As is typical for me, I am a little slow in getting this blog out. This past Friday, October 10, was World Mental Illness Day. That would have been a perfect day for me to have sent this. But I was still ruminating. In fact, I’ve actually had this blog stirring about for quite some time, really since Robin Williams committed suicide in August. For most of the country, the emotional impact has long since calmed. The flood of stories being written has slowed to a very occasional drip. Most have simply moved on. Yet, I have found myself still thinking now and again about Mr. William’s suicide. As someone who has been burdened by the weight of darkness for almost as long as I can remember, the news of anyone who says, ‘Enough. I can’t do it anymore,’ always comes as at least a bit of a blow. But when someone as prominent as Robin Williams ends their life, the shock waves are even greater in intensity and resonance. For a while, broadcast, print and digital media ride these waves with behind-the-scenes stories, statistics about depression and suicide, and stories about the state of mental health care (or lack thereof) in the US. For those few days, it can seem as though visitors have come to share the darkness. But, soon they leave and the darkness weighs on.
Yes, I know that I have mixed metaphors above. I did so consciously. For many, the experience of depression can be much like the duality of light. Whereas light is both particle and wave, depression can be both weight and absence of light, sometimes even a flatness to life. For those who experience depression in any form, an additional hardship is the sense of being alone in the midst of it. This is why the momentary focus of the whole country on this illness after a celebrity suicide, or even World Mental Illness Day, can actually be rather cruel. For a short time it can feel as though help has arrived. But then the reporters, and their following crowds, rush out the door and take their flood lights with them – and we’re still here, in the dark.
So, I write this post for those of us in need of hope at the heart of darkness. Though it can be tremendously difficult to believe, the truth is, we are not alone and never will be. I don’t mean this in a cheesy, ‘inspirational’-poster-on-the-wall sort of way. I mean this as a reminder of what I believe to be an existential truth. I believe that one of the primary reasons Jesus, the Christ, came to dwell on this earth was to find those who dwell alone within the deepest darkness. And I have recently discovered the work of a writer who has reminded me of this truth, Johannes Baptist Metz.
Listen to Johannes Metz, from his brief, but profound book, Poverty of Spirit. Leading up to this point in this work, Metz has recapped some of the essence of Jesus’ temptations in the desert; the temptation to forsake his humanity and relationship with God:
The temptation in the desert would have Jesus betray humanity in the name of God (or, diabolically, God in the name of humanity). Jesus’ ‘no’ to Satan is his ‘yes’ to our poverty. He did not cling to his divinity. He did not simply dip into our existence, wave a magic wand of divine life over us and then hurriedly retreat to his eternal home… Instead, Jesus subjected himself to our plight. He immersed himself in our misery and followed our road to the end. He did not escape from the torment of our life, nobly repudiating humanity. With the full weight of his divinity he descended into the abyss of human existence, penetrating its darkest depths. He was not spared from the dark mystery of our poverty as human beings. Here was a person who was ‘tempted as we are, yet without sinning’. And sin does not heighten the saga or the suffering of our uncertain plight; instead, it compromises and mitigates them. Enmeshed in sin, we do not drink in our poverty down to the last drop; we do not stare it full in the face. By sinning we make a secret compromise with the offspring of sin – the forces of suffering and death; we join forces with them before they can assault us and make us truly poor. Christ, the sinless one, experienced the poverty of human existence more deeply and more excruciatingly than any other person could. He saw its many faces, including those shadowy aspects we never glimpse. In the poverty of his passion, he had no consolation, no companion angels, no guiding star, no Abba in heaven… Everything was taken from him during the passion… No longer did he feel any spark of enthusiasm. His heart gave out and a feeling of utter helplessness came over him… God’s countenance was hidden during the passion, and Christ gaped into the darkness of nothingness and abandonment.”
In my own experience, in earlier years especially, having spent much time alone, when I searched my own existence for signs of shape or form, I found none. Such was the case until years later, when, in the very midst of this darkness, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find Jesus, there, with me. I realized he had been what, or rather whom, I had been searching for, but for all sorts of reasons had been unable to find. The immediate impact was tremendously moving for me. A sense of love and care and hope that I hadn’t known to that depth before.
For a while, I thought, naïvely, that from that moment on, all would be well, and all manner of things would be well; that all my days would be light-filled and glorious. But it wasn’t and they weren’t. Over the many years that have followed, at various points along the way, I have again experienced the weight of depression, the darkness. Still, because of that profound earlier experience, I know in my heart of hearts that I am not alone.
Sometimes, the mere presence of one other, can provide enough strength to help those suffering depression hold on at least one moment longer. Yet, many of those who suffer depression have felt completely alone for years, even decades. Therefore, as I said above, the filling in around us of a crowd seeking to know and to help can provide a momentary rush of energy to go on. But most soon leave. Still, at least one other always remains, always – Jesus, the Christ. No matter how severe the anguish gets, no matter how low under the press of darkness we descend; still, Christ is there with us. And as long as Christ is there with us, there is hope. Because Jesus not only descended to the depth of utter despair and abandonment, Christ also rose again to new life, to light and glory. It doesn’t always make the pain go away in this life; but when we feel, “Enough. I can go on no more.” Christ takes our hand and says, “Then let me lead the way out of this heart of darkness.”