"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

09 September 2005

“Thoughts of Death”

Shenk writes about Lincoln’s determination to live for the “sacred purpose” to which he was called, but his melancholy never left him; he continued to have “thoughts of death.” It is unclear to me from the article if he continued to actively contemplate suicide. But that phrase has intrigued me the past few days – “thoughts of death.”

From the time I was in early high school until some point during graduate school (after marriage and the arrival of four children), I all too frequently contemplated suicide. Not just the idea, but the ways and means.

But at some point during graduate school, the conviction to live came to me. It was no dramatic moment; perhaps simply every decision not to die strengthened an implicit decision to live. However it happened, the possibility of suicide ended.

But not “thoughts of death.” Sometimes the first realization that I am sinking into that morass of depression – I love the old-fashioned term melancholy; it is much more descriptive – has been the thought, as I lie in bed frantically tired, I just wish I would die.

It is a strong thought, frighteningly so. I used to fight it. But fighting it seemed only to increase its power. Now I just repeat it a few times, like a mantra, and then force my mind elsewhere – mentally work on a story or essay I’m writing, carry on that conversation I’ll never have with someone, plan my classes for the next day. Often a frantic go-around with its own craziness, to be sure. But the thought of death eventually goes away.

Most things go away, eventually. Fifty-three years (close enough) have taught me that this too shall pass is true. Oh, I know that circumstances won’t always pass. But the way we feel about them will. Today they are overwhelming. Tomorrow they will be gone. Or we just won’t care. Or we’ll wonder why we cared. Maybe they’ll even appear funny. (I said maybe!)

For the melancholy, however, it’s not the circumstances that are the driving force. Shenk writes, “in a depressive crisis we might feel bad because something has gone awry. Or we might make things go awry because we feel so bad. Or both.” Indeed. There is no chicken-and-egg question here, nor is there any need for something to be awry for the melancholy to wish for death.

It will come, too. But I am content to let it come in God’s time, and try to remember the star which Sam saw above the reeks of Mordor. The shadow is merely for a time; truth and beauty are forever. I need only cling to them, not create them nor even, at any given moment, see them.


amelia ruth said...

Though I have rarely experienced the deep melancholy (it is a good word, isn't it? Makes me think of a constant yearning for Heaven) that you describe, I know the feeling of being caught in a circumstance: of thinking bitterly, "things will never change and this will never get better," and then waking up the next morning having forgotten at least the feelings if not the circumstance itself. I can't count the number of times I have felt oppressed by circumstances, sobbing as though my world would end, and then, a few hours later forgetting the whole episode. This too shall pass: these financial troubles, this unemployment, this feeling of being distanced from my family, this frustration with myself or with Eddie.

I love reading your post: it always makes me realize things I had not realized before, and reminds me that not all people are like me. Take care; hope your lovely freshman English classes aren't being too detrimental to your sanity!


Megan said...

"The shadow is merely for a time; truth and beauty are forever. I need only cling to them, not create them nor even, at any given moment, see them."

For some reason, that comment reminds me of another one of the Inklings' work, the chapter in The Horse and his Boy during which Shasta is struggling along the mountain pass between Narnia and Archenland and meets Aslan. I need only to cling to [Him]...

alaiyo said...

Amy, thanks for the kind words. Of course, I don't want to discount the very real suffering many of us endure, but I keep coming back to "He will not tempt us beyond what we are able; with the temptation He will show a way out of it" (badly paraphrased, but my Bible is not in sight just now), and of course Romans 8. If we are to believe Him, then even the most awful suffering (and I haven't experienced it, by any means, so I can only speak from head knowledge) can be used for His purposes, to His glory, to make us more like Him. And so those daily kinds of frustrations do come into a different perspective, don't they? And are maybe a preparation for life to come; if we pass the test we can graduate to bigger (and usually harder) things.

Classes are going well, so far, by the way! The freshmen didn't like the excerpt from Dillard's Writing Life :-( , so I read it to the Advanced Prose folk just to hear some oohs and ahs. But the freshmen are working hard and seem to have good attitudes, so it's much pleasanter to do the work than some semesters.

Megan, That passage is a good one; I hadn't thought of it in a while. I also like where Shasta gets to the hermit's circle and then has to keep going -- we do the right thing and then we're asked to do something even harder. Responsibility. How can we ever accomplish the task if we don't cling to the One who gives it?

Blessings on you both!


Fieldfleur said...

Thanks for your honesty about this subject. I've been thinking a lot lately about this and the Abraham Lincoln article which you summarized. In place of depression, one might substitute other 'negative' things/traits that could be redeemed and offered up as gifts to higher purpose. Mine are pervading loneliness and insecurity. I'm sure we all have something which makes us feel things more deeply, empathize, cry out for being imperfectly human in need of divinity and raison d'etre.
Take care,

alaiyo said...

Amen, Teri. A friend once told me that she believed God left us each with at least one seemingly intolerable burden so that those without Him would see that we are indeed like them -- except with hope. Something that has always given me perspective in the midst of trials.