VIEW VIDEO It is good to be back with you. Last week, you’ll remember, was our Sunday for unprogrammed worship, which, since time immemorial, has been held on the fifth Sunday, four times a year. But the elders decided to have it last Sunday, the third Sunday, because we’ll be hearing from Friends from India next Sunday, the fifth Sunday, and because we wanted to test your faithfulness. So if you showed up, realized it was silent worship, and tried to escape back out to your car unnoticed, it was noticed. The elders were watching and writing down the names and license plate numbers of lukewarm Quakers on the lam. Those names have been moved to the top of the Nominating Committee’s list, which is how I ended up becoming a Quaker pastor, as an act of penance, after falling asleep one Sunday during meeting for worship. The next day I was visited by the elders of the meeting who told me I had fallen asleep. Naturally, I was embarrassed and asked what I could do to redeem myself, and was told Quakers needed pastors, and so I found myself enrolled in seminary. Don’t let that happen to you.
When we were last together, I spoke about depression, and one of you asked how long I had been a Quaker pastor and I said, “Almost forty years,” and they said, “No wonder you’re depressed.” I wish it were that simple, to be able to blame my depression on one identifiable thing, but depression is usually more complicated than that. Besides, being a pastor has been a joyful experience for me.
You might remember my mentioning that anti-depressants lifted me out of the depths of depression to a level place. Though they spared me from the depths of despair, they did not magically elevate me beyond the level ground. Life on anti-depressants is a bit like living in Indiana. There are no great valleys, but no great mountains either. While medicine saved me from the valleys, they did not allow me to experience the mountaintops, because pills are never enough. So I had to develop specific practices and habits to improve my life, to experience moments on the mountaintop. In the weeks ahead, I want to describe the practices and habits that have enriched my life, not only to remind myself of their importance, but also to suggest them to you if you also struggle with depression.
To that end, I want to begin by speaking about the importance of facing reality and how our ability to do that is fundamental to our well-being. This is counter-intuitive, since we often think reality is what depressed us in the first place. I was speaking with a friend this week who was down in the dumps and when I asked him why, he spoke about the threats to American democracy, the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. Depression seems to be a reasonable response to our current reality. But I have learned just the opposite to be true—it is not reality that causes our depression, but rather the avoidance of reality, the denial of reality, to such a degree that it becomes an impediment to our happiness.
The first denial for the depressed person is always the same. “I will get better without help.”
I will get better when it stops raining and the sun comes out.
I will get better when spring arrives.
I will get better when I get married, or when I get divorced.
I will get better when I make more money, when I get a better job.
I will get better when I buy my dream home.
I will get better when I get a new outfit, a new motorcycle, a new car.
I will get better when I lose weight or get my hair done or visit the gym.
I will get better when I have children, or when my children leave home.
I will get better when I can relax and have a beer or two or three.
I will get better when I can take a painkiller.
I will get better when I get saved.
I will get better when America is great again.
I will get better when the Democrats are in charge; when the Republicans are back in the White House.
There is no doubt these things provide a temporary lift in mood, but they are not a cure-all for depression, whose cause is often biological in nature, especially as we age, and our body’s ability to moderate the levels of serotonin and other hormones diminish. Your new car might be fun, but it will make no discernible physiological difference in the regulation of serotonin, so its impact on your mood will be both negligible and short-lived.
The avoidance of our physical reality, especially as we age, can have catastrophic consequences. Looking for happiness in things and situations, we will neglect to seek it where it can truly be found. We avoid reality for many reasons. First, because it is frightening to face life directly. We are consummate avoiders of difficulty. World-class. When my father went to therapy for treatment of his alcoholism, I asked the therapist if he had learned anything that might help my father. He said, “I met with your father for a total of eight hours and learned more about Notre Dame football than I ever cared to know. But I didn’t learn one thing about the emotional dynamics of your father’s depression.” We are world-class avoiders.
We avoid reality for other reasons. Not only does it make us feel vulnerable and unsafe, it is also a significant commitment. Facing reality is work, ditch-digging, back-breaking work. Eventually, if you persist with it, it will be exhilarating and freeing, but at first it will be exhausting. It’s like the saying, “The truth shall set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Facing reality will set you free, but first it will challenge you, frustrate you, and even exhaust you. And guess what, we resist things that challenge, frustrate, and exhaust us. I’ve told you several times that one of the bravest things a human being can do is consult a therapist. To open our lives to another person requires tremendous courage. Many of us can’t even do that with our spouses, let alone a stranger we just met.
But the avoidance of reality is an impediment to our happiness, perhaps the greatest impediment. Because it is far easier to avoid reality than face it, we look for happiness in situations and things that can never ultimately satisfy us. They might give us a taste of joy, but it is only a taste and we will leave the table hungry.
If you are depressed, please, as a gift to yourself, talk with your doctor. If your doctor doesn’t take you seriously, find a doctor who will. More times than I can count, I have seen lives improved by the miracle of modern medicine. Depression is not shameful, no more than diabetes is shameful. It is not an indication of weakness, no more than cancer is a sign of weakness. It is most often a biological issue with biological causes. I have no doubt that if Jesus were alive today and someone came to him depressed, he would lead that person to a doctor, pay for his Lexapro, and send him forth on the road to health, perhaps even to be a Quaker pastor. One never knows.
Friends, life is too great a gift, too lovely a venture, to permit each day to begin and end in sorrow.