I have been thinking a great deal about the nature of suffering the past couple of years. Lately, a number of young women have come through my door to ask me about depression, many of them having been told that they must "snap out of it," or "get right with the Lord," so that they can be happy.
Depression is my own most intimate knowledge of suffering. I am not a counselor, only a listening empathetic ear, but I do know this: the suffering of depression is not sin. One may, of course, choose to sin in response to that suffering (as I have so terribly, far too many times), but the suffering is not sin.
We tend, I think, to see it as such because, as Christians, we are told that we must rejoice. But joy and happiness are not the same thing. One can be most unhappy and still have joy. The key for the one who suffers from depression is learning where that joy lies and how to cling to it in the midst of depression's sadness and even despair, knowing the difference between the suffering of depression and the truth of God's love for us.
I love the scene in Lord of the Rings when Pippin and Gandalf are standing together on the walls of Minas Tirith looking out over the rising darkness from Mordor that threatens to engulf all of Middle Earth; they do not yet know whether Frodo is still alive or Sauron has recovered the Ring. Pippin looks at Gandalf: "In the wizard's face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that underneath there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to burst forth."
And Hopkins, of course, in even the most terrible of the Terrible Sonnets, always seeing the spark of hope that is his salvation, knowing that the One who seems to be his enemy is in truth his Friend, and crying out to Him, even his cries of anguish a form of worship, however deep his despair.
And the star in the darkness above Mordor that gives Sam the hope that carries him through the last terrible days of their ordeal, reminding him that above the darkness is something greater and eternal, that the darkness, however long it may last and whatever evil it may accomplish, is still only for a moment in comparison to beauty.
Depression may come once, twice, or last a lifetime. But all of us suffer in this world, one way or another. What will we do with it, and will we let it overwhelm the beauty that objectively still surrounds us? In "When Roses Speak, I Pay Attention," Mary Oliver writes that the roses tell us, "Listen, / the heart-shackles are not, as you think, / death, illness, pain, / unrequited hope, not loneliness, but / lassitude, rue, vainglory, fear, anxiety, / selfishness."
The first things she names come to all of us, whether we will or no. We can choose -- though the choice can be extremely difficult at times -- not to wallow in the latter ones. May the Lord bring to us the friends and counselors we need to help us learn how to make that choice, not be too hard on ourselves when we inevitably fail (repent and go on living without wallowing in guilt, either; He knows our frame and has already forgiven), and daily draw closer to Him in whatever suffering He allows for our refinement.
"Why?" Hopkins asks in "Carrion Comfort" of the suffering given him. "That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear."
I pray, with fear and trembling, for clear grain, Lord, to serve You with.