My last edifying voyage into the world of podcasts while working away in my monastic resident existence at the hospital this past month was a rebroadcast of the fantastic Speaking of Faith episode on Depression and the Soul. It really hammered home my own experience in a jarring and powerful way.
Krista interviews a Jew, a Quaker, and a Buddhist on perspectives they have gained spiritually from their experience. All had some incredible insights, but Parker Palmer, the Quaker, really floored me with his vivid description of what depression is like and what it means to live through it.
All of them note the inadequacy of sterile, clinical language in describing what depression actually does. Medicine lacks the vocabulary needed to describe exactly what this physical malady of mind does to us. Words like anhedonia ring meaningless and detached. All found much more power in borrowing from the words of their faith to describe exactly what depression is, a malady of the soul.
Having lived through depression myself I can echo Mr. Palmer’s thoughts on understanding why it is that some people going through it take their own life. He goes on to express the real mystery, that those who come through to the other side often state they learn more about themselves, about life, and they go on to live life more fully than ever before.
There is a danger to this line of thinking. First and foremost, this information will never be grasped or comprehended while suffering in the throes of active depression. Secondly, in proclaiming benefit in suffering, it is all too easy to trivialize that suffering. The agony of depression is real and defies any easy description to the uninitiated.
This is what makes depression to difficult. People who offer encouragement and state what a wonderful person you are rebuffed. In my depression, I was convinced that I was an impostor. Any good or worthy quality others saw in me was a mirage, and to know I suckered someone else into seeing worth in me, created only more guilt.
Depression is paralyzing. People who try to drag you out into activity also create more guilt. Palmer notes that others may tell you that the sun is shining and that its a nice day, asking you to go out and enjoy it. Intellectually you know its beautiful outside and a nice day, but that feeling, the emotion of joy is completely shut off. You lack the capacity to feel, and again beat yourself up for not being able to enjoy it.
In a real and physiological sense, the body’s response to positive emotion is shut off in depression. The mind loses an intimate and critical connection with the body. It is as if the soul itself is rent in two.
My ability to enjoy religious practice of any sort at all plummetted in the middle of my depression. I hated church. I found no comfort in prayer or in scriptural study. Of course, this inflamed guilt and self loathing all the more. I know from direct experience that depression cuts off spiritual feelings. You end up feeling alone and abandoned.
Religions in general, and Christianity in particular, are uncomfortable with this aspect of depression. The point of religion in many ways is to solve problems and give strength. The idea that a physical and mental problem could defy a spiritual solution is enough to make one question God.
In Christianity, we believe that Jesus Christ, as God, became fully human, the “Word made Flesh.” It is amazing through the centuries how deemphasized this radical and ponderous idea has become. There are powerful implications to the idea of an embodied God.
Mormon Christianity compounds this emphasis with its Plan of Salvation. We teach that all mankind existed as spirits with God prior to birth, and that one of the main purposes of mortal existence is embodiment. There is something powerful we all must learn in gaining a body, so important that God himself came down to receive it.
A Prophet in the Book of Mormon taught that part of Christ’s mission was to experience mortality directly, an in fact, to suffer, stating
… he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
In this way, Mormonism teaches that anything we experience, God understands. I don’t know that this makes suffering okay, but it does make one feel a little less alone.
The danger of glorifying suffering can lead to some frightening and disturbing extremes which have been seen in the history of Christianity. I do not wish to give anyone the idea that suffering in itself is ever a good thing.
However, I believe that through the mystery that is the atonement, Christ does know what it means to suffer depression, alone and bereft of joy. At his lowest point, on the cross he cried out,
” My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me.”
Brigham Young taught that this phrase was uttered at the very end of the atonement. In taking upon him the sins of the world, God withdrew his spirit and Christ knew for perhaps the very first time what it was to be alone. Coming through that valley, he gained insight into all of us, connected in a real and tangible way.
Many who live through depression come through with a heavy dose of compassion for others. No one knows better what it is to suffer. If depression does nothing else, it enlarges our capacity for empathy.
While suffering is not a good thing, neither is it necessarily an evil. Suffering seems in many ways to be a fact of life, one we are taught in Mormonism is necessary for growth and development.
As I wrote earlier, depression, in a very real way, disconnects us from ourselves. One of the powerful lessons I have come away with from my own encounter with depression is what an indescribable gift our body is, connected fully and seamlessly to our mind. I remember, weeks into taking medication, the first glimmer I had of the long forgotten sensation of pleasure in reading a book. I had no idea how dead I was, until I experienced the medical miracle of waking up.
Joy, peace, serenity, the thrill of insight, these are all felt inside. You can have the same experiences without the feeling, but without positive emotion, they lack any significant power.
Through depression, I have gained a new understanding of another Mormon scripture which states that all those who have moved beyond this life, currently awaiting a physical resurrection, look upon life as spirit without body as bondage or prison.
A reuniting of spirit and body, a resurrection, is a central piece of Mormon Theology, eloquently summed up in the same section of scripture. I’ll leave it as a final thought, noting that both death, and the living death of depression, while clearly causing suffering, can also lead to a full and vital joy.
Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spiritand the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy.