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.
- 7 August 2006