Jesus Wept, When Faith & Depression Meet is a courageous attempt to take the religious shame out of depression. Barbara Crofton is right on. I know from personal experience that there is a tendency among the religious to think that if they are not exuding a positive attitude about life, even in the face of extremely difficult challenges, they are somehow less than faithful. I am no longer what I would call religious, but I still struggle with that thinking. Positive thinking is the name of the game and if you aren’t positive, it means you lack faith. Of course, maybe this is really more of a capitalistic mindset than a religious one. Most world religions teach that we can be in the throes of a deep, dark, depression and still maintain faith – especially Christianity!
I met a woman who suffered from Graves Disease which was quite costly, but her family didn’t have insurance because her husband believed “God would provide”. When push comes to shove, God provides for the uninsured through citizen tax dollars. So who is it that provides help to the depressed? God? Most depressed people do not sense God’s presence. Even Mother Teresa, as Crafton points out, ceased to feel God’s presence.
I can relate to much of what Crafton has written in this little book. In my teens and 20s, I was obsessed with suicide until a dear friend pointed out that it is simply another option. Crafton claims that the option to commit suicide can actually be life giving and I agree. Strange paradox, but I think it’s true. Once you see it as simply another option without all of the religious baggage that has been attached to it, it doesn’t hold the power it once did.
But could it be that depression occurs because we attempt to hold on to a particular perception of reality rather than adopt a willingness to accept reality as it is? Maybe that is why so many religious people experience such deep dark depressions. Our cultural religion has been deeply ingrained in us – so deeply ingrained that even many of the atheists among us don’t realize how deeply defined they are by that cultural brainwashing. True, their philosophy is a stance against the brainwashing, but by being against it they subconsciously give it power.
Crafton has a chapter on “The Dark Night of the Soul”, but I think she has potentially misunderstood its ultimate significance. Her focus is on a way of out of the dark night, a healing from it. But I don’t think that is what St. John of the Cross was teaching. I think he was telling us to adopt a willingness to fully enter into the dark night of the soul – to go into the depths of the emptiness by way of the dark, pathless path.
Of course, this isn’t for everybody and he’s very specific about what can happen if you are not psychologically prepared for this descent. Suicide is a definite possibility. I think if anti-depressants had been available in St. John’s day, he would very likely have prescribed them for some students to help prepare them psychologically. But St. John was very careful to decry many religious rituals and beliefs in God as an unwillingness to make the descent so I feel certain he would have seen anti-depressants in the same way. Like religion and ideas about God, it is helpful up to a point, but it ultimately becomes an obstruction once we begin to make demands upon its legitimacy.
True, the depressed can remain faithful. But the sort of faith we are talking about is not a faith in religion or in God or in anything else. That sort of faith is belief and belief is opinion. It isn’t faith. (Faith in belief is not faith!!)
Faith is trust. As Jeremiah said, “Trust is the Lord!” In that sense, God is our active participation in trust – not some “thing” or idea to believe in. St. John was showing us the way of the mystic which is faith in the face of meaninglessness. There isn’t some sort of absolute meaning to be discovered or to “believe in”. We create all the meaning there is, including the meaning we assign to “God”, which includes disbelief in God. If you claim not to believe in God, you are still upholding an idea of God through your disbelief. The question of whether or not God exists is the flip side of the same coin and is based on circular logic. It can point nowhere but back to itself. It’s the wrong question! It’s no wonder we get either angry or depressed if we get hung up on our beliefs in the answer. The answer is completely meaningless.
Crafton refers to Mother Teresa’s spiritual malaise as clinical depression. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe meds would have relieved her of the emptiness she felt. I’m not a fan of Christopher Hitchens and I don’t think he had any right to judge Mother Teresa’s spiritual malaise or the Church’s role in it. But, I fully agree that many of us become depressed precisely because of our Christian brainwashing. I think this is the point of Crafton’s book, but ultimately I don’t think Crafton has let go of her brainwashing. She’s holding on to an ideal she doesn’t want to let go which may be what Mother Teresa was doing, too. Or else Mother Teresa had a deeper understanding of the way of the mystic than people realize because it’s so counter-intuitive to those of us in the west who are so used to consumption. As the Buddhist say, “Before enlightenment, depression. After enlightenment, depression.” You aren’t going to become enlightened by seeking a way out of your depression, because desire is the very thing that keeps us from realizing we already are enlightened.
We can’t consume enlightenment. Neither can we consume meaning. Faith isn’t going to give it to us – whether it is faith in reason, superstitions, science, Jesus, technology, God or whatever. We have been brainwashed to think that if we do things the right way, according to religion or according to reason, we will finally “know”. We will finally understand all of the mysteries that have eluded us. But it is we who give everything all of the meaning it has for us. Outside of our perceptions, it is meaningless.
Faith is an acceptance of the fact that everything we see and everything we believe is meaningless. Faith is trust beyond the egoic need to make sense of everything. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to make sense of our world. We must first know how to live within it in order to transcend it. And if that requires anti-depressants, so be it. We simply need to have the humility to recognize that what we perceive through our five senses and the ideas we come up with to make sense of what it is we don’t understand are not the final say on reality. Ultimately, we give mental and physical illness all of the meaning it has for us. Meaning is our responsibility.