Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Life Issues

Some New Light On Depression

It’s gray outside. It’s been a l-o-n-g gray February, one of the colder ones in years. There has been the occasional tease. The sun comes out, and like bugs exposed by an overturned rock, Oregonians start darting about. But the next cold front quickly shoves everything back into its assigned place. It reminds me of the joyless line in Ecclesiastes, “and the clouds return after the rain” (12:2). People get desperate and start purchasing Sad Light boxes to stimulate cells in the retina in hopes of warding off any approaching depression. 

I have not had this disorder (I think). My depressions have been more fleeting. They come and go, no matter the season. Watching the Chargers in the playoffs. Listening to the evening news. Meeting with my tax advisor. Reflecting on past sermons. Getting pictures from my friends in Hawaii. But I know people whose depression is not transient. It hangs on like an ocean fog.  

Yesterday I read one man’s account of his journey. By all accounts, he has been quite successful. A Senior Policy Advisor, speechwriter for an American President, listed as one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals by Time Magazine, an author, and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. Michael Gerson also suffers from major depressive disorder. 

What he wrote was adapted from a sermon he delivered at Washington National Cathedral this past Sunday. I browsed through it, ready to move on to what amounts to my morning update—among them, Matt Murray’s 10-Point Guide, Stratfor Worldview, Al Mohler’s The Briefing, and the San Diego Union sports page (who knows? Hope springs eternal). But then, something drew me back. I slowed and read—really read. Even made copies for some of my colleagues.  I thought about how often I, as a pastor, have misunderstood people facing this condition. 

It’s easy to treat everyone the same. “Stop your self-absorption.” “Joy is a command” “Buck up!” It’s a little like the proverb–“Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Pro 25:20). Too often we have sung off key, further damaging the wounds, and not realizing that for some (at least 50%), they are dealing with something biological. For them, depression is an insidious, chronic disease. As Gerson puts it, “The brain experiences a chemical imbalance and wraps a narrative around it. Over time, despair begins to grow like a tumor. Realism requires hopelessness.

For others—maybe ten percent—depression is a result of their environment, their circumstances. Hardly a day goes by I don’t think of the Syrian refugees I have visited in the Bekaa, or in Sidon, who live in tents and wonder if they will ever get to go home. You can see and feel the sadness. 

I have also dealt with congregants whose depression has been brought on by their own poor choices—racking up huge credit card debt or entering into unhealthy relationships. Others find themselves in a depressed state because they have avoided responsibility for way too long, spending countless evenings—as one put it—“obliterated by TV, neither of entertainment nor education, but of narcoticized defense against time and duty.”  

Gerson has helped me to understand that for many, depression isn’t brought on by circumstances or poor decisions. It’s not about becoming consumed with self. Something internally is at work, a malfunction in the instrument used to determine reality, leaving one to be, as he puts it, “stalked by sadness” and “afraid of the mortality that is knit into our bones.” You assume everyone hates you—and you begin to hate yourself. He adds, “We experience unearned suffering, or give unreturned love, or cry useless tears. And many of us eventually grow weary of ourselves—tired of our sour company.” 

But the writer does not end on a sour note. He has learned, like hopefully all of us, that those who hold to the wild hope of a living God can say certain things—

-chemistry need not be destiny

-the appearance of a universe ruled by cruel chaos is a lie, and the cold void is actually a sheltering sky

-life is not a farce, but a pilgrimage

-weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning (February is here, but July is coming)

-transcendence sparks and crackles around us—if we open ourselves to seeing it 

We do live under an open heaven.

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