Not long ago, a student asked me what I recommend he could do for a friend of his who was depressed. Since I’ve been talking about ‘coming alongside’ since I began to get my feet on the ground post-transplant, his was a question that naturally followed. I think my answer surprised him:
“Well, first, you have to ask yourself whether your friend is depressed for good reason.” He cocked his head like a dog who was trying to make sense of his master’s belch. “You don’t want to fault him for being a realist, do you?”
His head twisted so far, I thought he was going to roll over.
My question to him was not as weird as it sounds. We assume that depression has its causes. Chemical imbalances in the brain. ‘Stupid thinking by not-stupid people,” to quote the ever-rational therapist, Albert Ellis. A response to loss fueled by errors in how one thinks, to paraphrase CBT’s Aaron Beck. Genetics. Family history. And, those may all be good causes, especially when considered together.
But, I didn’t say good causes. I said good reason. I meant to suggest to him that perhaps his friend’s depression was a moral good. Is my student’s friend depressed for good reason? Does the friend’s struggle serve a positive end, a positive purpose worth serving? That’s how we know something is good. Does X serve the purpose for which it exists?
My house key is a good little house key because it unlocks the front door, the purpose for which it was created. If it never unlocked the front door, it would be a bad house key and, like non-salty salt, fit only to be ‘cast out and trod under the foot of men.”
Q: For what purpose might at least some forms of depression exist?
A: The truth. Some who suffer in that way may have a clearer vision of the truth of this world.
If prophets exist not so much to foretell the future but to speak the Truth, then maybe some people who suffer depression are contemporary prophets, eager to tell us how things are. And maybe some of them are depressed or find that experience compounded because we don’t listen. So, maybe rather than rushing to fix them, drug them, shock them, reason with them, we ought to sit down and listen to them.
At least some depressed folks may be the ones gifted to see, feel, and know the deep reality in which we all live and maybe what they see is horrible to behold.
What if we listened to them on the off chance that they have something to tell us?
To do that we need to think about the language we use in describing the experience we call depression. Our language about it suggests that we think of it as something people ‘have.‘ The word ‘depression’ is a noun. Depression is this thing that some people carry like a 400-pound brick.
Or we think of it as a character trait. He has a depressive personality. In other words, he’s sort of bent that way, oriented that way. Genetics and practice, you know. “A man who has carried a 400-pound brick his whole life, at the end of his life, looks like a man who has carried a 400-pound brick his whole life.”
I’d like to suggest that what we call depression is a dynamic, an energy, a power. (I’d also suggest that turning the verb ‘depress‘ into a noun by adding that magic ‘ion‘ gives us a feeling of control. Whew! At least we know what it is now. When we ‘thing‘ a dynamic, we feel as if we are in a better position to manage it.)
I have come to think that the experience of the ‘D-word,” at least for some, is more like having a living lion in the house than a statue of a lion in the house.
But, if this thing we call ‘depression’ is a dynamic then what? What is the sufferer supposed to say, “I am depressing myself?” I’ve heard some therapists say that. It is intended to give the sufferer a sense of agency. “If I can depress myself, I can un-depress myself!”
Or, maybe the sufferer should say, “My children are depressing me! My husband- who started out as my knight in shining armor but has become a recliner that belches- is depressing me.” But then do wall-bouncing children and belching, scratching knights have that kind of power?
Maybe the suffering should say, “I am under the influence of a depressing spirit.” Or, maybe it’s none of that that, “it’s merely this chemical imbalance I have.”
Maybe the whole experience of that heaviness is a dance with several partners.
Maybe some people who suffer from it do so because they have a clearer vision of reality than the rest of us. Maybe those of us who do the happy-clappy dance through life are self-deceived about the nature of the world around us and the depressed are those granted the gift of dancing with deep reality.
Maybe some of them pay such a high cost because the rest of us refuse to see for ourselves?
Life is difficult. So wrote Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Travelled. Those first- three words of the book are worth the price of the book.
“Well, yeah…it is…BUT…” we say.
Maybe that’s the difference between those of us who tap-dance in the rain and those of us drag themselves across an unvarnished floor of despair.
We tap-dancers have big BUTS and the depressed have no buts a’tall.
The preamble to the wisdom teachings of Jesus includes these words and I paraphrase: “How utterly and profoundly blessed are those who mourn because they see themselves and the world for what it is.” ( King Jimmy Version) Why? Because they will be comforted, oh yes! But also because they GET IT.
The most painful parts of my heart transplant were not the hours of gasping for air as my old heart began its fast descent. It was not the roasting darkness of night time, surrounded by bewildered doctors, nurses, and loved ones as I agonized for air. It was not the massive toothache that became my body when the lining of my old heart became infected. It was not the endless puking, the starvation, the eternal nights of wild-eyed wakefulness. It was not having my chest cut, my rib cage split, the lifting out of my old broken heart or the replacement of it with the healthy heart of another. It was not post-transplant pain. I managed that with Tylenol.
It was not even that I was sliding toward dying.
By far, the most painful aspect of that whole experience was the deep delirium I suffered post-transplant. It was an awful, awe-filled descent into a grace-filled hell.
What I learned in the throes of that merciless, merciful madness has utterly transformed my life because, whatever its cause, it seemed to be a deep dive into the world as world, a deep dive into a non-real Reality.
It pertains to the topic at hand and I will write about it next.