"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Overcoming depression during Advent

It is well known that this time of year sees an increase in depression. Some of that seems explicable by the ever-shortening daytime as we approach the winter solstice on December 21. Appropriately, its acronym is 'SAD', for 'seasonal affective disorder'. And some people are genetically predisposed to depression on other grounds. But I believe that a great deal of depression is spiritual in origin even if physical in some aspects. So is the remedy, to the extent remedy is to be had.

Part of the spiritual cause this season is the mess we've made of the season, which I've discussed before. Instead of acknowledging our spiritual poverty and darkness, which is often enough culpable, and waiting for the Lord in prayer, penance, and hope, we party and consume for weeks before the feast of his incarnation. Some of that can be good for those who have what they need, especially love; yet it usually sharpens the pain for those who do not. One of the best ways for the former group to celebrate is to ease the pain of the latter. Some try and succeed, if only because they've been there and can relate. But some who try fail because they are not attuned enough to the sufferer, or even to their own suffering, to be of help; and many do not try at all. Either way, the best way both to ease the pain of others and to deal with one's own pain is to revert to the heart and allow nobody one can influence, starting with oneself, to settle for less.

I mean "the heart" in the sense intended by Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, who died last year. I shall come at that indirectly.

At an intense CL meeting yesterday near Charlotte, I was most struck by this passage from a meditation by the current leader of the movement, Fr. Julián Carrón:

Unless we use our heart, unless we compare everything with our heart, our "I" is weakened as we said, the personality of the "I" is annulled, and we become more and more fragile and confused before everything. Life, which is given us for the adventure of knowing more and more the meaning of everything, for judging everything with the needs of our heart, becomes more and more confused.

That is pretty much what had happened to me by the fall of 2000, when I got so depressed as to require hospitalization. With and after that, I lost just about everything I cared about—save for Christ. For a good while, hardly able even to think, I could not judge "with the needs of the heart." Explaining why doing so is necessary, not merely possible, answers the objection that I'm sure occurs to some readers, viz., that "judging everything with the needs of the heart" is self-deluding subjectivity and emotionalism.

I had assumed, as do many ostensibly committed Christians today, that the needs of my heart were irrelevant: bound to be left unsatisfied in this life, they weren't worth trying to satisfy. I had become resigned, trying to settle for what I thought was my duty, taking for granted that duty had little to do with what I really wanted but had failed to convince myself I didn't really want. But people who do that number on themselves are bound to become alienated sooner or later. Many, of course, do a serviceable job of deceiving themselves about that for a while, maintaining the deception through work, drugs, sex, consumption, domination or manipulation of others, or some combination thereof. But knowing those tools were stopgaps at best, I didn't use them; naturally, the deception came undone sooner rather than later. And I could not live with the truth. The alienation was so thorough that I got too depressed to function. My heart was crushed: the "personality" of my "I" was "annulled." I was so confused I could not say anything helpful to myself anymore, and none of the people around me knew what to say either—including priests, and including the shrink who treated me successfully with physical means. I knew of course that duty should not be shirked and doing one's duty can entail a kind of deep renunciation. The crucifix tells us that if nothing else does. But I had forgotten that unless the commitments one makes correspond to one's heart, one eventually loses the integrity necessary not only for keeping them but also for being who one is created to be. One is lost.

The heart is that innermost aspect of ourselves which comes from God. It is the desire and the corresponding capacity for truth, beauty, and goodness in those forms which one is created uniquely to seek and show. What makes the heart objective, and hence judging by it reliable, is that such truth, beauty, and goodness actually do exist; but especially given our fallenness, only Jesus Christ can truly satisfy the desire and fulfill the capacity. Born in a stable, crucified, and risen, he is the font and summit of all truth, beauty, and goodness. But the satisfaction he brings cannot even begin if one treats him as a mere historical figure, or a theological abstraction, or the hero of a comforting myth. They happen only if one encounters his Person, surrenders to it, and thereby chooses to be taken over by it. Only if, in short, one becomes "his" in an embrace more passionate than the sexual embrace, which is but a carnal anticipation of it. When that happens, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). In our Holy Father's words, there exists "a new subject, I but no longer I." Then one can start judging reliably with one's heart and meeting one's true needs.

By waiting for the Lord in my spiritual and financial poverty, I have been granted the needed encounter with him. But like all us sinners, I don't always renew the corresponding surrender. It is my prayer this Advent that I do so; indeed, I pray constantly that I might be able to say Galatians 2:20 for myself, without deception. That, not my online work of blogging, is what enables me to avoid another major depression and walk forward in hope. My recommendation to all who face depression this season is take a step back from the partying, the shopping, even the concerts, so as to beg for that encounter if one hasn't had it and to renew one's surrender if one has. For the unfortunate, no gift this season could be as great as those.
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