"There; that was the driver's fare."
"What have you to say of despair, my boy?"
"Despair? Have I anything to say of just despair? There are sorrows a man knows that are rightly so called, when he perceives the futility of his hopes and yet retains the forlorn and fanciful expectation of them. These, I believe, constitute despair, but of these I have little to say now. No, it is not despair that authors the message I have come to deliver. It is something more dreadful. If I were of the state of mind itself, I would scarcely be able to say a thing about it."
Among the most insidious things said about depression—that is, psychiatric depression—is that it is somehow a spur to "creativity." The notion calls to mind an observation I read not long ago about Tchaikovsky (possibly in a Cleveland Orchestra program note, but I do not remember for sure). Much ink has been spilled about whether Tchaikovsky suffered from depression, and at least one commentator had the perspicacity to point out that, if Tchaikovsky had been depressed, he could not have composed his great music during any actual episode of the psychiatric disorder: pathological depression, not to be confused with "depression" in the parlance that means deep but not disordered sorrow, is debilitating. We do have it on considerable evidence that the man knew a great many sorrows and felt them deeply. Whether he was just grief-stricken over his misfortunes, or whether he was psychiatrically depressed, however, is another question and one we are unlikely to answer with certainty. What can be certain, though, is that he could not have composed with the sensitivity and discipline that we know to be Tchaikovsky in the midst of a pathological episode of depression. Some great artists—not all, mind you—are especially sensitive souls, and some know great travails. Perhaps these things are an aid to the sensitivity and beauty of their work. Sensitivity, trouble, and sorrow, however, do not necessarily mean the pernicious mood disorder of depression. The latter is irrational, dishonest, and self-defeating. It generates little more "creative" or artful than lethargy, abhorrence, and ugliness.
Sorrow of whatever kind or degree—mild or severe, healthy or unhealthy, righteous or evil—is a difficult experience to discuss with candor and utility. Does it not inherently issue an invitation for the one who would comfort or aid the bereaved to partake in some measure of the pain, and does it not require that one or the other friend—and, one hopes, eventually both—also transcend it? If one lets one's sorrow be known, or indeed if it is known already—and usually it is, however readily we or others may pretend it is hidden—the difficulty is magnified by this confident assurance: with scarce few exceptions the words one will receive in answer to one's misery will be ineffectual in any well-meant but vain effort to cure the sorrow or will be flatly unsympathetic. Knowing or fearing this, it thus also becomes difficult to do much of anything about one's pain. If one has a friend, one is blessed. If one does not, then one must keep on keeping on with the pain that can be managed or sink into ruin with the pain that cannot.
O forsake me not utterly, St. David said to the Lord in Psalm 119:8 (KJV). If one turns to the Church Fathers or to any of the venerable authors or ascetics of later eras in Orthodoxy for any wisdom on this, one encounters a good deal said about the Lord's possible reasons, such as reproof and refinement, for forsaking one to any degree and allowing one to suffer, and, in all candor, briefer quotations or even lengthier discourses on the topic are spiritually dangerous to the bereaved mind that contemplates them without action or without community: the words readily come across as offering theory in the lightest and most vulgar sense of the word, and their counsel often presumes a conclusion (and the inherent optimism of it) the path to which is too likely to be shrouded in darkness about the wandering mind that is itself clad in sorrow and loneliness. "So it will all work out, as long as I love God, and He hasn't let me fall into anything I can't handle?" one might ask (cf. Romans 8:28 and I Corinthians 10:13), and then simply reply to oneself: "Well, a fat lot of good that does me now!" If the saints, scholars, and ascetics one finds also plainly declare despair a sin (and many of them do), one's lot may be made all the worse by feelings of shame. God has forsaken you, and what you feel about it is wrong: about the most odious counsel one could find or devise.
The ground of the heart nourished on evil thoughts brings forth thorns and thistles, as St. John Cassian characterizes it,1 and in this we see a fine description of what makes depression so insidious. Why was it, St. John asks in his discourse,
that for no reason we were suddenly filled with the utmost grief, and weighed down with unreasonable depression, so that we not only felt as if we ourselves were overcome with such feelings, but also our cell grew dreadful, reading palled upon us, aye and our very prayers were offered up unsteadily and vaguely, and almost as if we were intoxicated: so that while we were groaning and endeavouring to restore ourselves to our former disposition, our mind was unable to do this, and the more earnestly it sought to fix again its gaze upon God, so was it the more vehemently carried away to wandering thoughts by shifting aberrations and so utterly deprived of all spiritual fruits, as not to be capable of being roused from this deadly slumber even by the desire of the kingdom of heaven, or by the fear of hell held out to it[?]2While he goes on to speak of the sloth and carelessness that worsens such a state of mind, he does not in this Conference go so far as to call the sorrow a sin. It is a trick of the mind or an invasion of the devil, or it is a reaction to evil circumstances, and from whatever cause it is easily magnified through sloth or carelessness or whatever other pernicious characterization one could rightly give to the heart that, darkened in whatever way in the first place, retreats further into its own darkness. Sin or inattentiveness may magnify or prolong it, but ought one feel shame ab initio for one's misery or even shame at any time throughout it by default? Did Job, who feared God and placed his hope in Him, sin by also lamenting his misfortune and longing to make his plea?
St. John makes one other observation here that is worth mentioning: God never forsakes any of us completely, and indeed such a thing would be detrimental to human nature and purpose. The Psalmist who cried, Forsake me not utterly, understood this as well. Otherwise, why would he have said utterly (ἕως σφόδρα, as St. John quotes from the Greek of the Septuagint)?3 That God does not utterly forsake anyone is a point crucial not only to understanding human nature and purpose, but also to understanding the nature and purpose of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It also sheds some light on the nature of unrighteous despair or depression: that one feels utterly abandoned is false in its theology, false in its soteriology, false in its Christology, false in its anthropology, and false in any number of other ologies one might care to mention, and that is all to say that it is objectively incorrect, but subjectively it is virtually the totality of what a soul in that condition perceives.
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In Woody Allen's excellent movie Crimes and Misdemeanors the philosophy professor, who for most of the film spoke kindly and thoughtfully about loneliness and longing, appearing only on screen in documentary footage addressing the camera by himself, who had survived the Nazi Holocaust many years prior, and who at an old age, having achieved a position of stability and respect, had many poignant insights on the need for love in a hostile world, killed himself. A man of letters and of sophisticated thought, he left a brief note to explain his suicide. "I've gone out the window."
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We are three concerts through the new Cleveland Orchestra season at Severance hall, my seventeenth season as a subscriber. I used to park my car here or there near the Museum of Art in University Circle and enjoy a stroll to and from the concert hall. This season I broke down and purchased a parking pass for the adjoining underground garage. Now, three times so far, as I stroll through the dim lot to my car, I feel deflated. Even last year or over the summer, when my walks to and from those concerts, to be sure, were disheartened, it was not like this. There can come a time in one's despondency when, if one is fortunate or industrious enough just to be moving, one moves with a sorrow that is no longer so much anguish as it is a deadened spirit. This too is subjective reality contrary to the objective truth of the Resurrection and the Life to Come, but a fat lot of good that does me now. I don't just admire the professor's economy of words: although he is but a fictional character, perhaps it would be fair enough to say that I admire also the economy of his resignation.
One of the many things I love about the classical repertoire, by the way, is that, even if one has little knowledge of it, there are always portions of it that are recognizable. One may not know the name of a composer or piece, but the tune has the most striking familiarity. We had an example of such a piece on Thursday evening: the Sicilienne from Gabriel Fauré's Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande. And here you can enjoy, not just the beautiful performance by soloist Patrick Gallois, but also his magnificent hair. If you do a Google image search, you should see how, over the years, it has gone through many fine transformations. This particular example and the performance are from 1986.
1 John Cassian, The Conferences, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd Ser. Vol. XI, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Edgar C. S. Gibson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1894; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), accessed 15 October 2013, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf211.iv.iv.v.iii.html/. ↑
2 Ibid. at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf211.iv.iv.v.ii.html/. ↑
3 Ibid. at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf211.iv.iv.v.vi.html/. ↑