On Depression and Brokenness
Growing up I remember my dad lamenting how terrible the news always was. So I know that the world isn’t necessarily in a historic state of disrepair, but it sure feels like it this week. The unique compounding atrocity in our day is that the brashest voices chase headlines like ambulances and ride the coattails of disaster and ruin to personal acclaim. The tragedies and sins are bad enough without Job’s friends lacking the decency anymore to wait seven days before speaking what turns out not to be true after all.
And here am I as well, though differently I hope. I ask this, that you respond to tragedy by grieving with those affected. I know that’s putting it too simply, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to let the brokenness break us for a minute before we speak.
Jesus raised Lazarus with words, but only after tears.
The tears matter. And the order matters.
Our unwillingness to suffer with others makes us blind. In this case, love leads us to truth. To call to mind those who are suffering as if we ourselves were suffering, to take on their pain as if it were our own, to suffer with any part that suffers — this is not a sentimental exercise to distract us from hard truths. It is surgery to remove cataracts from the eyes and callouses from the heart so that we can see what they see and feel what they feel.
Empathy is perhaps a radical commitment to loving a wounded person by not shielding myself from the full, brutal truth of their situation. That means I can’t just insert myself as me into one moment of their story and then glibly say, “Oh, just do this instead of that.” Like saying, “Oh, just parent calmly and don’t be irritated and snippy with the kids,” when I’ve listened to them scream for nine seconds instead of nine hours. Like watching someone complete the last fifty yards of a marathon and saying, “I could run fifty yards faster than that.” Yes, it’s a lot easier to run fifty yards if you don’t run over 26 miles right before it.
Robin Williams had logged untold miles in his struggle with mental illness. That fact absolutely matters if what you say about his suicide is going to be true at all. To zero in on the one day at the end and describe his suicide as a simple and selfish decision lacks empathy and therefore lacks truth.
I have never been severely depressed and I have never had suicidal thoughts, so it’s difficult for me to fully understand what it’s like. But among the people who are dearest to me in the world, a handful are or have been severely depressed and have at times battled suicidal thoughts. In walking with them, listening to them, and believing them when they describe their pain, I have learned that it is not as simple as just choosing.
I agree that depression affects not only the body, but also the spirit. But that’s not very precise. In our internal world, depression attacks our feeling and our thinking and our willing. If it were only a matter of mood and feelings, perhaps we could think or will our way out of it. But what sense does it make to say that suicide is a selfish choice when so often the person with the broken spirit also therefore has a broken will? Many of us are strong willed, not just in the sense of being stubborn, but more so in the sense of being able to easily translate our intentions into actions. But some of us suffer from paralysis of the will while others of us watch helplessly as our will does the bidding of the depression swallowing us up.
Some of us can’t even form a clear intention because depression has so mangled our thinking. Our internal picture of the world bears no resemblance to the world as it actually exists. Down is up, and up is magenta. For some of us tragedy has so shrunk our field of vision that we come to believe our pain is the whole world itself or at least the only faithful lens for seeing the world as it actually is. Others of us swing in the opposite direction and become suspicious of ourselves rather than the world, since no one else seems to be having such a hard time with things. So maybe what I think I remember is actually a delusion. What, then, counts as a good reason for making a decision? And can I know that my reasons are good?
In the end, I don’t think suicidal thoughts come from a carefully tallied pro/con list, but from the complete exhaustion of intense, chronic suffering that depression can bring. That’s not an absolute statement, but I know from people I love dearly that it’s true for at least a few in this world. To claim that suicide is just a selfish choice is to ignore not only how much a person is suffering, but also the way in which that suffering can become debilitating.
What will help is not telling a person suffering from depression that they just need to think clearer and choose better. What will help is if we bear their suffering with them, allowing the tears to lead us to the truth.
Thank you so much for this. I was just explaining Matt Walsh’s blog post to Jen Seawright, and how much it upset me. She led me to your post. I loved it. Everything you wrote is true. The church should support one another and cry along with those who are suffering. I feel terrible for Robin Williams. Mental illness is very real. It’s not something you can just turn off by simply flipping a switch. Thanks again. Your writing is beautiful.
Thank you, Erica. I appreciate the encouragement and I’m grateful that the post was meaningful to you.
You are absolutely right. Tragedies are hard enough to deal with. It is a shame that a news story is more
Important than compassion and true facts. People should not judge or criticize unless they can feel the pain too.
Faith continues to help me daily with depression after the loss of two children. Faith also enables me to share my story to others which turns my depression into smiles. God bless
Thanks, Randy. That sounds like a heavy story, but I am glad that faith helps you to tell it.
Thank you so much for writing this. I have struggled with depression for years, and struggled with suicidal thoughts for a long time. It is deeply saddening to see so many people looking down on Williams claiming he should’ve “just chosen not to kill himself.” When I was fighting suicidal thoughts, I knew what it would do to my family, and that actually just made me feel worse, not better. Telling someone struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts that they’re being selfish really just does more harm than good. It was so nice to read your message about love and acceptance, rather than judgement. Thank you. <3
Thanks for writing this Peter. My grandmother committed suicide and I have battled depression and struggled to stay alive at different points in my life. I hope you keep writing and empathizing.
You are the first Pastor in the Free Methodist church that I have observed addressing suicide. Of course, I am not in every church on Sundays so perhaps many have done so. I hope this is the case and I hope it was done with the understanding that the joy we experience in Christ Jesus does not exempt us from mental anguish any more than we are exempted from physical pain.
I love Jesus so very much and yet I still have thoughts of suicide nearly every day of my life. The two are not mutually exclusive. One post that I read after Williams death was tremendously helpful with direction on how to dialog about this sensitive subject. Here is the link.
Talking About Suicide & Robin Williams Death
Another thing that is helpful is for people to enter the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) number into their cell phone contacts. People can call this number for themselves or if they are seeking guidance on how to support someone who is thinking about suicide. Churches can also make this announcement on Sunday, September 7th at the beginning of Suicide Prevention Awareness Week.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know the following truths.
#1 – Suicide prevention is a conversation we should be having. Talking about it and making it known, in ways that demonstrated cultural competence, liberates individuals who have kept silent for so very long.
#2 – Meaningful relationships and a sense of community is a very important weapon in countering vulnerability to suicide. Sometimes genuine relating does not come easy or natural, but it is still very much needed.
#3 – Reasons to live need to be explored and emphasized and constantly verbalized. This is important not just for the person who is vulnerable to suicide. It is also important for the rest of us. It keeps us focused on what really matters in life.
Candid conversations coupled with “doing life together” approaches and articulating reasons to live are a start. It doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t take away thoughts of suicide, at least not for me. But what it does do is help tip the scales another direction. We can be proactive with our mental health just like we are proactive with physical health and spiritual health. We can encourage healthy living for everyone – – not just the person who appears to be “in need.” We are all in need and often times, as was the case with Williams, it is the person we may least expect who is suffering the most. Yes, all of us should be proactive with our mental health.
Thank you Peter for making this post.
Life is Worth Living,
AJ French, CRSS