Being & Building Followers & Friends of Jesus
“If clearness about things produces a fundamental despair, a fundamental despair in turn produces a remarkable clearness or even playfulness about ordinary matters.” (George Santayana, The Background of My Life, 1944)
People across America were saddened last week to learn that comedian and actor Robin Williams had died, apparently by suicide. It was also reported that he had suffered from severe depression. He was well known for rapid-fire improvisations and serious dramatic roles. He was also known for his charitable work, kindness, generosity, and entertaining U.S. troops overseas. President Obama called Williams “one of a kind.” Then the president said “he touched every element of the human spirit; he made us laugh, and he made us cry.”
Williams had problems with drugs and alcohol, but had sought treatment. He’d also had heart surgery in 2009, something that caused him to take a serious look at his personal life. Acknowledgment of his severe depression came as no surprise to many. Ordinary people can identify with his despair; people who “have it made” also can, realizing it is possible to have everything and still feel like dying.
Though some people talk about depression as a character flaw or sin, followers of Christ are not exempt. And despite simplistic statements that people just need to “pull themselves out of it”, recovery is far more complicated. If we want to reach out to people suffering from recurring depression, we must realize they need more than a push to “get moving”. It we want to help, we must realize the truth of what Plato said—“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
To be honest, some sadness and depression are normal in every human life. Moses was in such despair he asked God to take his life (Numbers 11:14-15). Elijah was so deeply depressed he prayed to die (1 Kings 19:4). Psalm 42 is a meditation by a person suffering from depression.
Difficult circumstances may darken our mood. At other times, we may feel down for no apparent reason. This is part of the pain of being human. But there’s also clinical or chronic depression—a pervasive, persistent despair having nothing to do with our circumstances. This is the dark night of the soul that F. Scott Fitzgerald said made it “always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” Most people with chronic depression can find help from prescribed medications and counseling.
The person who wrote Psalm 42 was obviously suffering from depression—perhaps situational, certainly painful. But the psalmist did not give up, believing that God and not depression would have the last word. “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
Plato was right—everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle. Every human being has pain, whether the cause is visible or not. So we should have a heart and empathize with others.
No matter what we go through, we cannot control what happens to us but we can control how we respond to our experiences. Victor Frankl learned this lesson in a WWII concentration camp: “the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” We can choose to respond with humble gratitude for the many blessings from God we have received; with patient trust in God’s faithfulness even when we cannot see the ultimate destination of our difficult journey; with courage to face each day’s challenge as it comes, depending on the power of Christ within our hearts.
Williams was once asked, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” In response, the comedian told a joke about a concert including Mozart and Elvis, then said he’d like to know that there’s laughter. There is laughter in heaven (Luke 15:7; Revelation 12:10-12). There is also joy in the here and now, as we draw near God (Psalm 16:11).
“The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. Therefore I will hope in him!” (Lamentations 3:22-24 NLT)
Johnny R. Almond
Christian preacher and writer
Author, Gentle Whispers from Eternity