Moving out of Depression and into Hope in Christ

In our contemporary age, the term depression is ubiquitous.   The word has become so common in our everyday parlance that we have come to view it as a normal part of life.  We may hear things such as “everyone gets depressed” or “he’s depressed about losing his job”.  We’ve become so accustomed to the word that it’s become a given in everyday human life. And it is certainly true that we lose many things that are precious to us, people and things that we are attached to, abilities and health that make up our identity, and dreams of who we can become. And these losses do make us sad, or to be more precise using the language of cognitive therapy, our interpretation of what these losses mean saddens us, but depression is more than a passing sadness. It is a state in which we let those losses define us and in which we make our own negative, pessimistic thoughts about ourselves, our world and our future into absolutes, into gods or rather into demons that hold us imprisoned in a mindset so different from and alien to what the Gospel tells us about ourselves, that we are loved by God, about our world, that it is our means towards sanctification, and about our future, that it is by the grace of God ultimately brighter than the noonday sun and more joyful than the laughter of innocent children.

For the Christian, depression as a mindset is incompatible with the life of faith, for it expresses the conviction that our cross is only a cross, suffering and nothing more, that our loss is only a loss and not a possibility for grace-attracting kenosis, and that without our former world, without our ideal self-image, and without our this-worldly dreams, there is no point in moving forward, there is no goal worth pursuing, in a word, there is nothing to hope for. These are all lies, but it is hard for someone depressed to see them for the lies they are. The depressed have to trust in something beyond these thoughts and to make a leap, mentally and literally. In therapy, getting someone who is depressed out of bed and moving about is often an initial therapeutic goal. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “Cognitive therapists generally concentrate first on behavior, because ‘it is easier to change concrete actions or to introduce new ones, that it is to change patterns of thinking.’  For example, with depressed patients, the therapist initially targets passivity, avoidance behavior, and lack of gratification before directly challenging the patient’s negative views about himself, his future, and his world.”

Movement is also a goal in the Christian life. In an earlier post, I wrote, “The Christian life is about movement, ‘from death to life and from earth to heaven.’ But when real, constructive movement is blocked, we wander in our stymied state in the trackless desert of our own imaginings. It’s not enough just to stare at our problems; we need to look for solutions that can be found only by looking elsewhere. We have to see beyond the problem or through the problem, and for that, we need to move. And if our movement is to be purposeful and meaningful, we must also have a goal. For this reason, the ancient fathers and cognitive therapists both consider the aim of their work as the transformation of problems into realistic goals.  Both consider the way one approaches a particular issue as paramount in this transformation.”

motherofgod-glykophiloussaUnlike depression engendered by our negative thoughts about our current situation as an irremediable impasse, hope born of faith trusts that even if our heaven (in terms of our future dreams) and our earth (in terms of the cherished parts of ourselves and our world) pass away, Christ’s words and Christ’s promises to us His children will never pass away. Hope turns us to a very specific future, a future not imagined by our feeble mind, but a future revealed by a loving God who has conquered death, offered us new life, and proven that through the Cross joy has come and will continue to come into the entire world, including our world. Of course, we can’t turn on hope like a light switch, even as we can’t turn off depression in like manner. But we can cultivate hope through prayer and ascetical practice, which re-orients the spirit toward God’s presence dwelling within. For the Christian, guided by a wise spiritual father, behavior is re-oriented toward a goal-union with God.  In practical terms, this is done gradually with the assistance of Scripture and the recollection of the illumined path trod by the holy fathers.  Again, in ACW, I write, “In the Christian struggle, God-pleasing asceticism is not intended to uncover unnoticed facts, but to help the believer to lead a life of virtue that can be a source of spiritual joy, consolation, and grace that are qualitatively and empirically different from worldly happiness, comfort, and pleasure.” From the diverse lives of the Saints, we can see that through active faith this life of virtue is possible regardless of what weaknesses we might have, the world we live in, or the possibilities before us. And not only is this life of virtue possible, so is spiritual joy born of hope.

Ultimately, Christ is our anchor of hope in the shifting sea of thoughts that can cause depression. And by anchoring the vessel of our soul to Him, we can find peace and joy. This requires changes in behavior and in our overall outlook. If we manage, though, to make Christ the center of who we are as persons, to make Christ the center of our personal world, and to make Christ the primary meaning of our future, we will experience the blessed hope laid up in heaven in this life as well as the joy and rejoicing that are at the heart of the good news of our salvation. May God enable us all to look at whatever losses we experience through the vision of the genuinely Christian way of life. Saint Paul put it so beautifully in his epistles to the Romans, “We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us.”

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