Sunday, July 04, 2010

Depression or Faith Crisis?

I found an excellent book on depression. It is Jon Allen's Coping with Depression: From Catch-22 to Hope. I mentioned it last year because I found this online summary of major themes from the book. But I recently bought the book and am finding it really helpful.

My own depression is complex. It has not been incapacitating, but it has slowed me down. I gradually started losing sight of my life goals -- those goals that give life a sense of meaning and purpose -- and became more focused on just getting through the day-to-day. My life goals have not been completely stalled, because the day-to-day is largely structured in ways that help me make progress towards these goals, but I've lost a kind of sustaining joy: the joy of knowing why the day-to-day matters.

I am making slow but real progress in recovering. My buying a house last year, my active musical involvement, and my picking up running again, are very good signs. Slight hints of occasional joy or interest have become real glimpses and then even actual moods that last longer and longer.

So, lately, now that I've had the time and energy to reflect more fully and productively on all of this, guided by excellent counseling and the above-mentioned book, I've been thinking about the meaning of life again.

And I have been taking an interest again in spiritual dimensions of psychological issues.

I finally have to confess to myself that I've been in a serious faith crisis. This surprises me, because I am a person of very strong faith. And, indeed, the nature of this faith crisis is a bit unusual. It has nothing at all to do with questioning whether there is a God. On the contrary, I have been sure that God has been right here with me through everything, at my side at every moment. I have even had an ongoing appreciation of God's presence, sure that it is God's presence that has been sustaining me as I go through the motions. When good things happen, I remember to thank God. In my classes when questions of religion come up, I fiercely defend the validity of considering a spiritual dimension to reality and don't let my students dismiss this perspective without insisting that they define their terms carefully and construct actual arguments. "I know how secular academia has become, but does that make it true?! I ask you to critically reflect on everything else you take for granted, so you have to critically reflect on this too!"

So, what is my faith crisis then? What is different is that I haven't been talking with God much lately. It used to be that I was aware of God's presence and had a kind of friendly ongoing rapport with God. I would talk to God.

But these recent years have been more like I am aware of God right beside me but I hold a stony silence. I haven't turned to look directly at God myself, or address God in the kind of conversational way I used to.

So I finally thought to ask myself, "Am I angry at God?" To my surprise, I realized I was.

Why? I think there are two reasons, and they are related. In my own struggles, I am upset that we are made so imperfect and vulnerable. I have felt the sense that, unless I get everything lined up exactly right, my life flies out of control. And I can't keep everything lined up exactly right. I keep losing my grip on something or other. So I have felt I try and try but things keep getting worse instead of better because I cannot do it all perfectly.

The second reason I am upset is that I feel that the human relationship with the planet is equally fragile. Unless we live with perfect harmoniousness with the natural world, we are going to destroy the planet, or at least the conditions for human life, taking down lots of other life forms with us along the way!

For a long time, I blamed myself: I'm not perfect enough to handle my own life well; nor have I put my energies effectively enough into work that would help humans in general live in a more balanced relationship to the natural world.

Counseling has helped me realize (a) the hubris behind my self-blame (am I really that powerful?), and (b) how self-destructive and counter-productive such self-blame is.

While I know intellectually that I should let go of blame altogether, I ended up shifting the blame to human nature more generally, and then to God for making humans this way.

"How could you make us so stupid and so powerful at the same time?! What were you thinking?! What a recipe for disaster!"

But now that I've gotten these assumptions out in the open, I can critically reflect on them. After all, something else I have been learning in counseling is that all-or-nothing thinking fuels depression.

Is it really true that I have to be perfect or my whole life spins out of control and falls apart? No. Anyone who objectively looks at my life would call it quite effective and successful, overall.

Is it really true that we humans have to get everything exactly right to avoid destroying the planet? The objective evidence says: the planet is still alive; humans are not extinct; lots of biological life forms are still alive. Of course we don't know what the future holds. But we haven't completely blown it yet, anyway.

Maybe we humans are not entirely stupid, nor as powerful as we often like to think. Maybe neither my life nor the fate of the planet is as fragile as I sometimes think. At any rate, I can look at what is, right now, and see that there are a lot of reasons for hope.

So, once I bring my spiritual crisis to light, and articulate the fear that is behind it, I see how inappropriate it is to blame God for something I don't even know is true! Once I consider the truth of my assumptions, I see how questionable they really are.

The actual evidence says: my life is not bad; the planet is still alive. Yes, it is good to keep striving -- the world may well need our best efforts. And there is certainly great spiritual value in striving to live a balanced life harmonious with others and with the natural world. But getting depressed enough to give up is totally counter-productive. That is not helping anyone, and such misery is not what God wants for me, or anyone else, either.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Feeling the Effects

A couple of days ago I saw something in the newspaper saying that 6 out of 10 Americans have been adversely affected by the financial crisis (losing jobs, or having reduced salary, hours, or benefits).

My reaction was surprise. The first question that popped into my mind was, "who are the other 4 out of 10?!"

I don't think I know anyone who has not suffered one of the above financial set-backs.

So my question is serious. Who are those other 4 out of 10? Have they just held steady, or have they actually gained, financially? I really would have thought that the percentage of those who directly feel the crisis would be larger.