When I think about Disneyland I almost always think about bromine. It’s a chemical element that sits somewhere between iodine and chlorine, and it’s what the park uses to clean the water on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It has a distinct smell, and unlike chlorine, it’s inoffensive. When I think about Disneyland I always imagine that smell. It’s tied to a number of good memories.
Similarly, I can still remember the taste of Tex-Mex cuisine served at a place called Panchos. They used to have a number of locations in the Phoenix area and throughout the Southern United States, but most are closed now. My family would go there often when I was growing up. The food was served cafeteria-style, and I would order the same thing every time. Chile relleno, rice, cheese enchilada and flautas, absolutely smothered in nacho cheese sauce. It sounds unhealthy. It was unhealthy. And I crave that familiar taste so much that I’ve considered flying to one of their only remaining locations, somewhere in Louisiana, just to eat it again.
There’s nothing to it. I can summon the smell of bromine, and the taste of Ponchos, with all the ease of pulling a book off a bookshelf. Easily accessible. Ever at the ready. Always just a memory away.
Now compare that to depression. There are times when the lows are so incredibly low that it becomes impossible to remember what it was like to feel okay.
I can always visualize a happy event, a time when an unexpected joke had me rolling with uncontrollable laughter, or the day that I got married, or any one of the times that my wife delivered a beautiful and healthy baby boy into the world (Exception being Simeon. That kid was born weird-faced, but has since improved)
But even though I can recall the vision and details of those happy events, I can’t even begin to recall what they felt like. It’s a numbness that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. And sadly, many, many people have experienced it. That intense state of painful nothingness will often last days, weeks or even months.
In the community of Christians, an idea that’s often railed against while simultaneously being implicitly implied, is that faith will always be accompanied by particular feelings.
The number of times that a Christian has counseled me to feel better by believing something that I already believed, or by praying when I already prayed often, or by reading the bible I was already reading. It’s too many times to count. Each time reinforcing the same idea: Faith is a feeling, that feeling is happy (or at least not depressed), and it’s not a suggestion, it’s a requisite.
They’re not entirely coming at it the wrong way. I’ve counseled others in a similar fashion. There is reason for rejoicing in the beautiful gospel of Jesus Christ. There is comfort that eases weary souls in the reality that someone loves the terribly imperfect you. That God knows you, pursues you, and redeems you.
But there are times when the impenetrable exterior of severe depression mutes even the most glorious of truths. Times where it just doesn’t break through. Where you feel something worse than sad. In those moments, words meant to help often don’t, and the result is guilt that you weren’t able to respond to the words of comfort the way that the one counseling you wanted you to.
So what does help? What about the doctrines of Christianity has carried me through some of the darkest nights of my soul?
It’s knowing my place in the story.
The bible is often mis-conceptualized solely as a collection of rules, songs, nuggets of wisdom and separate, distinct narratives. While it incorporates all of those things, it’s first and foremost the story of God, the overarching narrative of all history, past, present, future. It’s the story that all other stories find their place in. It’s the story that defines all reality.
That story is the creation of the universe and all that’s in it, the rebellion and fall of man, God’s plan for their redemption, redemption acheived through Jesus Christ, the ensuing work of the church to proclaim that gospel and usher in the Kingdom, and the ultimate redemption of the church and universe.
This idea of the bible as an overarching narrative was first introduced to me in the book, The Drama of Scripture (Bartholomew, Goheen). A book I’ve read at least five times, if not more. In it, the writers walk the reader through the word as the acts outlined above.
It’s in that particular exposition where I learned to zoom out from the present moment of depression and see where I was in relation to the epic drama that I find myself in. Understanding that where I reside is somewhere between redemption being accomplished on the cross and redemption being fully realized when God brings about the conclusion of the story. That gives me hope for a future, where depression has robbed me of anything that feels like hope.
To borrow a description of depression from Stephen Fry, “There comes a time when the blankness of future is so extreme, it is such a black wall of nothingness, not even of bad things…it’s just nothingness.”
In that nothingness I cannot remember what it felt like when the future held somethingness. The memory of that emotion is so quelled, so terribly silent, that it’s almost painful to attempt to retrieve it.
But where feeling falls short, where I cannot emotionally muster a sense of future hope, I can intellectually be reminded in scripture that there is an ultimate end to this suffering. That the work of the cross that lies in the past is actively working to secure a hope in the future.
Peter describes it this way, “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” In this, he says, you rejoice.
Because in this, I find the foundation that I need to endure the nothingness that accompanies depression. The somethingness of a good ending. The coming redemption promised to a broken people who are enduring the aftermath of a terrible fall, looking back to the man on a cross, and forward to the day when the fullness of what he purchased on that cross brings us finally, ultimately, back into the presence of God.