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.

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.