Success, Depression & Empathy

chicken of depression

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I just finished reading a biography of the late Iris Chang, who wrote the book The Rape of Nanking and A History of the Chinese in America. She was a brilliant, caring, and passionate women who had a major depressive crash and ended up committing suicide. She wrote her mother about her feelings when Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts died, the night before the final Sunday comic came out. She wrote her mom:

Dear Mom,

I think it was Charles Schulz’s pessimism – as well as his ability to understand human failure, insecurity, heartbreak – that made millions love Peanuts.

You’re absolutely right, Schulz had no reason whatsoever to be depressed, after achieving wealth and fame at such an early age. But depression is not rational. Perhaps he did have a mental problem, or some chemically induced condition. But whatever it was, it prevented him from losing touch with the underdogs of the world.

It’s strange, but I still feel a void in my heart after Schulz’s death – even though I never knew him and didn’t particularly like him after meeting him in person, It made me wonder, what is the secret to Schulz’s magical appeal?

The answer, I believe, is simple. Schulz understands the heart of a loser. He captures those moments in life when we fell utterly unloved, unwanted, and alone. And all of us – no matter how successful- have felt like losers at some point in life.

Love, Iris

(From The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and After The Rape of Nanking, a memoir by Ying-Ying Chang, Pegasus Books, New York, 2013)

The book intrigued me and I was drawn to Iris’s story, and was so impressed with her as a person, and having suffered major depression myself, felt a certain kinship with her as I read the book, especially the chapters dealing with her success, and her collapse.

Those of you who have followed me for a while know that I have struggled a lot with major depression, anxiety, and even have occasionally been suicidal since returning from Iraq in 2008 with one hell of a case of PTSD. Thankfully over the past couple of months I have been doing pretty well. While I still suffer chronic insomnia, really weird dreams, nightmares, and night terrors, as well as anxiety in crowed places and flashbacks; but I have not been chronically depressed. I have had a few down days, but nothing like the past number of years. So all in all I think that is a good thing, I am starting to get back in better physical shape, eating better, and losing weight, so all in all I count that in the win column.

That being said, since Iraq I have developed a tremendous amount of empathy for those that suffer from depression, because it is not a rational disease. It affects millions of people in our country, and I am not referring to people who once in a while get the blues or feel a bit down, but people who live their lives in a state of clinical depression. I have known a lot of people who suffer from depression. Most are tremendously talented, witty, charming, intelligent, and caring. I have known very successful people who suffer from such depression that they cannot appreciate their own achievements and feel like failures. I have known some who have committed suicide because they saw no hope for themselves and believed that the world would be better off without them. I have friends who walk this path today, people who are battling to stay alive.

Likewise, many of my heroes, my role models, have suffered from depression, even lifelong depression. These include Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln, and T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Sadly, most people, especially religious people have little long term tolerance for depressed people. If the depressed person does not get better, they abandon them, sometimes in very cruel ways.

In a Peanuts strip Charlie Brown goes to Lucy and says, “I have deep feelings of depression… What can I do about this?” Lucy does what is so common in our culture and says “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.” The fact is that if you are chronically depressed or suffer from clinical depression, you don’t simply snap out of it and I think that depression and mental pain is harder to bear than physical pain. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book The Problem of Pain:

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”

The reality is that depression is not rational, nor is it logical, and thus it defies the attempts of well-meaning people to help those who suffer from it. You can tell a depressed person to get involved in activities, to stay busy, work harder, to read their Bible or pray more, but most of the time this only makes things worse. The depressed person tries them and does not get better which makes the depression and feeling of failure even worse. I know this because I lived it, I did all those things. I worked harder, prayed more, and the rest of that, and I only got worse. Then I began to lose hope. It was terribly frightening and very few people understood, and even fewer stood by me. Those who did were mainly my drinking buddies and friends from the Norfolk Tides and Kinston Indians ballparks, not clergy, or chaplains. 

This makes it terribly frustrating for all concerned. The depressed person ends up feeling alone, lost, isolated, and rejected when the friends, family, and caregivers give up.

I think to me the hardest thing is that for those of us who serve in caring professions, the clergy, mental health care, medicine, and nursing; is that when we struggle there is often no-one to go to. When I was absolutely falling apart after Iraq, my new commanding officer asked me “where does a chaplain go to get help?” and I said “I don’t know, but not to other chaplains.” I know that I said that in the abyss of total despair, and that there are a couple of chaplains that I can go to and pour out my heart without fear of rejection, but they are the minority. The fact is that many caregivers, especially clergy, have no empathy for those most like them. I know this because I have known and seen so many clergy, across the denominational and theological spectrum who have been broken by the cares of life, and been abandoned by their churches and their peers.

But like, Iris Chang, I do think that some, people like Charles Schulz, the depression they live enables them not to lose touch with those who suffer, that in a sense that their suffering engenders a great empathy for others that many lack. I have been told by some that I have that kind of empathy and if I do it is not because I am such a great person, but rather because I have suffered and still suffer from the pain, and despite my own accomplishments, and achievements, that I still occasionally feel like a loser or failure. But as far as my condition goes, I am oddly comforted by the words of Raymond “Red Reddington (James Spader) in The Blacklist:

“There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And everyday when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

I know my ongoing battle will continue, but I have determined to try to be there for others that struggle with pain that does not want to go away, and nightmares that never seem to end. As the late Henri Nouwen wrote: “Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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2 Comments

Filed under faith, History, mental health, ministry

2 responses to “Success, Depression & Empathy

  1. Thank you for your post today. I wanted to leave you with this music. I play this and it helps me know that I am not alone. https://youtu.be/jJUXWI_GtIY Lisa

  2. Marty

    I live with clinical depression. Nothing as severe as what you’ve been through, but bad enough to sometimes affect daily activities. One thing that gets my goat is people saying “happiness is a choice” and telling me I only have to decide to feel better and I will. If only!

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