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.