There are many possible reasons why someone might get depressed, see their life as meaningless, and find the day to day such a heavy burden. I want to briefly discuss two broad but common ones: a global view where God is either very distant or indifferently absent, and there is no belief or consideration of the generous aspects of life like charity, liturgy and prayer. This view also disbelieves the invisible things in life like meaning, purpose, love, dignity and the common good. Thinking that those transcendentals are just a fiction sets up and can inevitably lead one to emptiness and radical discouragement.
The other is not having been convincingly introduced to or consistently experienced a meaningful life of trustworthy love, security and deep appreciation, and/or having had traumatic situations which place the person in chronic or episodic despair. This despair is often propelled by thinking little of oneself and giving up on ever finding hope and love for oneself. There is such a temptation to feel unloved or unlovable, and resign to being just a burden to oneself and to others.
Our Catholic faith is a counter to these two views. Our faith is a community of persons who are loved by and can strive to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as we, hopefully, love ourselves. The faith constantly reminds us of God’s loving reality and radical nearness as well as His offering to us an everlasting life of happiness and joy. Cynics have always countered this view but the Church, at its best, never tires of convincing us to experience God’s generous superfluity of love.
One of the common remedies for these maladies of discouragement and hopelessness that much of post-neuroscience psychology (e.g. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and others) emphasizes is taking a hard look at our thoughts and reactions as the cause of our despair, and encouraging people to re-think their thinking to prevent a world- or self-view that brings one to despair. The concept of reframing where we put a different perspective on the problems of our life and try to see events not as indications of our inadequacy, but opportunities for us to grow and to overcome.
As modern neuroscience show us, if we see an obstacle as a problem, or hassle, or unreasonable request, that causes us to frame the problem discouragingly and reduces our options to only fight, flight or freeze (the 3 F’s). But it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to address an obstacle limited to those three F’s. So, we can get more discouraged. If, however, we can do as neuroscience and many of the saints do by reframing the obstacle into a challenge that gives us an opportunity to grow, then our brain and souls go well beyond the 3 F’s and allow us to creatively see the opportunities to grow amidst the challenge. To engage our sense of hope, faith and love, of wonder and opportunity, to be excited about the prospects of growing and overcoming. Life is not just pushing the Sisyphus rock up the hill; it is an opportunity and even struggle for growth leading, God-willing, to infinite happiness.
In addition to expanding our thoughts, the Church and modern psychology also re-energize our ability to feel differently and healthily. The Church, in her wisdom, has always seen emotions as morally neutral. They are not inherently sinful or indications of how bad we are. It is how we behave relative to those feelings that indicate whether we are growing in holiness or sin, in hope or despair. There are great interventions on the psychological side to help us overcome the traumas that narrow our emotional response and can expand our options from triggered reactions to loving and caring responses if we can get the help which good psychology can bring.
The Catholic faith and a Catholic psychology do not encourage us to run away from problems, but support us and encourage us to see things from the point of view of a God who is with us and is loving us. We Catholics have been reframing for 2,000 years: we see enemies as worthy of our love; we see the horrors of the cross as our very salvation, we see the bread and wine as the living body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ coming into our lives and transforming us. Christ always integrated healing with his ministry of love and wisdom. He always took the time to heal the physical maladies and help us to grow from them and often grow past them. So it is natural that the Church would care about the mind, soul and about the happiness and welfare of people and support Catholic mental health projects as it does today.
Healing and hope, faith and growth, trust in God and trust in others are keys to overcoming despair and asking us to think, feel and engage with life as if we are supported every second by a loving God. The Kingdom of God is still at hand and still good news that helps us overcome depression and despair.