Darkness and Depression
Darkness and Depression
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 9:31-35
Abram, soon to be called Abraham, had been worried. He had been worried because God had made promises to him, promises that Abram would be blessed. What had God promised?
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
That was a big promise. Big and unlikely. Abram was 75 years old at the time. Abram was childless and so he was understandably anxious about his chances of fatherhood. He was uncertain as to the possibility of his children becoming a great nation. He unsure as to whether he would have any legacy left in the world. So Abram asked God for reassurance.
God tells Abram: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” God is not asking for animals, he is instructing Abram to make a sacrifice.
He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.
This particular form of sacrifice was significant, the cutting of animals in two. The Hebrew word for cutting is bereth. It was the custom to mark the making of a significant agreement by offering such a split sacrifice. The word for cutting, bereth, also means to make a covenant.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.
Think of the burning bush, think of the cloud by day and the fire by night. The fire of God has passed through this offering. But there was another important aspect to this vision of flames.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
Deep and terrifying darkness. Terror followed by the fire pot and the flaming torch, passing through to Abram from between the portions of his own sacrifice. Fire passing through what he had given up, what he had lost.
Darkness fell upon Abram before that moment, but before the darkness came birds of prey. The birds had come to eat the sacrifice. Abram stays and protects what he has presented as an offering, chasing away those who would steal it. We have no indication from the scripture that Abram has any idea what he is doing in that moment. He had made his sacrifice and nothing had yet happened. So he was waiting while predators circled round. Guarding the offering in anticipation of some reaction, some response from God. That response began with deep and terrifying darkness. And it concluded with fire and a promise.
This Sunday, we have read about sacrifice and promises, fire and darkness. The promise leads to the sacrifice, the giving up of something. Then there is that dark period, the time of worry in between what has been given up with what had been promised in return. The fire in this example is not the satisfaction of the promise. The fire is the reassurance, it is the comfort and encouragement. The fire from God represents hope.
Hope is one of the seven virtues in Christian thought: those seven are hope, faith, love, courage, temperance, prudence, and justice. Together, these qualities reflect the elements of a good life. Those are, of course, in opposition to the seven deadly sins. You may recall those as pride, wrath, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, and sloth. This list of virtues and sins has a nice balance to it, seven and seven. But the list was shortened. There were more sins. There was the sin of vainglory, which meant excessive boasting. Pope Gregory the Great thought that was redundant of the sin of pride, so vainglory lost its glory.
There was another sin, or variation of a sin, the sin of acedia. Acedia meant listlessness. It was the byproduct of melancholy, one being the behavior while the other described the emotion. Acedia was apathy, an unease of the mind. Acedia was the sin of depression.
How could depression be ranked as a sin? Depression in this sense is a failure of gratitude. Why? Because one does not appreciate the good things in the world, the good things which are blessings from God. Depression is therefore a failure to love God.
Which makes no sense, honestly.
If you have ever known a person who suffered from depression, you would appreciate how little this pronouncement of sin has to do with the reality of depression. Eventually, the idea of depression as a sin falls away, for the most part, with acedia evolving into the slothful notion of laziness rather than depression. But the association remains.
In Divine Comedy, Dante places those guilty of sloth in two different places. In the Inferno, those guilty of wrath and sloth are placed together in a swamp of slime. Those plagued with anger fight on the surface while those afflicted with sloth sink below the slime.
Unpleasant, but Dante also has a place of redemption for the slothful in Purgatory. These lesser sinners are required to run at top speed over and over again, the idea being that in life they had failed to live up to their potential and therefore would make up for lost time in the afterlife. One theory about Dante’s apparent sympathy for melancholy was that he suffered from depression himself.
Depression is a psychological term as well as a theological category. Depression as a disorder has evolved with psychology. Freud thought that depression was a form of inwardly directed anger. Given that Dante placed the wrathful and the slothful in the same swamp, I question how terribly original this was for Freud. Depression in this sense is a lot like grief, a reaction that persists, that burrows inside.
However, modern psychology primarily consists of figuring out all the different ways that Freud was wrong. And depression was no different. In the 1970s a psychologist named Aaron Beck began looking at how depressed patients were describing their symptoms. Up until that point, it was thought that people were depressed which in turn caused them to experience negative thinking. Beck’s analysis of these patients suggested the opposite. People who experience negative thinking become depressed.
A person with a negative view of him or herself grows to have a negative view of the world which in turn becomes a negative view of the future. Those three negative outlooks begin a downward reinforcing spiral, like a dark whirlpool of depressive reinforcement. The way that a person thinks does not create the depression but it facilitates depression when negative life events occur.
Freud focused on inward anger while Beck considered depression as a byproduct of an inner landscape prone to negativity. Modern psychiatry takes another approach entirely and seeks to relieve, or to lessen, depression through the use of drugs. Better living through chemistry quite literally. Inner anger, inner darkness, inner chemistry: which is it? Is it one or two or all of these? Or does depression spring from something else?
I do not know if any of you have known someone who is prone to depression or perhaps have even struggled with depression yourself. Depression can be mixed in with other difficulties, like anxiety. Anxiety is not the same as depression and a truly depressed person has little energy even for anxiety. But those problems can dwell in the same body.
Depression is not only sadness. Depression is not only grief. Sadness and grief are negative feelings but they are also natural responses to life and to loss. Depression can include feelings of emptiness or worthlessness, helplessness or hopelessness. It can be a lack of desire, a loss of emotion. It is not a momentary feeling. It endures for days, weeks, months. The depressed can sleep too much or not at all, eat everything in sight or not a crumb. It is as if someone poked a hole in the side of a life and all the good things leaked out.
I have seen well intended people responding to depression in unsuccessful ways. The life-affirming suggestions coming fast and furious. You should get outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Go for a walk, to the gym. The power of positive thinking, pulling yourself up by your psychological bootstraps. When depression is described, it is often presented as a form of personal darkness. And how do you get rid of darkness? You turn on a light.
In my experience, and it is just my experience, depression seems like darkness but it is not darkness, meaning depression is not a lack of light. Depression is instead like blindness. The light can be there, all around, but a blind person cannot see it. You can explain light to them, you can describe the colors of the world in vivid, glorious detail. But those are merely words, they are not colors, they are not light itself.
A depressed person is blind to good feelings. Things that were once cheerful or pleasurable are no longer. Sunshine seems harsh, fresh air sterile. The ability to connect with joy is gone. The capacity to look upon the world with hope is lost.
When I think of Abraham, many stories that come to mind. There was the covenant, the promise to make him the father of a great nation. There are the stories about Hagar and Ismael, the tragic story of Abraham turning the boy and his mother away into the desert. But the story that always comes to mind first, the story which overwhelms all the rest, is the story that perhaps bothers me the most in the Bible. The story of Abraham and Isaac.
God came to Abraham. He asked for another sacrifice. No heifer or ram this time, not goat or doves. God asked for Isaac. God asked for the sacrifice of Abraham’s beloved son. The details of that story are few in the Bible. Abraham traveled with Isaac to the place of sacrifice. They walked saying little to one another. After a time, Isaac asked where the sacrifice was, the offering to be made. Abraham simply said that God would provide. God would provide. Abraham then bound Isaac to be sacrificed. At the last moment, God called out to stay the knife in Abraham’s hand.
When I think about that story, I do not primarily think about Abraham. I am baffled by Abraham, but he is not the main focus for me. Similarly, I do not dwell upon God in that passage. That depiction of God makes no sense to me. Human beings make terrible decisions in the world and try to blame those upon God.
No, I think about Isaac. The journey of Isaac, the binding of Isaac. The deliverance of Isaac, yes, but his deliverance into a new world. A world in which his own father would consider sacrificing him. That would be a terrible world, a world where faith, hope and love seem like foreign words, mere sounds without meaning. I think of Isaac.
When I was thinking last night about this sermon, I was wondering where I was going to go with it. Give a little Bible spiel, talk about depression, explain that the power of positive thinking has its limits. But then what? What did I have to offer other than a public service announcement and a plug for Prozac?
So I switched gears. I took a peek at the election results. Hilary Clinton squeaking by Bernie Sanders in Nevada. Donald Trump winning with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio behind. A significant blow to the establishment in both parties. These results are particularly interesting because there was no way of predicting even a few months ago that either Sanders or Trump would be doing as well as they have.
Please do not take this as support or criticism for them or anyone else. My point is not who should have won but that an unexpected series of results have panned out the way that they have. Why have two dark horse candidates, pegged at either end of the political spectrum become contenders for the highest office in the land? How does this come to be?
Here is my theory, my late night political epiphany. The United States of America is depressed. Depressed and I do not mean economically. The U.S. and its citizens are politically depressed. And all the Prozac in the world is not going to change it.
The political conversation has become a shouting match. The debates and the ads, the interviews and the exchanges have all become dark and angry. Every voice in the conversation is getting louder in order to be heard, sharper so it can cut through the noise, angrier to become synchronized with the mood of an anxious electorate. And what has caused this anger and anxiety to turn into depression?
I think it like the binding of Isaac.
Imagine you were Isaac. You are walking beside your father essentially on the way to church. It was a strange journey, one with a growing sense of unease. Your father brought a knife. There is at some point the dawning realization that something terribly wrong is about to happen. And you have the growing sense that you cannot trust the man standing right next to you. Abraham showed that he was a man of unshakable faith. Isaac’s faith may have been permanently shaken. After the binding of Isaac, for example, there is no indication in the Bible that he ever spoke to his father again.
America has lost faith in its leaders. It has always been common to dislike the other side – that is nothing new. But there is a generalized distrust now, a pervasive turn away from confidence in the institutions of government. The office of President has become a target of unrelenting scorn regardless of who holds the office. Congress is a tag-team effort at obstruction. The Supreme Court is seen as thinly veiled political theatre dressed up in black robes. It does not matter whether you are right or left, liberal or conservative. Rome is burning and everyone seems to be fiddling.
I have watched as friends and colleagues savage each other over the latest bit of red meat controversy. He said, she said, they said. There has been so much ink and electricity spilled to make the other side look like buffoons that everyone comes off looking like buffoons. And with all that noise, with all that smoke in the air and blood in the water, it has become difficult to hear and to see anything. And now we have to choose.
Aaron Beck’s analysis of his patients suggested that people who experience negative thinking become depressed. A person with a negative view grows to have a negative view of the world which in turn becomes a negative view of the future. Those three negative outlooks begin a downward reinforcing spiral, like a dark whirlpool. The way that a person thinks does not create the depression but it facilitates depression when negative events occur. If Aaron Beck is correct, then my diagnosis of depression seems quite likely. Now what?
The closing hymn?
Actually, I was chatting with the music director about the music for this Sunday and I made an unusual request. Our closing hymn this morning is wholly out of season. It is In the Bleak Midwinter, a Christmas carol. I chose this song because it has a somber start to it, beginning with the earth as hard as iron, water like a stone. The words shift, though. Heaven itself cannot hold the one promised to us, though he began his life in a mere stable. Angels sing his praises, but his mother’s love is marked with a simple kiss. What gift can you offer to someone like this, some one great but also so small, so open and caring? The only gift any one of us truly has to offer: our heart.
That is a hard gift to give when you are depressed. It is hard to have hope when all we hear about is doom and gloom, criticism rather than advice, problems rather than solutions. It is hard to have faith when the interests of so many are sacrificed, time and time again. It is hard to muster feelings of love when anger and hate pour out from televisions and radios, the internet and sometimes ourselves. It is hard to do anything when you become depressed, when hearts are heavy and the world is cold.
What is in your heart? Is it fear? Is it anger? Is it depression? If it is any of those, I want you to sing. Sing the closing hymn. Savor its words. Think about a mother’s love, about a man who cared. Who gave his life to the world and for the world. Think about that. His life was a small light in the darkness that we remember even to this day. A small fragile light that remains as our great gift.
And if your heart is filled with love or maybe faith or even hope, I also want you to sing. Sing even louder. Savor those words and think about that same man. That light may seem even greater for you. A great gift and an enduring promise.