It is darkness. Darkness so all-consuming that it seems tangible. It can be like another presence; but one that is inside of you instead of in the room with you. It can come as a surprise or haunt like an ever-present ghost. This sensation can paralyze, demoralize, cause a person to withdraw, to lose hope. Most importantly, despite helpful research and treatment, it is specific to each individual person because each person’s mind is remarkably unique. When there is news that causes people to focus on issues of depression and suicide there is an unfortunate tendency for commentators to issue broad brush pronouncements about the causes of these tragedies. Sometimes, when the author claims to be religious, these unhelpful soapboxers will tell us that all the sufferer needs is to choose faith in God. For some, that may be an answer. The tragic mistake, however, is insisting that this is the only answer, when in reality the answers will depend on the person. The journey of life with its pitfalls is difficult to fathom, and the fact that it is different for each person reminds me of the opening lines of the song “Down With the Ship” by Enter the Haggis:
Like ships in a squall we rise and we fall
We’re plotting our course through the waves
Some masts are tall with sails so strong
Others are tossed in the gale
Each of us is plotting our own course in life and each person is made of different capabilities. The demand that people should just choose to get help or to get over their problems is outrageous in a two-fold way. First, it is uncharitable. We fail to recognize that the person is suffering and is burdened with an oppression that others who have not experienced it simply can not comprehend. They are walking wounded in need of care, not a lecture. Second, it offends Creation when we expect that there are one-size-fits-all answers to matters that are intensely personal. We are each created remarkably unique, especially as it concerns our minds. We would not have the amazing revelations of science or phenomenal artistry if there were not this extraordinary variation in thought. How fantastic! Yet, and I find this odd, those who believe in a Creator, an Author of Life who has wonderfully made all things unique, can sometimes be the least willing to acknowledge an individualized approach to life, to include responses to depression.
It comes as a surprise to the rational thinker who has not suffered a deep depression that, often, external factors such as wealth or various forms of success (so called) may not make a difference to the person suffering. This is because rationality is overwhelmed. Life seems so unbearable that it can make the sufferer believe they are on the edge of abyss – even if it is really not there. Instead, it becomes a chasm of one’s own making. The person suffering sometimes can’t turn away from it, can’t step back, especially if they believe they are in a prison with no way out. The mind creates a sensation so real that it seems impossible to believe that reality is not so dark. The storm of life may be a result of actual events, or it can be magnified or all of one’s own making from within. But it is alone, within the self, where the darkness is most deep, or the gale tosses you, or the heartache so painful. What is worse is that the longer the person suffers, the more attached they can become to that feeling of despair. It becomes something that they can hold on to – because at least it is something. The very frightening reality for some is that despair can become so seductive that they can become addictive. And, like an addict, they are in danger of a downward spiral that will become all-consuming as they clutch ever more tightly to that feeling. Why do that? Why hold on to such despair? Because it is better than an emptiness so profound and so vast that its silence is tangible.
This is why trite commentary on the souls of others can be so offensive. This is why lectures to a sufferer could be harmful. The arrogance, ignorance, immaturity, and insensitivity of some commentators are remarkable considering the beliefs they purport to hold. Individualized treatment and other professional help are needed in serious situations. Just as importantly, what people who suffer from depression may benefit most by is knowing that they intrinsicly matter as a unique creation, regardless of other circumstances. They may simply need someone to walk beside them – even if in silence. It is important to know that there is a lifeline, that there is a companion, a helping hand, or a shoulder to lean on. It is sometimes necessary to bear one another’s burdens in an intangible way, to practice exchange with someone who suffers, to co-inhere in their darkness, to let them know that their moment of despair does not define them. There is a choice though that each of us can make, and that is for those who recognize the suffering in others and to reach out to them, be available, be present, and if necessary, get help.
I’m not gonna stand on the end of the pier
I’m not gonna let you go down with the ship
Raise up your anchor, it’s time to set sail
And I’m not gonna let you go … down.
That is the chorus to “Down With the Ship”. It is a very human message. It is one of compassion, and mercy, and it is love. The reality is that not everyone will make it through the storm. But this, this is our response to those who suffer, to those without hope, to those living in the darkened prison of themselves. It is that we will do what we can to help them through, to walk with them to a place where they can see that life is worth living, to let them know that you are here. This is the embodiment of the great commandment.
In his last interview, Kurt Vonnegut said: “I asked my son Mark what he thought life was all about, and he said, ‘We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.’ I think that says it best.”
I think it does, too.