Adapted from a sermon delivered at Washington National Cathedral on Feb. 17, 2019.
Like nearly one in 10 Americans — and like many of you — I live with this insidious, chronic disease. Depression is a malfunction in the instrument we use to determine reality. The brain experiences a chemical imbalance and wraps a narrative around it. So the lack of serotonin, in the mind’s alchemy, becomes something like, “Everybody hates me.” Over time, despair can grow inside you like a tumor.
I would encourage anyone with this malady to keep a journal. At the bottom of my recent depression, I did a plus and minus, a pro and con, of me. Of being myself. The plus side, as you’d imagine, was short. The minus side included the most frightful cliches: “You are a burden to your friends.” “You have no future.” “No one would miss you.”
The scary thing is that these things felt completely true when I wrote them. At that moment, realism seemed to require hopelessness.
But then you reach your breaking point — and do not break. With patience and the right medicine, the fog in your brain begins to thin. If you are lucky, as I was, you encounter doctors and nurses who know parts of your mind better than you do. There are friends who run into the burning building of your life to rescue you, and acquaintances who become friends. You meet other patients, from entirely different backgrounds, who share your symptoms, creating a community of the wounded. And you learn of the valor they show in lonely rooms.
Over time, you begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of your sadness. The conscious mind takes hold of some shred of beauty or love. And then more shreds, until you begin to think maybe, just maybe, there is something better on the far side of despair.
I have no doubt that I will eventually repeat the cycle of depression. But now I have some self-knowledge that can’t be taken away. I know that — when I’m in my right mind — I choose hope.
That phrase — “in my right mind” — is harsh. No one would use it in a clinical setting. But it fits my experience exactly.
- In my right mind — when I am rested and fed, medicated and caffeinated — I know that I was living within a dismal lie.
- In my right mind, I know I have friends who will not forsake me.
- In my right mind, I know that chemistry need not be destiny.
- In my right mind, I know that weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
I think this medical condition works as a metaphor for the human condition.
All of us — whatever our natural serotonin level — look around us and see plenty of reason for doubt, anger and sadness. A child dies, a woman is abused, a schoolyard becomes a killing field, a typhoon sweeps away the innocent. If we knew or felt the whole of human suffering, we would drown in despair. By all objective evidence, we are arrogant animals, headed for the extinction that is the way of all things. We imagine that we are like gods, and still drop dead like flies on the windowsill.
The answer to the temptation of nihilism is not an argument — though philosophy can clear away a lot of intellectual foolishness. It is the experience of transcendence we cannot explain, or explain away. It is the fragments of love and meaning that arrive out of the blue — in beauty that leaves a lump in your throat, in the peace and ordered complexity of nature, in the shadow and shimmer of a cathedral, in the unexplained wonder of existence itself.
I have one friend, John, who finds God’s hidden hand in the habits and coloring of birds. My friend Catherine, when her first child was born, discovered what she calls “a love much greater than evolution requires.” I like that. “A love much greater than evolution requires.”
My own experience is tied to this place. Let me turn to an earlier, happier part of my journals, from May 2, 2002:
“It has probably been a month,” I wrote, “since some prompting of God led me to a more disciplined Christian life. One afternoon I was led to the Cathedral, the place I feel most secure in the world. I saw the beautiful sculpture in the Bishop’s Garden — the prodigal son melting into his father’s arms — and the inscription how he fell on his neck, and kissed him. I felt tears and calm, like something important had happened to me and in me … My goals are pretty clear. I want to stop thinking about myself all the time. I want to be a mature disciple of Jesus, not a casual believer. I want to be God’s man.”
I have failed at these goals in a disturbing variety of ways. And I have more doubts than I did on that day. These kinds of experiences may result from inspiration … or indigestion. Your brain may be playing tricks. Or you may be feeling the beating heart of the universe. Faith, thankfully, does not preclude doubt. It consists of staking your life on the rumor of grace.
This experience of pulling back the curtain of materiality, and briefly seeing the landscape of a broader world, comes in many forms. It can be religious and nonreligious, Christian and non-Christian. We sometimes search for a hidden door when the city has a hundred open gates. But there is this difference for a Christian believer: At the end of all our striving and longing we find, not a force, but a face. All language about God is metaphorical. But the metaphor became flesh and dwelt among us.
Becoming alert to this reality might be called “enlightenment,” or the work of the Holy Ghost, or “conversion.” There really is no formula. Historically, there was Paul’s blinding light on the road to Damascus. There was Augustine, instructed by the voice of a child to “take up and read.” There was Pascal sewing into his jacket: “Since about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past midnight. FIRE. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.” There was Teresa of Avila encountering the suffering Christ with an “outpouring of tears.” There was John Wesley’s heart becoming “strangely warmed.”
Here is how G.K. Chesterton described this experience in a poem called “The Convert”:
“The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”
It is impossible for anyone but saints to live always on that mountaintop. I suspect that there are people here today — and I include myself — who are stalked by sadness, or stalked by cancer, or stalked by anger. We are afraid of the mortality that is knit into our bones. We experience unearned suffering, or give unreturned love, or cry useless tears. And many of us eventually grow weary of ourselves — tired of our own sour company.
At some point, willed cheerfulness fails. Or we skim along the surface of our lives, afraid of what lies in the depths below. It is a way to cope, but no way to live.
I’d urge anyone with undiagnosed depression to seek out professional help. There is no way to will yourself out of this disease, any more than to will yourself out of tuberculosis.
There are, however, other forms of comfort. Those who hold to the wild hope of a living God can say certain things:
- In our right minds — as our most sane and solid selves — we know that the appearance of a universe ruled by cruel chaos is a lie and that the cold void is actually a sheltering sky.
- In our right minds, we know that life is not a farce but a pilgrimage — or maybe a farce and a pilgrimage, depending on the day.
- In our right minds, we know that hope can grow within us — like a seed, like a child.
- In our right minds, we know that transcendence sparks and crackles around us — in a blinding light, and a child’s voice, and fire, and tears, and a warmed heart, and a sculpture just down the hill — if we open ourselves to seeing it.
Fate may do what it wants. But this much is settled. In our right minds, we know that love is at the heart of all things.
Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess. But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.
So how do we know this? How can anyone be so confident?
Because we are Lazarus, and we live.
Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post.