I dislike the word “depression.” It doesn’t evoke the state of mind it signifies. I especially dislike the phrase “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” often used for the kind of depression that strikes in winter.
But we make do with the words we have – especially those of us who must periodically explain why we find Advent to be a difficult time of year.
Even with these psychological terms at hand, I find depression hard to discuss – not because it’s too personal, but because it makes so little sense. Seasonal depression, in particular, is a mystery to me: a sort of black-box, a brute fact I can’t peer into.
But I don’t necessarily need to understand depression. There’s a Buddhist saying I like, in this regard: When you’re wounded by an arrow, don’t waste time wondering who shot it. Just deal with the wound. Be practical, in other words: change your thoughts, your behaviors, your perspective.
Good advice, as far as it goes. Even then, however, relief is not guaranteed. Sometimes there is no way out – or rather, “the way out is through.”
I’m not qualified to offer psychological advice on finding relief from depression. You’ll have to look elsewhere for that – and if you need to, you should. What I can offer are my thoughts on finding God in the midst of mental suffering.
Grace is not an antidepressant or a painkiller. But God’s presence transfigures our pain, and reveals its ultimate meaning. It is never easy, but always possible, to find God in suffering. We can begin by examining a basic duality within ourselves.
Faith and experience tell me that I am, in a sense, two different people. There is the person God intends me to be; and there is person I make myself into, when I fail to cooperate with grace.
St. Paul speaks of this split in terms of the New Man and the Old Man, or the “spiritual man” and the “natural man.” Thomas Merton uses the terms “Real Self” and “False Self” for the same reality – because the self I construct on my own, apart from God, is ultimately hollow and deceptive.
Since we are speaking about psychological matters, we can consider this same duality in terms of the “Big Mind” and the “Small Mind.” Both of these minds can suffer the Cross of depression – but with quite different results.
What I mean by the Big Mind, is what St. Paul means when he says: “We have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:16). And likewise, when he says: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5)
This mind judges with wisdom, seeing things as they are rather than projecting desires onto them. The Mind of Christ is joined to God, awake to the present moment, and attuned to other people. This is its “bigness.”
But the “Small Mind” corresponds to what the apostle says of the unspiritual man. He is closed off from the life of the Holy Spirit, trapped instead in his own desires and aims. This also puts him at a distance from others and the life around him. Hence, the “smallness” of this mind.
Experience confirms this divide in us. There is the self-centered “me” who seeks comfort and pleasure, living for himself. He alternates – ironically – between ignoring God and other people one moment, and lamenting his apparent (though only apparent) state of isolation a minute later.
Depression is a disaster for the Small Mind. Comfort and pleasure stop being comfortable and pleasant. Doing what I want isn’t satisfying. My focus is turned inward, but I don’t like what I see. The Small Mind loses its normal satisfactions, but has nothing else to feed on.
Yet this Small Mind is not the only mind in me. “We have the mind of Christ” – the Big Mind, conferred by God through baptism and the other sacraments.
The Big Mind is not self-absorbed or self-centered. It is centered on God, and effortlessly united with him in Christ. This mind forgets itself before the reality of God’s presence; its own desires are eclipsed by the reality of God’s will in the present moment.
This mind is clear and calm, even in the midst of suffering. It does not make irrational choices out of pride or fear. The stresses and labors of life cannot sever its union with God, which it possesses with no effort – for it is Christ’s own mind, given to us.
In the Big Mind, our self-consciousness gives way to “Big Awareness”: consciousness of God, other people, and the present moment. C.S. Lewis summed up this mode of consciousness well, when he taught that the best response to God’s presence was “to forget about yourself altogether.”
Some people assume the Mind of Christ cannot suffer depression – but this is not true. Our Lord was “a man of sorrows,” bearing grief in solidarity with us. Union with God is not an anesthetic: indeed, the Big Mind – our Christ Mind – is often awakened and developed through suffering.
The point is not to escape pain, but to go through it with wisdom, love, and the awareness of God. The Big Mind, joined with God and centered on him, can do this in a way our ordinary Small Mind cannot.
Depression can wipe out comfort, pleasure, my sense of accomplishment, my self-satisfaction. If my life is built on the sand-foundation of those things, I may be swept away with them. But depression can’t overcome our true foundation.
I may feel far from God, but God is close to us; and in the state of grace, I am already one with him in Christ. If God’s will seems elusive, his providence means I can find it in each moment’s duty. And when I dare to forget myself altogether, God makes himself felt, in the very freedom of my doing so.
These are not abstractions. They are realities we can experience, if we are willing to pray, and to live with an awakened and watchful spirit.
Suffering tends to prune away complicated prayer methods – leaving what is simple, and often best. Some of the Desert Fathers would repeat a single phrase: “Jesus, help me.” “God, come to my assistance.” But they did so with patience and perseverance.
In the tradition of Eastern Christian monasticism, I have learned to set aside thoughts, and let them be replaced with prayer: such as the slow, word-by-word repetition of the “Our Father”; the invocation of the Name of Jesus; or simply a wordless silence, acknowledging the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Depression has taught me a lot about prayer. But prayer is not a cure for depression: it is a cure for illusion. Prayer dispels our illusion of separation from God, and removes the impediments that can turn that illusion into a kind of reality.
Suffering is inevitable, and depression rarely has a quick fix. But it is always possible to pray, to forget ourselves, and to attend to the present moment.
Then we can enter effortlessly into the presence of God, who is already with us. We can recall our identity in Christ – who unites us with God, and gives us his own mind.
It is not easy to set aside the self-centered Small Mind, and put on the Mind of Christ. Yet God makes it possible. If we turn to him, we have his promise: even in our suffering, “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).