Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When Sadness Falls

Some thoughts on beating the blues...

I stared at the beer bottle perched on the middle of the coffee table. The rattling knock on the window continued. I heard my parents' voices but I was lost in another world. When the knocking finally subsided, I gritted my teeth and took another swig from my beer. The hopelessness of it all seemed to cascade over my shoulders and I could feel myself sinking into the couch wondering why I bothered. Why live? Why breathe? My basement apartment seemed to close in on me, and I could feel my parents' disappointment. They had traveled six hours to see me, and I couldn't even bother answering the door. They had no idea what I was thinking, what I was feeling... heck, I didn't understand it all either. All I knew was that the world was pain. Their inevitable disappointment only heightened the gravity of my sorrow. The calendar had just turned into the new millennium, but there was nothing new about life. Only more heartache. More pain. My storybook life and ministry had disintegrated, my dreams out of reach. Forever. I sat on my couch without moving, staring into nothing, and wondering why I breathed. In time, I would get some answers, but at that moment, it was all I could do to crawl into bed and close my eyes.

It is common to hear about the effects of depression these days, and how we should deal with it. For me, the blackness lasted nearly two years. I've often looked back to see how I crawled out from under it, or whether or not it slipped away on its own. It's hard to tell. Depression lingers even after it leaves, and there are moments still when I hear its call like siren from shore, beckoning the sadness with its warm embrace.

Whole textbooks have been written, learned and studied discourses on dealing with depression with the inevitable sadness life brings to so many, and so I won't attempt to answer all of those questions. There is no one secret or key to beating back life's blues. Ironically, part of the deception for those who are struggling with depression or going through a saddened time is just that... they believe that there is ONE answer. If they could just change one thing, or do one thing, there life would change, and everything would be better. Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way. As much as we'd like to keep things in separate compartments, the 'pieces' of our lives inevitably bleed into one another, even if we don't acknowledge it. The relationship affects our work. The marriage affects our friendships. And so on.

And of all the lies of our modern Disney hope-fest, the one that says sadness is avoidable, perhaps that is the greatest lie. That our lives can be contained in separate compartments. Who we are, our character, is the only constant in our life (no matter what our circumstances) so if life is handing us a beating in one area, it will inevitably infect the others. Sometimes we recover. The sorrow passes, we heal, we move on. Sometimes, the infection grows deep, and it infects the most vulnerable place of us all.

It infects our soul.

When I first became a Christian, I thought that I'd discovered the ultimate truth for living happy, for always being happy. It fit well with my idea as a child that life was a story, a story destined to finish with a happy ending. It didn't happen. If anything, my life became more difficult. Jesus wasn't working, and so after years in the ministry and church leadership, I walked away. Only that didn't help either. And slowly I began to realize that no one or no thing could save me from life's heartaches. I tried to rebel. To think positive. But one thing after another started happening until I believed that I was in a battle with life, and it was a battle I knew that I could not win.

Anyone who ever suffered loss, and or who's suffered from depression, understands this idea of "me vs. life." There is a great deal of fighting, of working hard to overcome, of listening to the themes of inspirational movies and eagerly applying them as if they had solved the riddle. Only when it doesn't happen, we are cast down further, and we nestle uncomfortably in the pit of sorrow, somehow finding false comfort in our huddled misery.

Over seventy-five per cent of people in North America will experience some sort of depression over their lifetime, and anyone whose breathing will experience sadness at one time or another. And so, while there is no ONE solution to walking away from sadness, I can offer a couple of simple tips that helped me.

1. If you're stuck in BEING, start DOING. If you're stuck in DOING, start BEING.
As a writer and a thinker, I spend a great amount of time in my own head, in my own thoughts. I think about who I want to be, but instead of acting on it, I just keep thinking about it. The more I dwell on it, the more absurd it becomes, and suddenly I realize I haven't done anything about it. I convince myself that it's too late and that I shouldn't bother. For me, the key is doing. Getting out of my head to act on my thoughts. To write something. To work out. To set a goal list for the day and get moving.

For some people, it's the opposite. They spend their life on the treadmill running and running, always DOING, and never being. They never think about their dreams and hopes and wants, they're too busy working. Time to rethink their life will do wonders for the endless rut they feel so committed to.

Jesus had it right. An active life, to be sure, but still had time to laugh and party with his disciples and friends, and time for Himself to pray.

The other thing that helped me was living intentionally in community. I'm single and have been for a long time, but this past year I moved with intention of living with housemates. I've been blessed with great housemates, and I can't tell you how many times just being able to come home to people has helped me escape the blues. I still need my solitude, but I can shut my door for that. Too many people of faith have followed the 'me and God' thing for too long. It was never supposed to be that way. Open your hearts and let others inside. And stop worrying about whether the people around you are Christians or not. Be yourself. Be transparent. Allow others to pour into your life. Remember that you're not perfect.

I've said this before, but there is a great deal of pride in people suffering from depression. It is the hidden sin of a terrible affliction. I felt, and still do sometimes, that no one can understand what I am going through. That's nonsense, of course. We all go through things, and while we may be unique, our problems are not.

I still think about those times, especially on the days when I'm not sure why we bother at this thing called life. As much as I can, when those times come, I do two things. I do one thing that I know will make me feel better, like going to the gym or getting something done on my list that I don't want to do. The second is to think about my Hero, to remember what He did. So much of our sadness comes from our lack of contact with difference-making experience. That is, when I feed the homeless man, when I love my elderly neighbour, we discover the ultimate counter to depression and life's sadness, and it is the joy of answering the call of Jesus.

Feelings come and go. In modern culture, we are told to live by our feelings. Unfortunately, doing that steals the little control we have over our lives. Sadness comes, and while we can never remove those times (and I certainly do not advocate pretending as if it hasn't happened), we can learn to discipline our thoughts so we do not fall victim to the teeter totter swing of emotions.

Life will never be perfect, and there will always be days when our best effort may be to suffer through it, but remember it is in our pain and sorrow that we hear God's voice and are witness to His glory.

My prayer this week is that if you are going through a deep struggle, that you will stay with it, that you will move forward in spite of what you feel. I believe in you! God has not forsaken you! And that if things are going well, that you would look at those around you. Who needs a hand? Who can we help? It sounds like a cliché, but it is amazing how much easier things seem when there is someone there to put their arms around our shoulders, and walk with us.