Today was a gorgeous day in Nebraska. Sunny, a bit windy, dry. And a day “off” from school. UNL is on fall break (which means I worked on a new grant application, for the Wakara’s World project).
But today, perhaps because I had the “room” mentally to do so–I wasn’t fretting about book promotion, or the weather (each heatwave I take as the sign of the climate apocalypse), and my “Trump sabbath” continued from Sunday into Monday–I found myself thinking about William James and “sick souls.”
James wasn’t directly concerned with depression when he produced his famous lecture. Instead, he was grappling with those religious “souls” who tend to contemplate/feel/experience questions of theodicy more profoundly than the “healthy-minded.” Or as he put it so concisely, those souls–“we”–who feel, at a metaphysical level, that
on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.
Unlike the monists (and the Buddhists coming from a different direction) James’s pragmatism meant that, to him theodicy need not–or even is not–all encompassing in the human experience. To live is not (just) to confront evil; not (just) to experience suffering, at least not all the time.
For our “healthy-minded” friends, colleagues, and spouses observing the lives of those (of us) sick-souled, there is an understandable confusion about the source of sadness. This, especially in contrast with the actual bad things happening to good people these days–fellow Americans targeted for hate crimes and police brutality; stripped of their healthcare; their reproductive rights; their access to the ballet; not to mention the suffering of would-be fellow Americans denied asylum in our country that used to be a beacon of hope for the war-ravaged, the poor, the abused.
There is a sense, especially in the Trump era that we, the privileged, don’t have a right to our depression. I ascribe to that notion most of the time. And yet, I take comfort–and I give myself a break–by following the model of one of the people I’ve come to admire most, Ana Marie Cox. I admire Cox so much because she has chosen to lean into the messy, hard questions of our time. And she does so from a place of empathy especially for those people with whom she most fiercely disagrees. (She puts this ethic of empathy into praxis on her podcast, With Friends Like These, which I cannot recommend more highly).
This empathy is, in large part, a product of Cox’s Christianity, a mandate that she takes from Christ to “to love my neighbor as I love myself.” Yet, as Cox has recently disclosed, the loving my neighbor part has often come more easily for her than loving herself (She detailed her decades-long battle with depression in a cross-promoted episode of With Friends Like These with the hilarious and fellow sick-souler John Moe‘s amazing program, The Hilarious World of Depression).
But as I understand her, Cox’s empathy is also, in large part, a function of her depression, or more precisely, how she’s chosen to turn a disease that can be so self-consuming outward. Through her own pain she can better feel the pain of others.
In this time when our politicians work to divide us against each other, I take great comfort in the gospel truth of God’s love for all of humanity together and as individuals. “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34).
But through Cox and others’ examples, I also take comfort in the hard won realization that “depression is also no respecter of persons.” And, with proper care of personal self (meditation, prayer, counseling, etc.)–learning to “love our selves”–the internal evil that is depression can be used to confront the external evil in our world, to comfort suffering of others, and to love our neighbors.