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.


  1. I can understand this better than most people since I am a philosopher and have a little experience with depression. Depression has complex causes. It's partly genetic and biochemical. But it is also partly due to how we think about the world and about our place in the world. Since philosophy concerns this thinking part of it, your depression is not completely distinct from philosophy.

    We philosophers do not think like other people and it means that other people, including therapists, have a little trouble understanding us. You write: "I know intellectually that I should let go of blame altogether, ..."

    Do you really know this intellectually? How? Do you accept a hard determinist argument that the whole concept of blame is incoherent because free choice is an illusion? Or is it that you have accepted the idea that since God is perfect, then the evil in the world must be some kind of illusion? Maybe you take one of these philosophical options but I suspect you don't. I suspect that when you say you "should" give up blaming anything or anyone for evil that you just mean that it would be psychologically more healthy to stop blaming anything or anyone for the suffering we see in the world. Problem is that you are too rational to accept that kind of "should." Thinking that it is unhealthy to believe something is the wrong kind of reason. The only solution for someone as rational as you are is to see how evil might actually make sense and not be God's fault. You aren't going to stop blaming God just because you realize that believing this causes psychological distress.

    So, philosopher, you will not be able to fully solve your psychological dilemma without addressing its philosophical dimension.

    Again I'm not saying it's completely a philosophical problem for you. By all means do healthy things like exercise regularly, get regular sleep, seek out supportive friends, find things to do that are fun, and generally follow a therapist's recommendations. But don't neglect the fact that this is also a philosophical problem.

  2. Thanks, Richard, for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I appreciate your reminding me that not only are there psychological and spiritual dimensions to depression, but philosophical ones as well.

    I certainly do not think that free will is an illusion. What I most meant in this context, by saying that I should let go of blame altogether, was that blame is not appropriate in relation to the specific beliefs I was upset about, because in fact those beliefs may have been wrong. It's not my fault that life and the planet are fragile, nor God's fault, because maybe in fact life and the planet are not quite as fragile as I had feared. Blame is inappropriate in this context because of attributing fault to a problem that in fact might not exist.

    I don't really know how fragile life is, or the planet is, but I do see that we are still here, which implies that blaming anyone for a tragedy that has not in fact happened is rather pointless, and I should be expending my energies differently. Instead of assigning blame, I need to question more carefully the assumptions that give rise to the impulse to blame.

    But you point to a bigger question that I find very interesting as well (psychologically, spiritually, and philosophically): is blame ever appropriate?

    I do sometimes think that it may always be inappropriate because, even though people can be said to be responsible for bad things that happen, in that actions that they chose freely may have made those things happen, it can also be argued that people never mean to be doing harm. From their own perspective, people generally feel that their actions are justified. The bad that does admittedly sometimes result either (a) consists of unintended consequences, or (b) results from facing a moral dilemma and feeling forced to choose the lesser of evils.

    But of course just because people usually feel justified in doing what they do does not itself make their actions good. But if people are generally trying to do the best they can (given their own limitations and the pre-existing problems in the world that sometimes send one's good intentions into unexpectedly bad consequences), this does call into question the appropriateness or usefulness of blame.

    The technique of mediation that I learned last year is striking in its deliberate avoidance of blame. This is also a theme of Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication. Both instead encourage going deeper into human conflict to unearth more complex causes and bring about greater mutual understanding and reconciliation. They also both encourage people to take responsibility for their own feelings instead of holding others responsible: a view that I regard as closely related to Socrates' claim in Plato's Apology that the truly good person can never be harmed (i.e., diminished in virtue).

    These are very important questions, and I have not yet fully made up my own mind about whether blame, in general, is ever justified, and if so, under what circumstances.

  3. This is why I restructured my Intro course around the theme of the meaning of life. The section on the Hellenistic philosophers gradually had been growing larger as it seemed that the Stoic vs Epicurean debate seemed to interest the students the most. do we live in a Cosmos, where everything happens for a reason and so there is no reason to mourn any apparent evil? Or do we live in a mere universe, mere blind matter in motion that eventually crushes us for no reason at all?

    the Stoic point of view appeals to many of the students. They like the nonjudgemental idea that one should never blame other people because they don't know any better. At the same time though I have to point out to them that this is in tension with the Stoic holding himself to high standards. The Stoic refuses to make any excuses for himself. This ought to sound very familiar to you and make you want to dig out the Stoics and read them again.

    Despite its appeal it's hard to see how the Stoic can consistently hold that other people are never responsible for their mistakes but that the Stoic is always responsible. This Stoic attitude may lead to a kind of calm dignity but it does not seem to mark a consistent view of human responsibility.

    In the end I find William James meliorism appealing. We do have free will and that means we do sometimes make wrong choices. These choices do make the world worse than it would be if we made better choices. This is not really the best of all possible worlds.

    But that doesn't mean that God doesn't exist or that he made a mistake in making us fallible and putting us in a world where we hurt ourselves and others by our choices. Free will requires real contingency and real contingency is--well--chancy. God's choice of making a world like this one might make sense if freedom is really worth the price of all the pain that is involved in this chancyness.

    In the end I think we human beings cannot clearly see how the good of freedom fits into the bigger scheme of the cosmos. We must be humble enough to accept that we see as in a glass darkly. From my own human point of view, if I were making a world I wouldn't make one with so much pain in it. That's the plain truth of how things look to me. But I also have to have the humility to recognize that how things look to me isn't anywhere close to the big picture. An experience of walking with God reveals a love that upholds us despite the pain we often have to walk through. This is paradoxical but it is also an experienced truth.

  4. There is simply no one worth getting angry at except God. This puts one in a position, it does! It's not that God would actively resent blame; the problem is that one has to recognize that the blame, on closer examination, is bound to turn out unjustified.

    I've been thinking lately... that human beings are always being presented with an Intolerable Wrong taking place in the world. In my day it was the war against Vietnam. There was still ongoing mistreatment of black people, but that was an evil that people felt had been recognized and felt was being effectively dealt with (mistaken as that's proven to be.) The war was receiving the official support of all the dominant institutions of the country; political leaders could and did routinely lie in supporting it, and no matter how many people knew it for an unacceptable evil, we could not make it budge. People tried all sorts of ways of stopping it, from reasonable-but-ineffective protest to utterly-nuts-but-ineffective acts of desperation. You could blame people for the corruption and stupidity that made that war possible, but in essence it was an Act of God, a calamity that for some inscrutable reason had to happen lest we do something worse to ourselves... (and when it was over, you still couldn't get the mainstream media to truthfully call it a national crime.)

    Today we've got a choice of such evils. (Maybe I've just gotten more discerning, but I doubt it!) I see no reason other than the love of God why we should hope to survive most of them... and history shows that God's love is far from sentimental! Overall this looks like a 'kill-or-cure' wake-up call for a population pretty deeply sunk in denial...

    If you were expecting to be able to do anything about all these evils, any one of which would strain our collective human capability, all of which are interlocked and mutually reinforcing... the stone fact is that the basic causes are beyond our reach, in the nature of God and our relation to God.

    Trying to make a difference in the world-- and all the juice seems to run out of life if we give up on that-- is anything but straightforward, and yet we're helped. Sometimes I just give up-- and yet I'm helped. It isn't about us (even though we experience ourselves as right in the middle and intrinsically can't avoid it!)

    The Basic Cause of Insanity is wanting to be other than we are, either trying to pretend we're who we think we should be, or blaming ourselves because we aren't. We can't help it, but after enough hours of Wall Therapy, insight dawns: It'll hurt less if I stop bashing my head into this! That's how grace sets in, just coming along whenever we're finally ripe for a little more.

  5. Thanks, Richard, and thanks, Forrest! I really appreciate your thoughts.

    What also needs to be discussed here, I think, is redemption. Good can come out of evil. The worst that we can do is still never the end of the story. The worst that we can do can never harm Goodness itself. There is a force more powerful than all of the destructive energy we could possibly muster. This force is the healing and redemptive power of God's love.

  6. Yes, redemption needs to be considered as part of the totality that is the cosmos. We are asked to participate in the work of redemption. We neither simply let God do it or do it all ourselves. God has called us friends because we are to work with God at redeeming ourselves and the world. To put this is contemporary terms--this way we have "ownership" of our lives and our world.

  7. Thanks for this post. I struggle with anxiety not depression, but the feeling that I have to keep things lined up just right or else... is familiar to me; also a feeling of having failed to do my necessary part in Saving The World. It startled me the first time I realized that there was a hidden payoff to this story; that the implied converse of 'If I don't do it just right terrible things will happen" was "If I do it just right terrible things won;'t happen." (Richard, I know statement A can logically be true without statement B; but there did seem to be an unconscious linkage in my mind).

    For me health seems to require admitting that my knowledge and my control are very limited. I still have choices to make, choices that matter, but I am more able to make them constructively once I stop feeling larger-than-life. And when I do remember my own smallness I also have some confidence in the continuing and indestructible goodness of God. Not confidence that this goodness will prevent harm to me, to the poeple I love, to the world, but simply that this goodness will continue.

    Re. blame--I know it can be unhelpful. I do think I need to know when I am acting destructively--and I find that sometimes I do this on purpose. The challenge is to know it without being overwhelmed by it.

  8. Hi, I am from Australia.

    Everything is inter-connected especially at the depth or psychic level.

    Regardless of what each individual is doing (or not doing) I would suggest that everyone is being affected by the zeitgeist of the times, which IS dark.

    This unique essay points out that all negative actions, especially large scale ones, diminishes the feeling-heart of everyone.

    Plus look at the "news"--it is all bad "news".

    The above essay is taken from this remarkable book.

    As is this very sobering essay.

    Plus this essay: note the title.

    Doubt is the fundamental mood of the times