have been out of the dark days long enough that I can begin to look back at my depression with an analytic mind. I still remember waking up in the morning and regretting it, dreading the coming day. I remember driving across bridges and studying the rail, wondering if it was possible to flip the car over the rail and down into the river. I remember using coffee as a drug to get started in the morning, and using whiskey or gin as a drug to fall asleep at night. I remember ignoring advice about saving for retirement because I did not expect or intend to live that long.

Some people say that depression is sinful. (I did some internet surfing to fact-check this statement. Some sites are pretty harsh about depression and anxiety, calling them sinful choices and not treatable illnesses.) They quote verses such as Hebrews 13:5-6, Philippians 4:6, and I Peter 5:7 as evidence that, when a person has depression, that person is sinning. I respond that depression, like anger, is not a sin. But depression, like anger, is a powerful temptation to sin. People who have depression are likely to make sinful choices that confound their families and their friends. Depression is not something they choose for themselves; depression is something that happened to them.

Being sad for a few days is not depression. Mourning a loss for a time is not depression. Depression is lingering darkness of the mind and heart. Depression is absence of hope. Depression is desire for destruction, the lack of will to continue living. Depression can lead to suicide. It can lead to other forms of self-harm, including cutting one’s body, abusing alcohol and other drugs, or trying to reinvent one’s self. Depression might cause a person to quit school, to leave a rewarding job, to refuse all invitations to spend time with friends, or to make damaging self-revelations on social media.

Depression is an illness—or, to be more accurate, depression is a symptom that something is wrong. Many causes can lead to depression. They include poor nutrition, lack of sleep or of exercise, and abuse of drugs or alcohol. (Yes—substance abuse can be a cause of depression or a result of depression. It can be both, creating a vicious spiral.) Depression can be the result of a chemical imbalance in the body. It can be a symptom of an illness or a side effect of the treatment for an illness.  Depression can be caused by ongoing stress or by childhood trauma, whether remembered or forgotten. Depression can have genetic causes, as people from some families are predisposed toward depression. Depression can be caused by spiritual problems, such as feeling guilt over one’s sins. Often depression is the result of several of these causes rather than only one of them.

Because depression has many possible causes, different things help different people to battle depression. Medication is helpful to some people but not to others. Counseling helps some people but not others. Prayer and meditation help some people but not others. Finding new hobbies or ways to be active helps some people but not others. When a person has persevered through depression and now feels better, those things that helped that one person might not be any help to another person who has depression.

When one has depression, other peoples’ hope and joy can seem like illusions. Optimists appear oblivious to reality. After all the world is a terrible place, stained by sin, and people with depression find it easy to believe that they are the only ones who see things as they really are. When someone else tries to correct their perspective, that helpful friend is likely to be told that he or she just doesn’t understand.

 Even if it appears to outsiders that a person with depression has chosen to be that way and to stay that way, accusing that person of sinning is not helpful. A sense of guilt has never helped a person shake off depression; being made to feel guilty only worsens the problem. The book of Job is a classic study in depression. Job’s friends were right to sit with him and comfort him with their presence. They were wrong to challenge his perceptions and to tell him that he was causing his own problems. God never told Job why Job was allowed to suffer, but God did say that Job’s friends were wrong and that they would be forgiven when Job prayed for them.

Being present with a person who has depression helps. Listening helps. Caring helps. Judging, arguing, and accusing do not help. Depression is connected to sin, but depression itself is not sinful. Depression is a result of living in a world polluted by sin and evil, just as influenza and cancer and broken bones are results of living in a world polluted by sin and evil. Rather than accepting all these problems, the better approach is to find solutions for these problems, whether or not those solutions include medication, counseling, or prayer. Thanking God for every kind of help he provides, we each do our best to be productive in our own lives and helpful to those around us. J.

Goethe’s Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is a pivotal figure in European literary history. Coming at the end of the Baroque Period (also described as the Enlightenment), he was one of the writers who introduced Romanticism into European literature. Goethe was a poet, playwright, novelist, travelogue-writer, scientist, lawyer, and government advisor. He attempted (unsuccessfully) to improve upon Isaac Newton’s theories regarding light; he also studied the shapes of rock crystals and tried to make parallel studies of living creatures.

Of his many writings, two stand out as highlights of his long career. One is his verse interpretation of the legend of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and wisdom. Goethe worked on this project for most of his professional life. The other is his early novel, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, translated as the Sorrows (or the Suffering) of Young Werther. Based very loosely upon some of Goethe’s own experiences as a young man, along with accounts he heard about other young men, the novel explores issues about mental and emotional health in a way deeply profound for the early nineteenth century.

Werther, the title character, is highly intelligent but deplorably lacking in social skills. He is impulsive, obsessive, anxious, and given to bouts of deep depression. That the other characters in the novel are unable to perceive or comprehend the depths of Werther’s emotional struggles is a key to the plot. That inability is still widespread today in spite of a century of psychological studies.

A previous crisis, only vaguely mentioned in the novel, causes Werther to relocate into a small German town where he meets and becomes enamored of Charlotte (Lotte), the eldest daughter of the local magistrate. Lotte and her fiancé Albert willingly befriend Werther, unaware of his obsessive tendencies or the damage those tendencies will wreak. When Werther tries to share the emotional storms in his mind and heart, Albert and Lotte respond casually. Werther defends the act of suicide, which Albert scorns as unimaginable for any person of intelligence. As his obsession with Lotte deepens, Werther realizes he must leave the area. He does so, and in his absence Lotte and Albert are married. Werther’s lack of social skills brings him into another crisis, which sends him careening back into Lotte’s hometown. His deepening gloom leads to a suicidal depression; none of his friends and associates understand what is happening to Werther or know how to help him.

Most of the novel is presented as letters and diary entries written by Werther, although at times Goethe must add some third-person paragraphs to fill gaps in the story. That Goethe closely associated himself with Werther is revealed in several details, including the fact that the author and character share their birthday (August 28).

Werther was a bestseller and established Goethe’s reputation as a great author. For the rest of his life, he was a celebrity, as famous as contemporaries such as Napoleon and Beethoven. Young men in Europe imitated Werther’s clothing and even his suicide. Werther remains a powerful description of mental illness, one which can be read with profit by anyone seeking to understand obsession and depression. J.

Thank God for Prozac!

It’s been a crummy sort of week. I haven’t even felt much like writing, which is not like me at all. A lot of reasons feed into that feeling: my disappointment last weekend, tension over a major test I’m taking next Wednesday, summer heat and humidity, and the ongoing onslaught of bad news about hatred, violence, and other such ugliness. I’m not the only one struggling: some of my friends are describing their struggles as well, both online and in person.

My friends have an additional burden that I have not needed to face this week. Their family members mean well, but they are trying to support my friends with the usual vacuous platitudes that are so popular at times like these. You know the type: count your blessings and you’ll feel better; be more active and you’ll forget your problems; just remember that Jesus loves you and everything will be fine; your problems aren’t real, anyhow—they only exist in your head.

My problems only exist in my head? An inner ear infection might exist only in my head, and that wouldn’t make it less real. Anxiety and depression are not solved by bromides: they need a stronger medicine. We are complex beings, and solutions that help one person will do nothing for another and may even harm a third person. Anxiety and depression are symptoms of some sort of imbalance among my body, my mind, and my spirit. Many things can cause that imbalance. Some are solved by better nutrition and more sleep. Some are solved by prayer or meditation. Some are improved by counseling. Some are improved by medication. No panacea covers all the possible causes of anxiety and depression, but well-meant remarks like those quoted above are almost certain to fail to help.

I am puzzled by people who speak against medications that help battle anxiety and depression. For the most part they accept the need for medicines that lower blood pressure or reduce cholesterol, they will swallow a pill for pain relief or freedom from allergies, and they have nothing but compassion for people on crutches, people in wheelchairs, and others whose problems are obvious. Mention an anti-depressant, though, and they begin to speak darkly of conspiracies between pharmaceutical companies and doctors meant to rob perfectly normal people of their money and their health.

I am not suggesting that any person should be allowed to ingest any substance that makes him or her feel better. I am saying that anxiety and depression are real problems that deserve real treatment. If a pill or two can give a sufferer relief, then who is entitled to criticize them? When Mrs. Dim decides to mow her grass before 7 a.m., and when drivers in traffic are doing fooling and dangerous things, and when my future career is very much in question, I’m grateful that a substance exists that helps me deal with my feelings.

For years I thought feelings needed to be ignored. As courage is not a lack of fear, but is doing the right thing in spite of fear, so I believed that virtue always consisted of ignoring one’s feelings and doing the right thing. Life is much easier now that I’ve been guided on a different path, and trusting a medicine or two to help me handle bad feelings does not mean that I trust God any less. I thank God for helpful medicine just as I thank him for doctors, nurses, counselors, physical therapists, and the many other ways he provides to assist the healing of bodies and minds. Whatever is good, whatever is beneficial, whatever is helpful, it all comes from the Creator of the universe who means it to be used for our benefit. For that, I can only give thanks. J.