Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Grace of This Darkness: Surrendering to the Mystery of Suffering and Creation

Posted by Eve

The first and most severe episode of depression began the winter I turned thirteen and lasted eighteen months, at the end of which I was numb, seared, barely alive. During the summer that followed, as I began the slow process of putting my life back together–a process which would take many years, and continues still–every weekday morning I would get up, put on my old jeans or shorts and a T-shirt, go out into the desert heat, and cross the street and the blazing, empty parking lot where the seagulls congregated on the dumpsters to the junior high, where I had to attend summer school. This winter I will turn thirty-five. During most months of most of the intervening years, despair has been my quiet, constant companion, in Lauren Slater’s words, my country. After more than two decades of struggling against the illusion that comes with every intermission, the illusion I have conquered, and the fatal false hopes that it will not return, I struggle to face the prospect that despair may be the condition of the rest of my life.

Despair is life-sucking. It is a vast, dark, trackless country, the waste in which Lehi wandered for many hours–a waste I’ve long thought of as the dark geographical echo of the blinding daylight desert into which he had plunged himself and his family on the strength of his faith in God alone, with no idea of what lay before him, or of how long the next years would be. In my own blackest seasons, I’ve been haunted almost moment by moment by thoughts of taking my own life, which, when my hold on faith and communal life becomes more and more tenuous, comes to seem a relief, even an inevitability.

Compared to the chronic, hard-core schizophrenics and severe bipolars my husband works with, whose lives play out in miserable uncertainty between hospitals and halfway homes and the streets, I live in unaccountable grace. I have a kind, devoted husband, sisters and friends in whom I can confide. I attend school and the hope of meaningful work. These are gifts which I have done nothing to deserve, and like all the goods of this life, they can be revoked at any time. A few years ago I sat in Sunday school between two of our branch’s more floridly mentally ill members–the types who tended to make long-winded, embarrassing comments over the pulpit during testimony meeting or in gospel doctrine–and thought, These are my people.

In our culture, every grief, every pain is delimited in tidy narratives of conquering–and the same pattern structures our testimony meetings, in which we contain every doubt and every sorrow in a broader story of faith. The large self-help sections of our bookstores are crammed with numbered prescriptions for solving and conquering every ill of our age, and of all ages–depression, anxiety, addictions, eating disorders, self-injury, ADHD, autism, personality disorders, obesity, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cancer–what King Benjamin calls every infirmity of body and mind. I love how he acknowledges his own frailty before his entire kingdom, naming his own flesh dust, the name he holds in common with every subject, with every human reader centuries and millennia later. There is an unbelievable variety of solutions offered to what we call depression–counseling, medication, alterations in diet, herbs, physical exercise, and the hollow litanies of positive affirmation. At times some have offered me palliative, temporary relief, while others have done nothing, or even violated the injunction attributed to Hippocrates: first do no harm. Their very proliferation is evidence, as Chekhov so memorably says, that this is a disease for which there is no cure.

In his short book The Religious Significance of Atheism, Paul Ricoeur reads the Book of Job as a parable of a darker, more mature faith that becomes possible only after the twin idols of religion–accusation and consolation–have been smashed. I have known Ricoeur’s idols intimately. I have long erected them in my private worship and pled before them to save me from my despair. I have repented falsely, over and over, desperate to put an end, not to sin, but to pain. But as Ricoeur says of Job’s final, baffling encounter with the divine, “This God does not protect me but delivers me up to the dangers of a life worthy of being called human. This new night of the understanding is a night for our desire as much as for our fear” (88).

The Fall is the beginning of a life of opposition and sorrow, the beginning of what Ricoeur calls a more human life, what the author of Genesis 3 calls a life like that of the gods, a life drenched in the most intimate, experiential knowledge of good and evil. We Mormons believe that we chose this life in which we are subject to physical and spiritual suffering, sin, despair, and death because it is only in such a life that we can become truly human and, ultimately, truly godly. Yet there remains a fierce and understandable attachment to the false god of consolation. As Nietzsche says in The Genealogy of Morals, it is the senselessness of suffering that so assaults us. We long to believe that our little righteousnesses will save us from the myriad griefs that surround us. Such desires are hard to surrender, but they lead inevitably to cruelty.

I love the endless richness, bitterness, and complexity of Job. I love God’s long impassioned address out of the whirlwind, fiercely direct, beautiful, terrifying, performatively echoing the creation and laying out a vast and gorgeous order utterly alien to human demands for meaning. I love the vivid natural imagery that saturates that ancient, strange, and piercing summons. At my lowest ebbs I have always loved to be alone in the natural world, where there is no need to be other than what I am: broken. It is a health to the soul to be confronted with the severest limits of its own understanding, to experience this body’s unconquerable frailty, to feel my own mortal blink against the inhuman vastness in which mountains and planets live and die. I love to contemplate the extraordinary kinship of evolution that interlaces my physical existence with plants and animals, and ultimately, in the minerals that compose my bones and flesh, with rocks and stars. I love to contemplate my mortality in the incomprehensible scale of geological and astronomical time. I am both a part of this order and subject to it, like Benjamin on his tower at the end of his life, both of and less than the dust of this earth, and in choosing mortality I have chosen subjection to a world of pain and beauty beyond my comprehension. Suffering is written into the nature of things. As for Job, there are no answers in the “proverbs of ashes” his false friends constantly extend him in their repeated, desperate offerings to the false god of consolation, in their bid to make pain make sense. As Ricouer says, the true consolation is not in any explication, but in the alien, incomprehensible, and never-failing address of God. The consolation is in a God who gave his divine body and soul to the cause of our most intimate communion, who endured every sorrow, who suffered every hunger, thirst, and temptation, who bled from every pore. It is this God who never ceases to call me, not with a pity that would release me, but with the compassion that ever demands of me a deeper, more human, more divine life. As a mortal and as a Christian, my life is not my own, and it is not for me to set its conditions. If despair is to be one of those conditions, I can do no less than say yes, yes to the suffering that makes compassion and joy possible, yes to this world that so infinitely exceeds my comprehension. With Job, I seek to enter my true repentance, profane my flesh with the ashes that are its destination, acknowledge my frailty and mortality–the fate I share with all humans–before God, and stand in awe of the terror, and the wild, ardent grace, of a cosmos that will forever elude the tiny fire of my human understanding, an illumination so small it does little more than show me how deeply I live in the shadows of an unspeakable beauty.

20 Responses to “The Grace of This Darkness: Surrendering to the Mystery of Suffering and Creation”

  1. 1.

    Let be be finale of seem. … Let the lamp affix its beam.

    I wish you all the best Wallace Stevens, Eve.

  2. 2.

    I think we have the timing of the Fall rather mistaken. The account we have in Genesis 2-3 seems to be an allegory for all of Creation from the very beginning, and in some ways a misleading one.

    The critical question here is what was the state of personal existence like in the *very* beginning. We often follow the misinterpretation of many and consider it to be a state of peace and joy. I say that could not be more wrong. The state in the very beginning was chaos. Chaos and suffering go hand in hand – could anyone accomplish anything without some social order of justice and morality? Why would God author a plan for our salvation if everything was hunky dory in the very beginning?

    It is abundantly manifest, given our understanding via Joseph Smith of the eternality of personal spirit-intelligences, that the plan of salvation was meant to solve a problem, and a rather serious one at that. The scripture states that men are [in their present state] that they might [eventually] have [a fulness of] joy. In their present state because this life is a preparation for greater things.

    Did Adam and Eve really sin personally? Or are Adam and Eve archetypes of the sinful state of mankind in our first estate, naturally falling short of the requirements set for our eventual salvation? If there is no death before the Fall, it follows naturally that virtually all of Genesis 2-3 does not refer to the second estate, a mortal estate at all, but rather to an immortal first estate, an estate that despite the personal ministry of God to mankind, all fell short of the discipline necessary for eternal salvation.

    This could not have been the work of two people four thousand years ago. There has been death upon the earth (our second estate) for hundreds of millions of years. The creation of bodies for Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, prior to the Fall, cannot be a creation of bodies of the sort we are used to, but must have been a creation of bodies of spirit element – symbolic of the creation of the bodies of spirit we had in the pre-mortal life. Untold numbers had such bodies, and yet we still fell short to the degree that a plan for a second estate needed to be established, to remedy the weaknesses in the first.

    So did Adam and Eve sin personally to bring about the second estate? I don’t think so. Is there anything more silly than a planned transgression that has necessary consequences? I think it was the general departure of mankind in the first estate from the laws established for their salvation, that brought about the need for a mortal, second estate.

    So indeed we suffer, but that is not because suffering is a tragedy in Adam or in Eve (as persons), nor some aspect of divine legislation – can God be the author of evil and still be God? – but simply a manifestation of the pre-creative chaos and suffering that the plan of salvation was established to overcome.

    The possibility of evil is necessary for existence to make sense. The actuality is not – the primary objective of the plan of salvation is the end of evil – not possible evil, but actual evil. Certainly life does not become more meaningless in proportion to our success in the abolishment thereof, but rather the opposite.

    Any problem with that account?

  3. 3.

    I apologize for the length. I need to plan ahead better before I launch into mini-essays in comments.

  4. 4.

    Your words are poignant and powerful, Eve — thank you. I can’t help but wonder what the world be like if everyone was as willing as you to feel so deeply. It’s just as well to say “yes” to suffering because, as you pointed out so eloquently, it isn’t possible to conquer it — at least, not in the sense of bending it to one’s will.

    Mark — very interesting ideas. I wouldn’t say I had any problem with your account, but I might see things a bit differently. I don’t perceive that the plan is to end evil (which seems to exist eternally yet independently of God); rather, the plan is to teach us to give evil no heed so that evil no longer has power or influence over us. But, maybe that’s the same thing.

  5. 5.

    Thank you for sharing this, Eve.

  6. 6.

    Lovely. Thank-you.

  7. 7.

    A few years ago I sat in Sunday school between two of our branch’s more floridly mentally ill members–the types who tended to make long-winded, embarrassing comments over the pulpit during testimony meeting or in gospel doctrine–and thought, These are my people.

    Yes.

    Eve, thank you.

  8. 8.

    Eve–
    The only problem with your writing is it often leaves those us less articulate with little to say. I am left that way tonight. I guess all I can say is,

    Yes!

    and of course, Thank you.

  9. 9.

    Whewww. That was incredible. Your words touched me, and even in your expression of your pain, you created beauty. Thank you for sharing yourself.

  10. 10.

    Eve, I think that the narrative of conquering does not work in the context of depression. Your frustration with society’s expectation that this narrative should work reminded me of an analogy I have thought about. It seems to me that depression is like diabetes: both are chronic diseases that can hinder a person’s ability to live life, and both can be potentially fatal. Personal interventions such as insulin, a strict diet, and weight management or pyschotropic medication, therapy, and family support can decrease the immediate and long term effects of the diseases, but nothing bring about a complete cure. It makes me angry when people expect those who are suffering from depression “to try harder” or “pray more” or “snap out of it.” Many probably make such callous remarks in ignorance; thank you for articulating your struggles and your pain to educate those who have not experienced the consuming desolation of despair.

  11. 11.

    Strictly speaking, I would say that depression is a severe symptom of a large variety of maladies, not usually a disease in and of itself. That is why most people think it goes away automatically, and that all those who have it on a continuing basis are in a state of sin of some kind. Everyone is familiar with mild depression, but how many are familiar with depression so severe that without ongoing treatment one’s faculties virtually shut down completely?

    And worst of all are the preponderance of experts that think that severe depression is generally a *mental* illness. That is about the most ridiculous idea I have heard in my entire life. Severe “mental” illnesses are invariably physiological, or are the result of trauma so severe it is manifest physiologically. The people whose conditions can be ameliorated through counselling are the lucky ones. The others are just stuck with conditions virtually no one understands, least of all their doctors. I have never met any group of people more inclined to say something akin to “think your way out of it” than those in the psycho-industrial complex. I call it the psychological fallacy.

  12. 12.

    thank you. you capture so beautifully the nature of the struggle i have faced as i have tried again and again to understand my depression, to make changes that i believe should release me from it, to apply the rational explanations i know and understand to a problem that is entirely irrational. i have sought victory. i have tried to conquer. last week i discovered, after a very long and dark journey, that the answer is not to conquer but to succumb. to acknowledge my own nothingness. to recognize that the only way to realize my potential, given me by god, is to lay down the fight and accept that i can never do it. that realization of potential–of divinity and humanity–can only happen collectively. in a community of my brothers and sisters and my god. in isaiah the lord promises to turn ashes to beauty, mourning to joy, heaviness to praise. i believe this can happen. that out of despair can come great beauty. i believe, again in the words of isaiah, that we can mount up with wings as eagles in addition to the more mundane running and walking. but i believe we can only do these things when we succumb. acknowledge defeat. recognize our own inability. and turn instead to building others. to loving. that love will not take away despair, but instead will turn it into a source not only of darkness but also of joy.

  13. 13.

    Thanks to all who took the time to read and comment on a long post, and thanks for the many insightful responses. As Fideline notes, for some of us, depression is a life sentence, to be managed, but not to be cured, and as Mark Butler notes, it’s still poorly understood. On the other hand, I don’t think my experience with depression is all that unique. I suspect that all of us, sooner or later, encounter things in this life that we cannot conquer, that break us irrevocably. It’s simply part of being human to sustain suffering we think we cannot bear. And yet to bear it.

  14. 14.

    My days of despair are often far removed from my thinking. It is hard to believe that I could be so raw then and not be able to relate to the pain much of the time. I think my despair came from ocd and what relates to that rather than depression. My hopelessness were surrounding the fears in my mind. I was depressed too. I would cry often long and sobbing cries. In high school, I was also depressed and had some incidents where I would cry in public such as when I accidently went into my Spanish classroom and it was time for French class and the French teacher insulted me for mixing up the schedule. I went to typing class with tears rolling down my face. But I was one to keep going in the tears and think I won the race for being the fastest typist that day so I must not have been on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I am lucky that I was able to get excellent grades all the while that I was depressed in high school and in College. There were a few blessed years that I felt quite lucid and happy and stable even while in a terrible home environment. My depression in high school was not so much sadness but a fear of what my future would be. I thought I was too stupid to ever amount to anything in this world. I did not think I could hold a job as I was too spacey. I thought I would do poorly in College though by that time I was taking a lot of College Prep courses in high school and receiving A’s. I knew how hard I had to study and was aware of College’s faster pace. I ended up doing excellent in College. As far as employement, I had not reckoned on such a thing as inbound telemarketing. It is a good job for someone spacey like me. If I file or do data entry, my mind goes blank. I have to talk to people. Also, my spelling and English are not the best so I would not make a good secretary. Ocd probably keeps me from seeking a job that I may find more satisfying. I had a great-aunt who spent years in a mental institutions so I feel blessed. I guess that I should not expect more. And I often am so content. But the though of despair being on my path again is a scary one. And the thought of mine becoming as “simple” as I was when I was raw with ocd or manic as it was letting up a little and I saw the prospects of having a life. Or the other times when I act simple when I am actually very analytical haunt me. I guess there are worse things in life than appearing as someone with no sophistication who is an eager people pleaser. But it sickens me. But I would pick to be “simple” over despair any day. And perhaps I judge myself to harshly when I know that I was in a mode at the time but was often quick to realize my behavior. One thing about this illness is that it may require more humility than I willing to surrender. When they call roll for the mentally ill, I am not quick to stand in line. And I do not actively seek friends who are mentally ill though I have had a few great ones. But I choose them because they are interesting and I enjoy them not because I want to share the “oneness” of being mentally ill. I think of people being kind to me and treating me more normal than I am considering my bizarre thoughts. And part of me says that I will not bow down and have them feel they are great for throwing a few crumbs at the mentally ill girl. I know that I am smart and I can analyze them who think they are being so charitable to me. And I worry this line of thinking may be the ruin of me. Oh how humbling mental illness has been. Oh what it has taught me about myself. And yet, I refuse to be as humble as required. But I do like some pity now and again too. But I really try to seek identities for myself outside of the mentally ill label. And part of me likes the label too as there is much of my identity that lies there. Reading your words,Eve, has made me grateful that despair has not been a too frequent companion of mine most of my years.

  15. 15.

    Wow! That was long. Well, I seldom have a loss for words when my fingers can do the talking. Just a bit ago, I was outside and worried that I may have been contaminated for a couple of reasons that may have been legitimate. I took the hose and tried to get wet from the head to the bottom of my shoes. I think that people across the street who were visiting started laughing at me. One of the people came to look out the screen door and was really laughing. I went to the back side yard out of view and after a time when I went to the front again, they were still there looking out the screen door. Maybe I am paranoid. I know I do get a little paranoid at times. However, it makes me very grateful for those who have treated me like everybody else. And it is the kindness and charity of others that has allowed me to cope and go on. I still have an occassional time when I feel some despair and have meltdowns. Especially at those raw moments do I have to humble myself and be ever grateful for every drop of sense that people have tried to relay to me to help me let go of some of the madness.

  16. 16.

    Thank you Eve. Such a rich tapestry of prose and feeling. This summer I was able to attend a friend’s class on the play, and she drew a sharp distinction between melodrama and tragedy. In melodrama, each character is clearly delineated … hero, villain, victim. We laugh at the primitive portrayals of the moustache twirling villain and the girl tied up on the traintracks. However, as my friend pointed out, in melodrama, each character has a rigid part to play, and everything works out in the end. The girl is saved, the villain is caught, and the hero gets rewarded.

    Tragedy, which seems to more closely mirror real life, is much more complex. Bad things happen to good people, and are not always the result of one’s own actions. Good things happen to bad people. Even actions powered by charitable motivation can have devastating effects.

    And so, even as I long for answers and results that make sense, I’ve come to reconcile that most answers don’t make sense in this earthly context, and certain blessings do not go to the most righteous or deserving. Sometimes we’re just asked to do the best we can.

  17. 17.

    I know it has been years since this was posted, but I just found it. I wanted to say thank you. I have shown this to family members because it explains so well my dispair. Thank you for writting this.

  18. 18.

    Thanks, Mandy. I’m glad you found it helpful.

  19. 19.

    Your writing is lovely.

    I have always hated the story of Job. Never related to it at all. I guess if I relate to anybody, it’s Laman and Lemuel who never quite “got it” and screwed up again and again.

    I know from despair. I wake up every morning and try to gather myself to face the day. It feels like my life ended a long time ago, but I have to just put in my time on earth. So I’m here. Period.

    I often think about what you said about the happy ending, or the cure or the conquering. I keep thinking I should find SOMETHING and feel a failure because I can’t pull myself out of this. Medication helps temporarily. Mostly, I fake it through the day. Not too shabby, that :)

  20. 20.

    […] this week’s edition of Tuesday’s Twice-Baked ZD, we revisit Eve’s 2006 post where she confronts […]

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