Travel Guides to the Unknown: Why We Should Read Writers on Depression

depressionThe morning sun met me today with the numbing news that the youngest daughter of longtime family friends had committed suicide after a long struggle with depression. I had never met the daughter, but her parents were a church, school, and neighborhood treasure in my younger years. There has been a lot of attention to depression and suicide since the death of Robin Williams, including many posts by Christians offering advice on how to think about depression and how to care for those afflicted by it. Many of these are helpful; many are not. This is my stumbling attempt to add a few suggestions of my own while they are fresh in my mind today, though they push in a rather different direction than what I’ve read out there so far. They may not be the points of counsel you’d expect, but I hope they can supplement what you’ve read elsewhere.

1. Do not pretend, in manner or words, that you understand exactly what the depressive is saying. Don’t pretend that you can empathize, or that your extensive experience with depressives makes you able to sympathize. You don’t understand. I don’t, either. We may have our own struggles with depression, but depression is an umbrella term, a catch-all designation for a range of states and feelings and conditions difficult to capture with a definition, and one depression is never identical to another. Nor could it be, given how depression seizes and feeds upon our invariably unique stories, weaknesses, fears, desires, backgrounds, contexts, families, even our diets and other habits. We do an injustice to our brother or sister when we minimize the relative uniqueness and mystery of their struggle. Yes, relative uniqueness – we must still say this, but I’ll explain that shortly.

2. Do not pretend to know. Accept, instead, that we do not understand. We cannot empathize. But be sure that Jesus does. This does not mean that we can’t say anything, of course, though it may point the way to prudent silence and listening. Jesus knows, and this is, or at least should be, part of why it is important that we confess (in the Apostles’ Creed) that Jesus descended into hell: the furthest, deepest recesses of the human condition in a fallen world are shrouded in mystery to us, but they are known, personally and by experience, to Christ. The uniqueness of one’s struggle is only relatively unique: Jesus knows, even better than the afflicted one knows. As pastors, family, or friends, we do not understand, but he does. Here is the Christian hope, and the reason any minister of the Gospel can minister to anyone in any condition: the minister brings Christ, the all-experienced One, not himself. Jesus descended to hell’s extremities so that there might not be a single dimension of the fallen world from which he cannot redeem. The pastor is not the redeemer and he cannot redeem, but Christ can, and does. We must point to him.

3. But Jesus cares not in the abstract but in the concrete, in the real and flesh-and-blood, personal presence and love and tears of the pastor, the elders, the church family, the friend. Pastors above all need, then, to learn something of the terrain of depression, and if possible, to take advantage of the perceptive insight only an experienced travel guide can give. In other words, my fellow ministers, do not read only about depression, and do not only read Christian theologians and counselors on the topic. Read the works written by the inhabitants of this strange land, and read them patiently, charitably, refusing the temptation to correct everything they say. Commit to the simple though difficult labor of listening. Read the memoirs. Learn their language, believe their descriptions, adopt their perplexed and pained vision of the world they inhabit. Mourn and rage with Jesus at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. Agree with pathos that this is not how life is supposed to be. And let their descriptions unveil dimensions of the Gospel – what it must be in order to be good news even for this kind of suffering – in your own heart and mind. The sooner the pastor learns he cares best by listening best, the sooner the grace of God appears truly as grace, and not merely as clever insight or ready-made and counterfeit solutions. Consider this the pastoral urgency of James’s admonition that we must be quick to hear and slow to speak.

To get you started, here are two different tour guides to the strange world of depression. Firstly, there’s Nell Casey, ed., Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression (Perennial, 2001). Readers familiar with the literature of and about depression will recognize the authors included here, such as Kay Redfield Jamison, Virginia Heffernan, Chase Twichell, Susanna Kaysen, Edward Hoagland, Darcey Steinke, William Styron, Roe Styron, A. Alvarez, Nell Casey, and Maud Casey. These essays and snippets remind us how “depression” may be a calling card from many different lands, such as mental illness, profound grief, or trauma. From the opening words of the Introduction:

Unholy Ghost, a reader on melancholy, is a powerful collection of modern essays about an ancient topic. Here, writers who know, through experience, depression in one or more of its diverse guises, describe the sadness and dread that are at its core; they write about how it is to feel the the draining out of vital forces; how it is to exist with, and live around, the sleeplessness, the restlessness, the inertia, and the hopelessness. They describe the lingering influences of melancholia on their notions of self and work, and they portray the damage that their despair brings to the lives of others.”

Secondly, set aside an evening to read William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Vintage, 1990). But also consider reading the works by or about Randall Jarrell, Primo Levi, Vincent Van Gogh, or Virginia Woolf. They, too, lost their lives to this struggle. And in all your reading, ponder this wonder: that God, knowing these depths fully, determined in lavish, gritty, bloody love to become man, and to descend to these depths and more, in order to redeem us from them.

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