Every Vote Counts

Every vote counts. Decisions are made by those who show up. Refusing to vote is not a protest, it’s a surrender. Don’t boo, vote.

When our circle of reality is threatened, common sense aphorisms will be invoked in its defense. Pay attention to these today, of all days. An election is always threatening to the circle of reality because it's a liminal moment, a transition from one narrative arc to another. What we know to be true is called into question behind the veil of the voting booth, so we work extra hard to reaffirm our basic assumptions about the way the world works.

However, an election is also the highest liturgical moment in the circle of reality. Reality requires a “should-be” condition in relation to the present “is.” Sound like anything going on right now? Reality, as we experience it, is part of a meaning-making story told by those who depend on it for power. Those who cannot tell this story are the most vulnerable in our society. They also tend to be our scapegoats. That is, the vulnerable among us, who cannot tell our story, are blamed for impeding the “should-be” from being actualized in the present.

Questioning the value of our political apparatus is met variously with criticism of patriotism or privilege depending on their source on the right or the left. Each "side" strives to meet every threat and re-establish the circle of meaning that maintains reality. This is especially ironic with an eye on the left, because demanding the liturgy of reality be carried out according to plan ensures the vulnerable among us continue to function as a scapegoat—they are structurally necessary. Liberal social justice ultimately cannot address the condition of the vulnerable because social problems are necessary to the continued existence of our circle of reality.

I end up taking an existential view. Can society be a bit more humane for my friends living on the street? Can we show a little more mercy to those who need it? Are the policies we enact in this circle of reality hospitable to everyone? And that's how I vote. But I'm not confused about the limits of human imagination.

Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

Comforted By Doubt

“It’s okay to doubt. That’s how you learn.”

I wish I could remember exactly what age I was when I questioned the existence of God. Not too old, not too young is about as close as I can get. But that was my mother’s response. “It’s okay to doubt. That’s how you learn.”

I can’t remember how I responded, or what specifically prompted my anxiety in the first place, but I do remember the comfort I felt, sitting on the bed beside my momma and hearing her give that answer. It wasn’t the answer a mother and woman of Christian faith had to give more than twenty years ago in rural Alabama. Flannery O’Connor liked to use the phrase “Christ-haunted South," which is a brilliant way of getting at how fear dominates the Southern religious imagination. My mother could have fed me some bad theology along those lines. I suppose that’s why I came to her so upset in the first place; I felt the Jesus specter lurking among the trees, waiting for my inevitable failure.

Doubt is a palpable idea for us Southerners, but it’s rarely positive. Many of us, especially rural white folk, are asked to set doubt aside to make way for rose-colored memories of our antebellum history. Doubting the moral supremacy of our secessionist ancestors didn’t always make you a lot of friends. It’s easier now than when I was growing up. Events like the Charleston shooting have led to an overthrow of the hesitancy in some ways, though not in others. Lots of people I know are still clinging to their hateful symbols, though they’re probably a bit quieter about it now. They can’t let doubt creep in, lest it shake their identity to its core.

Religion around here gets a similar shake, which is why I’m still surprised and grateful for my mother’s response to her doubtful child. She affirmed that my doubt was as natural as the red clay stains on my shoes, that the Christ who followed me through the woods, creeping and insidious as kudzu, was only able to haunt me if I didn’t turn around and ask him where he was going and why. I could look at him and doubt him. That’s how I’d learn.

These days, I see my faith as orbiting her own, tethered to her in a way I can’t really explain. It’s my own, but it’s still remarkably unsettled. My mother anchors and calms it with her own blessed assurances. It started when she gave me permission to question. She set me on a course to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, something I need daily to love and deal with many aspects of myself and where I live. She set me up to be both broken and reconciled. I have no doubt that’s a good thing.

Logan's Failure of Imagination

I have been trying to figure out more to say about Mike who was restrained by Denver Sheriffs and sent to the hospital where he would later die.

What I’ve written so far feels entirely too small. But the situation makes me feel small. The enormity of the mechanism that generates these incidents of injustice is impossible for me to comprehend. My imagination isn't good enough. I'm reduced to doing small things and writing small thoughts.

Words about sin, justice, homelessness, race, responsibility, and reconciliation feel like empty placeholders or feeble attempts at meaning-making. When language fails, what are we left with but to lie down and die or get up and keep going? For too many people, language has utterly failed. All but a very few get up and keep going.

Network Coffeehouse can be hard sometimes, but Mike always made me feel like I was doing good work, and doing it well, and that I could keep going.

The Anger and Outrage

We’ve devoted space here on The Beard to the subject of outrage, to the increasing acceptance of wasted or misplaced emotion boiling over and making no tangible difference whatsoever. But since it’s still a major part of our modern social reality, and it seems like it’ll continue to be, there’s still something to be said when this outrage modifies, or even directs, the major events we witness.

I do my own share, of course. I like to believe it’s all righteous anger. In some cases, it is. I’m angry that Kim Davis is some twisted Christian anti-hero. I’m angry that I still get comments on my recent gun article that are tragically misinformed and, in some cases, so unintelligent that it’s legitimately scary. I’m angry that “all lives matter” is a thing. Still.

These, I like to believe, are examples of righteous anger, upset born from witnessing injustice toward and hatred for beings of worth. But I’m also guilty of indulging my own form of worthless outrage, outrage done for its own sake. I get riled up by what certain politicians say, even when I know they’re saying it to get a rise. Or maybe they actually believe the stupid thing they’re saying; either way, it’s predictable, boring even at this point, and it’s not something I should spend energy hating.[^1]

But this isn’t the real problem. I can parse out these moments of faux upset and make myself think carefully about why I’m mad when Mike Huckabee is a moron. He’s a moron; why be mad when he acts like it? The real issue is when my legitimate anger bleeds beyond the boundaries of righteousness and becomes a caricature of itself. Anger, in that situation, is the singular tool that I let take over and run the entire machine.

You can make progress that way, but it’s unsustainable. Emotionally, it’s draining. Intellectually, it’s unstable. Spiritually, it’s dangerous. Anger has to transition at some point. And really, it can’t be the initial driver anyway. Righteous anger has to arise from love first; it’s not righteous otherwise. Love for what matters is the origin for our rage when what matters is threatened. If we do not love, our reaction will be indifference. Really, that’s what makes faux outrage so terrible; it’s indifference masked as emotion, aimed at something to elicit personal gain. All this is to say that starting from a place of love is threatened by not returning to love.

What does that mean practically? It means that even the most righteous of causes can be corrupted by our outrage over harm to those causes, over ill-will others have for them. Instead, we must harness our outrage and employ it as a catalyst to spark the engine that sets us moving. If we do not, that spark can become a fire beyond our control. The righteousness of anger can only be marked by its fruits, by how we put it aside in favor of working for the betterment of who or what we felt anger for.

So I get to be angry that Kim Davis thinks that her brand of faith trumps the inclusive nature of God. I get to be angry that a bunch of people agree with her. That anger can spur me to think and act in ways that address the issue. But if I don’t let that anger recede back into the love for the humanity of others from which it comes, then I can’t live or act in ways that express that love. And if I’m not doing that, I’m no better than the crowd, waving cardboard crosses and rallying around their collective, beloved fear.

[^1]: I mean, I’m gonna do it though.

Tightrope

There are moments when life is a tightrope walk. I have terrible balance.

Keeping to the rope reflects business as usual, in which I adjust to my new normal. I wake up in my new place, sleepily ride the wave of traffic to the office, conduct myself in a somewhat professional manner for eight hours, return home to a dog entirely too excited to see me (which is nice, but does he not know that I have yet to achieve greatness?), and spend my evenings doing any number of regular things. This is the rope.

I’m increasingly aware that in my current situation I am one step away, one slip to the side toward the empty space below, from packing a bag, shoveling all 85 pounds of dog into the car, and heading somewhere with no guarantee of return. That’s an intimidating thought. Every possibility is open, which makes it feel like none of them are. How do you choose? What are the choices?

This is where a certain type of theologically-minded person might step in and talk about the benefits of faith, of trusting God and God’s endlessly nuanced blueprint for my life. However, I am of a different theological mind. To me, this is also a situation full of the divine, but in no certain way. I’ve got a Tillichian-infused habit of seeing God as Being Itself, wildly mysterious, unpredictable, and—most importantly in my mind—not centered in or on me.

These aren’t bad things. But it means that divine mystery is both beautiful and dangerous. You can’t tame it. And if you can’t tame it, you probably can’t ask it to take your hand and walk you through certain portions of your life as a child crossing the street might do. It makes for a load of uncertainty, especially when you’re wishing the divine would be some kind of safety net.

As scary as the independence offered by divine mystery might be, it’s important to remember that you can’t be alone in the midst of Being. All things emerge from and grow within Being. It’s everything, including nothing. It’s beauty and pain and the new and the unknown. So I’m not alone as long as I keep my balance. I’m not alone when I lose it. I’m in danger during all of it.

The tension of the walked rope is as much about faith as any leap. In a relationship with Being, all things are of Being. The sorrow, the joy, the unease, the fear, the elation of a rope walked or fallen from. There's comfort for me in that. Even when I'm heading for real pain, I am known in that pain. I'm sat with in it.

This is the wideness and wildness of possibility; all is exposed, freeing, terrifying. In this sense of faith, I can walk carefully or fall to terrible consequences. I can do both simultaneously. I can take one step at a time, run with abandon, or be the rider of days.

Not MY Pew Survey

In my day-to-day life, I have to pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in religion news. In the past couple weeks, the major talk has been “the rise of the nones,” a talking point drawn out of the recent Pew Research Survey detailing shifts in American religious affiliation.

The rising number of people choosing “nothing in particular," a subset of the "unaffiliated" label, has raised hackles across the theo-political spectrum, from evangelicals decrying the de-Christianizing of this great Christian nation to more mainline Protestant handwringing over the decrease in possible butts in pews that, if they'd only stay, might somehow stop their particular denomination’s death (note: nothing will stop this).

The problem with this range of views (as far as I’ve read) is that, while certainly broad, it’s pretty shallow. There’s nuance to the “nones.” I can say this with confidence as someone who has drifted across the borders of that category once or twice or every other day. While there are certainly those in the group who don’t care about religion, Americanly expressed or otherwise, such a category also holds those with complicated feelings of their lives as uniquely religious, of all things as uniquely religious, and who have done the work to interpret those feelings.

The “spiritual but not religious” crowd tends to be cited here, though it’s often cited with an air of disdain or ignorance. Sure, there’s plenty of b.s. that can go along with this, but there’s also some legitimate expressions from thoughtful people who are keenly aware of divinity as a deeply woven into life but have no interest in an organized structure focused on it. I can’t say I’m in agreement with those folks, but they can make good points. And they might be “nones.”

On the not-quite-flip-side, you’ve got the “religious but not spiritual,” a growing group who are keenly aware of the importance of religious community, of liturgical expression, of the collective search for mystery. Yet they do not experience the spiritual elements of the faith community as personally transformative, at least not in the traditional ways that other adherents within the community might. I’ve rested in this group for long stretches of my life. Maybe I’m there today. I’ll let you know.

Then there are true “nones,” people who have no sense of their being as spiritual and who have no interest in the communities who do. But even in this group there is nuance. Plenty of folks I know fall here, yet even they have complicated relationships with religion, whether as something which drives their academic lives, something that used to drive their personal lives, something that influences how they still seek to live in their secular community, etc.

My point being, this rise of the nones probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. Or rather, it doesn’t mean only what you think it means. Don’t forget the nuance. And for heaven’s sake, if you’re part of a faith community that’s already trying to figure out how to reclaim these nones from the death grip of secularism, take the nuance into account before you launch Operation ReJesus. The nones will be grateful.

Morning

I’ve always been an anxious person. As a child, fretting over something in the middle of the night (probably because I hadn’t done an assignment for school the next day; I was indeed that lame), my mom would hold my shoulders and say, “Can you do anything about it right now? No. Wait until morning. Things will be better in the morning.”

That mantra has stuck with me. I still repeat it to myself in the wee hours when all seems so fragile and lost. I’m dealing with more than forgotten homework these days, but the mantra holds. I breathe it in, let it consume all the angry, buzzing anxiety in my lungs and then breathe the whole mess out like some oil and water mass.

Except, things aren’t always better in the morning. That’s the everyday theodicy, the mundane “shit happens” of life. We’re all familiar with it, and we’re all tempted to see it as conquerable. Sometimes, though, it just isn’t. The morning light appears, ready to comfort, only to find you still cradling the tiny, momentous pain you rocked all through the night.

This isn’t just an issue of theodicy, of hoping that God or the universe will suddenly realize that bad things happening to good people is actually as awful as everyone’s been complaining it is for all of human history and thusly banish such a concept from reality. This is the paradox of faith, which is one even someone with no faith understands. Beauty and suffering never separate. The terrible is always knotted so firmly to the lovely that wondering how or if one will come apart from the other is a waste of time.

For Christians, this is the paradox of the cross Logan was talking about last week. But this goes beyond the cross (even the cross goes beyond the cross; huzzah for paradox!); this is the rich, fertile soil upon which all life is built. We grow in it, learn to live and love in it, face heartache and death in it. It’s all-encompassing. Which is why, for me, the most complete healing comes when I root myself in nature, the space where I get most of my metaphor.

Last week, I felt panicked, jittery, and unable to connect. So I retreated to the hiking trails. I walked under trees that rose from both sides of the path until they arced and bowed, forming a patchwork cathedral ceiling. Above it, the sky that was the kind of blue only a crayon can be. By the time I finished walking, all the panic had seeped out and I hadn't even noticed.

It’s not always better in the morning. It’s not always better any time. Like a good apophatic theology, our painful experiences tell us so much about what isn’t. But, also like a good apophatic theology, they clear a path for us, helping us to understand what is. Because sometimes it is better. Sometimes the air is cool, the music on the radio is right, and the sky is so wide that our hurt couldn’t possible contaminate it were we to just exhale our troubles into the big, vast nothing that is also a good, good something.

Faith, Doubt and the Life of David Carr

The piece below originally appeared at MinistryMatters.com on February 13th.


David Carr died yesterday, collapsing suddenly in the newsroom at the New York Times office. We (all of us, readers, thinkers, those passionate about journalism, media, culture, and almost every aspect of human public life) lost a great voice when we lost David.

He was witty, thoughtful, sincere and unabashedly honest. You can read myriad obituaries today telling you all this by people who knew him personally, who knew his work inside and out, better than me (though I was and will remain a huge fan). Maybe the best thing about Mr. Carr was his complexity; he was just so human in the best and messiest way.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey pulled this messiness together in her Washington Post article, chronicling Carr’s journey of faith and religious understanding across the years. Carr’s story is a remarkable one, one of darkness, struggle, redemption and beauty. A former drug and alcohol addict, Carr managed to raise two daughters while on welfare before eventually rising to be one of the New York Times’ most celebrated columnists.

Bailey notes that in his 2008 memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” Carr wrote of his addiction and recovery, saying, “It was hard to avoid a spiritual dimension in my own recovery … The unconditional love of the Church could possibly mean the difference between somebody living or dying.” Carr’s Christian upbringing informed his movement through life, giving a deeply religious flavor to his questioning and searching.

Carr struggled with the role of religion in his life, but he was assured of the Church’s possibility for all, the potential of faith communities to heal and help those in need, those desperate to recover. In a 2011 interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Carr said the following about his understanding of communities of faith:

“It's a wonderful group of people that I go to church with, and it's community. It's not really where I find God. And sort of what the accommodation I've reached is a very jerry-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in recovery, I've been helped — without getting into the names of specific groups — by all of these strangers, you know, who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life. And one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help.”

That idea of church as a community tailored for helping those in need is crucial to Carr’s identity as an addict in communal recovery. He wrote about that idea two years earlier in “The Night of the Gun” when he called on the Church to have a “willingness to minister” to those dealing with addiction. In that willingness, he said, “the Church becomes better.”

If you want to talk about stark Christian truth, there it is. Carr was right in his assertion that the Church can and must be the avenue of grace for people. By our action, by being the channel through which God’s presence flows, we can address all kinds of brokenness, addiction being just one form. When Christianity comes to truly represent that desire to address all brokenness, we do become better as one body. The Church flourishes as the broken flourish.

David Carr spoke many truths. Those who embrace their faithful doubt, who never cease their examination of the mysteries of God often do. In that same interview with Gross, Carr described a prayer he kept in his pocket. He then said, “I don’t really know who I’m talking about when I say those words, but it sort of feels good when I do.” God often dwells with us in our questioning, and I get the sense that Carr knew that as well as anyone.

His life, his faith, his doubt and his belief that the Christian community at large has a life-saving role in mission to those suffering with addiction were all beautiful things, even when they were unpolished and rough. Maybe especially then. I’ll miss it all, David. May you rest now in wondrous mystery, wrapped in the grace and peace of God.

Lights Please

I wrote this piece in response to a blogger named Matt Walsh (not the wonderful comedian) who wrote a piece on suicide, depression, and Robin Williams which just happened to be one of the most factually ignorant and spiritually misguided things I've ever had the misfortune to read. I'm not going to link to it. If you feel the need to read it, you can find it easily. The last thing I want for the Beard is clicks for him from here.

Walsh sees depression in decidedly non-medical terms, as a something which can be overcome by “joy,” presumably of divine origin, and which can lead to suicide, something that he defines in large part as a spiritual decision. There’s so much wrong with this harmful viewpoint that it’s hard to tackle, but the best way to counter is to tell the reality I know firsthand. This is a reality Walsh does not know. He writes on Facebook:

"A lot of you didn't even read [the Robin Williams piece]. Very disappointing. Also, don't tell me what I have or haven't dealt with. Don't do that. You have no idea. You have no idea what I've seen in my own family and in my own community. Don't sit there and tell me that just because you disagree. How dare you. Disgusting, truly."

While I can't say much about what you believe you've dealt with, I can very much say what you haven't dealt with: the depression you're talking about. I know this in the same way that only someone who was on Normandy beach at D-Day could tell you what it's like to be on Normandy beach on D-Day. People who've been in the shit know the shit, and I'm confident that you haven't been in the shit, at least not the kind you wrote about.

Feelings

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” – David Foster Wallace [^1]

I sang at his funeral. I played "Here Comes the Sun" because I knew it would have made him smile. I told a story before I played, a story he'd told me about driving down to the coast to see the sunrise before rushing back to make his shift at work. He was my friend. We'll call him R. I think about him often. I was thinking about him the day before I heard about Robin Williams, actually.

The difference between R and I is that he walked through the door, and I did not. Let me explain.

When I heard about Robin Williams, my heart sank. It sank because of the meaning he'd brought me through his talent and because I knew why he committed suicide. People who've been on the brink have the unique perspective of knowing both why one steps over and why one steps back. I've been there. It's not something I talk about much, because who the hell wants to talk about it? The best image I can conjure for depression is the incredible shot in Gravity when Sandra Bullock is first floating away from ship after the debris collision. It's that empty. You are that small, and everything is that dark and cold. It's not passionate, it's not writhing in agony or some other expression of extreme misery and pain. It's deadening. It's numb. Dick Cavett was interviewed on NPR about Williams, and what he said toward the end of the interview struck me with its simplicity and truth.

"Another thing I'm sure that people all over the place are saying—how could he do this to his children and his wife? Easy—they don't mean anything to you. You can't feel anything. It sounds awful to say, but it's one of the worst things about it."

This truth is the problem behind people viewing suicide as a selfish act. In the depths, those people whose love and life make them real and present to you, just as you would be present were your love and life not buried so deeply, do not exist. You can't be "selfish" if there is no one else. It does sound awful, doesn't it, Mr. Cavett? But it's what happens. So maybe the act is selfish, but only for the people standing at the top of the abyss looking in. If you're all alone down there, if you are floating off into the eternity of space, how can you possibly be selfish? You're all there is.

The book "Hyperbole and a Half" by Allie Brosh does one of the best jobs of putting the empty nature of depression into words and images. For me, it started young, 8th grade or so. Things just gradually got grayer as time passed. I didn't know something was truly wrong, or that this wasn't the normal state of things. I was growing up, and figured this was part of it. I mean, I later realized adulthood sucks but this was different. Eventually, I was there in the empty. Life had lost its color. I thought about suicide a lot, had a plan for it, felt cowardly every day I couldn't do it. Then I stopped feeling cowardly along with all the other non-feelings, and shuffled through my days with a casual wonder if I'd see tomorrow. It was a remarkably detached feeling.

I came through it with the help of friends and family, people whose love overpowered my non-love. It could have easily gone the other way, though, because it would be years until I sought professional help. Of course, even after getting help there were a couple of serious lapses in which I found myself once again facing the real thought that non-living had to be better than living because living had become more grayscale than I ever imagined it could be.

Choices

R suffered from severe mental illness. He was a joyful person, a person I laughed with more times than I can count. Joy wasn’t antithetical to his life. Why? Because joy is the opposite of sadness, of despair. And depression is not "sad." It's emptiness, the complete lack of all things that make life worth living, which is terrifying. What's just as awful is that in your messed-up brain, you know it's terrifying. Like David Foster Wallace notes, you aren't immune to the terror of the situation. It's just that the scales start tipping in a way you never thought they would; eventually you find yourself in a position so unnervingly removed that completely removing yourself seems sensible if not downright correct.

R was faced with two scenarios: the utter lack of feeling, of self, of relation which weighed upon him with no regard to his "choice" in the matter, or the zombie-like state his heavy medications put him in. Doesn't sound like much of a choice, does it? That's because it isn't. Not in the sense that we think of, when we think of two opposing options, like when Walsh holds up joy and depression. It's more like the choice Wallace describes in the quote above. You've got two terrors to choose between, and in the end there is no real choice between the two.

It’s hard to accept logically, that at the end there is no choice. It's one way forward, and it's clear as day. At the end, it's the fire or the window. You pick the window because, duh, who wouldn't? Mental illness is no more a choice than any other disease with the capacity to maim and kill the body. Nobody asks for it, and no choice made after having it can stand up to the scrutiny of the true meaning of the word "choice." At best, you've got limited options, but never choice with a big C.

That lack of choice in addition to the lack of all things is why I want to correct people who say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.[^2] No. Sometimes the problem doesn't leave, and, for those mired in the illness, there appears only one viable solution. Nothing temporary about it. I know what you’re thinking: “but you just said ‘appears’! That means there is one!” Yes, but it does no good that you on the outside can see it. Reality is fundamentally altered by depression. Time and space are stretched and twisted in depression, and knowing that does nothing to change the experience of it. It’s one of those things you just have to trust from someone who has been through it. Some people are just able and lucky enough to stick it out. Some people are lucky enough to get help, the right kind of help, before it's too late.

My depression isn't cured, and nothing will cure it. But it can be helped, and it can be held at bay. You won't find a bigger advocate for medication and therapy than me. I don't tell a depressed friend that meds are a cure, but I do laud them as a way to keep going. Like Gandalf's staff in the Mines of Moria, my meds are a light that holds orcs and goblins at bay. You can make your way out of the deep places with such a light, but the danger doesn't subside. It backs off. You find ways to fight it, even ways to win numerous battles over it. You put solid distance between those evil things and yourself, enough to feel well and safe.

Things will get truly better, not because you're cured, but because remission is still something to celebrate. This is all after getting help, mind you. And getting help is not about having enough strength, just as not getting help does not denote weakness. Some people are just lucky enough to get the help they need, are able to try enough treatments until something works, able in the right moment to ask for help or have someone strong enough to drag them to it before they end their life. This doesn't make them better than those who end up committing suicide, just as the soldier who steps on a land mine is no better than the soldier walking beside her. It's random, and that sucks. But there it is.

But you know what? Matt Walsh is right about one thing. For those with faith, for those who have known or wish to know God, there is a spiritual truth in the depth of depression. Unfortunately, it's the felt absence of God, the experience of a vacuum where even God cannot or does not choose to enter. There is only you and a door. Either you sit in the dark, or walk through the door. And you think about those options believing God is not with you in one of those places.[^3] Hopefully, you're pulled up like a rag doll before you take those steps (because you gave up trying to climb out long ago). Life is worth living, but this is a fact written on a page unreadable in the dark.

I don't say any of this to say that suicide is inevitable; it's not. If you need help, get help. If it takes your loved ones dragging you to the doctor, if it takes your last ounce of self-care to pick up the phone, do it. Get help.[^4] From someone who could have put the other foot over the edge and didn't, listen when I say that there are good things waiting for you outside of the abyss. Not a perfect life, but good things. They are worth knowing, touching, loving.

And if you're a person standing at the top of the bottomless pit, trying to catch a glimpse of your loved one, just keep reaching your hands down there and lowering ropes. Your task is not to chide, not to question why, not to explain depression away; it is to love for someone who cannot love for themselves. It is also to know that they don't want to be down there any more than you want them to be down there. They didn't choose to jump in. They can't joy themselves out or some other fucking stupid notion.[^5] But they will take a hand if they're able to see it; we can pray they're lucky enough to do so.

Love each other. Love yourself as best you can. Reach out as often and as best as you are able. Know that you are loved. Know that grace abides for those loved ones who could not abide.

  • [^1]: Infinite Jest
  • [^2]: I know this is a line similar to one Williams delivers in the fantastic film "World's Greatest Dad," a dark comedy dealing with a son's suicide. If you ask me, William's film "What Dreams May Come" hits a little closer to the mark on what the suicidally depressed person's seemingly never-ending isolation looks like.
  • [^3]: I'm not saying this to get you riled up or to start a debate about the nature of God and belief in God. I'm telling you how it feels down there. If God is the loving one who pulls you up, you'll hear nothing but praise from me.
  • [^4]: National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
  • [^5]: I'm personally grateful for joy called "generic Zoloft."

On the Same Spot and in the Same Moment

Terry Eagleton is a British literary critic, essayist, social commentator, sometimes-Marxist, and while he can come across as a Christian apologist he has not quite been willing to "wear the 'Christian' label." I give thanks for him.

In an essay appearing in The Guardian of a new book by Alain de Botton, Terry Eagleton takes on the history of those philosophers and intellectuals that might be described as "reluctant atheists," those who "long to dunk themselves in the baptismal font but can't quite bring themselves to believe." I find that I agree with Eagleton's critique. He argues it is an atheist tradition, going back at least to Machiavelli and Voltaire, to reject the essence of religion while seeking to maintain the substance. That is, these atheist philosophers abandon what they see as superstition while attempting to maintain the "moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure" to be gained from religion. And this is Eagleton's critique. Alain de Botton's book, Religion for Atheists, is simply part of this long tradition of attempting to pry the substance of religion from its essence.

Of course, as Eagleton notes, "Like many an atheist, [de Botton's] theology is rather conservative and old-fashioned," and so he misses the essence and miscasts the substance at once. Morals, social order, and stupid politeness are not the gospel. Eagleton puts it well: "This is not quite the gospel of a preacher who was tortured and executed for speaking up for justice, and who warned his comrades that if they followed his example they would meet with the same fate." There is a critique here of Christianity that Eagleton either forgets or upon which he refuses to embark. The fact that atheist philosophers are able to extract social moralism from religion in the second place is because much of Christianity has reduced itself to something less than the gospel in the first place -- that is, reduced it to moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD).

MTD has been on my mind lately as I've applied for a youth ministry job here in the Denver metro. MTD was a phrase used by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton to describe the state of religious awareness and phenomenology among American teenagers. MTD describes the understanding held among youth (and I would argue adults) that religion in general is about being nice, life is about being happy, a god may exist but is not that involved with the world or with us, and that good people go to heaven. Smith and Denton on MTD,

”God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process."

If it isn't obvious, this stands in stark contrast to the witness given by the gospels to the man, Jesus, who spoke of turning away from the signs and wisdom of the world, away from the ego and toward the other in love. This man called disciples to follow him in life, and lived a life in opposition to the power of empire that landed him in the system of Roman justice that ultimately executed him. Not much there about being "nice" that I see. You'll note there is a tradition that the disciples also died rather, shall we say, unpleasant deaths.

Anyway, it is not only atheists who are reluctant to fully participate in the religious (and not merely philosophical) life of Christianity. I count myself among those who do not wish to find themselves baptized by a Christianity that has forsaken the gospel, any more than I want to find myself part of a society which has adopted an atheistic ideology that merely apes a life of faith, but which is ultimately empty. It is possible to find oneself in the paradoxical stance of a reluctant atheist and reluctant Christian on the same spot and in the same moment. That said, I would rather see well meaning people wrestle with the church in its flaws, on one hand, and struggle to build systems in the world that do not forsake justice, on the other, than see them limply extract a half-baked philosophy of nice from religions they do not fully understand.