One of my favorite aspects of the Shack is its’ highlighting of a common problem that all humans face (although some to greater degrees): the problem of depression. In the Shack, Mack’s depression is called The Great Sadness. We read:
“Little distractions like the ice storm were a welcome although brief respite from the haunting presence of his constant companion: The Great Sadness, as he referred to it. Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack’s shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders. Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair and he had somehow become part of it. He ate, worked, loved, dreamed, and played in this garment of heaviness, weighed down as if he were wearing a leaden bathrobe—trudging daily through the murky despondency that sucked the color out of everything. At times he could feel The Great Sadness slowly tightening around his chest and heart like the crushing coils of a constrictor, squeezing liquid from his eyes until he thought there no longer remained a reservoir. Other times he would dream that his feet were stuck in cloying mud as he caught brief glimpses of Missy running down the wooded path ahead of him, her red cotton summer dress gilded with wildflowers flashing among the trees. She was completely oblivious to the dark shadow tracking her from behind. Although he frantically tried to scream warnings to her, no sound emerged and he was always too late and too impotent to save her. He would bolt upright in bed, sweat dripping from his tortured body, while waves of nausea and guilt and regret rolled over him like some surreal tidal flood.” (The Shack, 26-27)
All through the Shack, we read about “The Great Sadness.” In this article, I want to take a frank look at the topic of depression.
The word “depression” is one that is often used in our culture. From the day to day difficulties associated with work and home, to the grief associated with the loss of loved ones, this word is used. But what exactly is “depression?”
Webster defines this word as: “4. A sinking of the spirits; dejection; a state of sadness; want of courage or animation; as depression of the mind.”
The Word Dictionary describes depression as: “a mental state characterized by a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity…sad feelings of gloom and inadequacy …a state of depression and anhedonia so severe as to require clinical intervention.”
When I think of “depression,” I think of a prolonged sense of sorrow and sadness. Let me share some other descriptions. One of my favorite authors, Edward Welch, has brought together a compilation of descriptions that are powerful and illuminating:
“”Hell” comes up often. “Hell came to pay me a surprise visit.” “If there is a hell upon earth, it is to be found in a melancholy heart,” observed Robert Burton in the 1600s. The poet Robert Lowell wrote, “I myself am hell.” A mother describes her child’s experience as “Danny’s Descent into Hell.” “A Room in Hell.” “A lonely, private hell.” John of the Cross called it “the dark night of the soul.” “Hellish torments,” recounted J. B. Phillips. “Hell’s black depths,” said William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice and other popular but sometimes dark novels. 2 As Dante understood, there is an intimate connection between hell and the hopelessness of depression. The entrance to Dante’s version of hell read, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Depressive speech is poetic. Prose does not capture the experience, so it is either poetry or silence. Depressed people are eloquent, even when they feel empty at their emotional core, devoid of personhood. When the doctor came to my room, he said, “I am going to ask you a question. If you don’t feel ready to answer it, please don’t.” Then he asked, “Who are you?” I panicked. “What do you mean?” “When you look inside, who do you see?” It was horrible. When I looked inside I couldn’t see anyone. All I saw was a black hole. “‘I am no one,” I said. The images are dark and evocative. Desperately alone, doom, black holes, deep wells, emptiness. “I felt like I was walking through a field of dead flowers and found one beautiful rose, but when I bent down to smell it I fell into an invisible hole.” “I heard my silent scream echo through and pierce my empty soul.” “There is nothing I hate more than nothing.” 3 “My heart is empty. All the fountains that should run with longing, are in me dried up.” 4 “It is entirely natural to think ceaselessly of oblivion.” “I feel as though I died a few weeks ago and my body hasn’t found out yet.” 5 Depression…involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest. The pain you feel in the course of a major clinical depression is an attempt on nature’s part…to fill up the empty space. But for all intents and purposes, the deeply depressed are just the walking, waking dead. 6 The mental pain seems unbearable. Time stands still. “I can’t go on,” said a twelve-year-old girl. “I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for,” recounted Spurgeon of one of his many episodes. 7 “A veritable howling tempest in the brain.” 8 “Malignant sadness.” 9 “My bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” 10 “The unhappiness was like dust that infiltrated everything.” “I am now a man of despair, rejected, abandoned, shut up in this iron cage from which there is no escape.” 11 “The iron bolt … mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison.” 12 Profound melancholia is a day-in day-out, night-in night-out, almost arterial level of agony. It is a pitiless, unrelenting pain that affords no window of hope, no alternative to a grim and brackish existence, and no respite from the cold undercurrents of thought and feeling that dominate the horribly restless nights of despair. 13 But it is not just pain. It feels like meaningless pain. “That is all I want in life: for this pain to seem purposeful.” 14 If pain leads to childbirth, it is tolerable, but if it just leads to blackness or nothing, then it threatens to destroy. Abraham Lincoln thought the pain would lead to death; the body couldn’t tolerate it. I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me. 15 What tortures many people is the fact that they don’t die. “Exhaustion combined with sleeplessness is a rare torture.” “The pain seeps into everything.” The thought that they might remain in this horrible state is too much to consider. “No one knows how badly I want to die.” But death has its own horrors. It feels like a vanishing point where they cease to exist at all. And what about the uncertainty of life after death? Is there annihilation? Will divine judgment crush and destroy? You are without peer in fearing the worst. “There was no control on my mind—thoughts ravaged me, brutally harsh ideas, thoroughly crushed ideals, incomprehensible feelings.” The mind is stuck. How can people think about anything else when it is there? “I’m in a straitjacket.” “I’m completely bound and tied up—there is a gag in my mouth.” Without one’s normal mental resources, the world is frightening. Panic. Left unchecked, hallucinations and delusions can seize the imagination with such force that they are indistinguishable from reality itself. Self-reliance seems impossible. Infantile dependence is the only way to survive. Being alone is terrifying. Abandonment is a constant fear. “I fear everyone and everything.” I tried to sleep but couldn’t. Part of it was that I was scared to wake up with a feeling of panic in the pit of my stomach. Anxiety was always present, and for no good reason it just got worse. I wanted to be out of the house, but I was scared to be alone. No matter what I did, I couldn’t concentrate except on questions such as “Am I going insane? What have I done to deserve this? What sort of punishment is this?” You would think that if your circumstances were better, you would be too. But depression has a logic of its own. Once it settles in, it can’t distinguish between a loving embrace, the death of a close friend, and the news that a neighbor’s grass is growing. Decisions? Impossible. The mind is locked. How can you choose? Nothing is working; the engine of your mind is barely turning over. And aren’t most decisions emotional preferences? How can you decode when you have no emotional preferences? Certainty? The only certainty is that misery will persist. If certainty of any good thing ever existed—and you can’t remember when it did—it is replaced by constant doubt. You doubt that you are loved by anyone. You doubt your spouse’s intentions. You doubt your spouse’s fidelity. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you doubt the presence of Christ. You doubt the very foundation of your faith. “God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he’s sure of.” 16 The only thing you know is that you are guilty, shameful, and worthless. It is not that you have made mistakes in your life, or sinned, or reaped futility. It is that you are a mistake, you are sin, you are futility. “In this regard, depression can be a form of self-punishment, however subconsciously or involuntarily administered.” 17 God has turned his back. Why bother going on in such a state? You might as well join God and turn your back on yourself too.” (Edward Welch, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness-Light For The Path, 16-24 (Kindle Edition); Greensboro, North Carolina; New Growth Press)
Brother Bill Flatt (Gospel preacher and counselor) in his helpful book on dealing with grief, tells us:
“During the process of grief, there is a going down and a coming up; there is disorganization and reorganization; there is disintegration and a return to wholeness. In my ten stages of grief, there are six stages downward and four upward. Thus, depression takes us to the bottom. Almost all reports on grief mention depression or symptoms similar to those produced by depression. It is a “down” feeling, a feeling of sadness, a sense of great loss. A depressed person is often passive, tired, and inactive. Symptoms of those grieving over the loss of a loved one are often very similar to those who are clinically depressed.” (Bill Flatt, Growing Through Grief4, 96 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Company)
What This Article Is And IS NOT About
I know that there are a lot of misconceptions about depression. Let me be clear up front that I am not primarily addressing what is commonly referred to as “clinical depression,” which many believe is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. I am not a doctor or a physician; I do not understand the relationship of chemicals upon the brain and the pharmacological treatments which may need to be used for such. While I may share insights about this aspect from various medical students and experts, this is not my field of study. I remember years ago, I was eating lunch with my good friend Barbara while we were out visiting. Someone at Lee’s Restaraunt said to me, “Hey, I know you: you work for Dr. Migardo!” I looked at her and said, “I appreciate that, but I’m not a medical guy; I’m a soul man.” 🙂 So, in this article, keep in mind that when I talk about “depression,” I am not talking about that form of depression which may be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain.
With that being said, I think it is also important to point out that science has not determined the causal relationships between physiology and depression. In other words, does a possible chemical imbalance in the brain contribute to the cause of depression, or does depression contribute to the cause of possible chemical imbalance? Welch has powerfully written:
“At this point, it is too early to make those judgments. No one can confidently diagnose a chemical imbalance because there is no way to really know. Even if there were a test for it (which there isn’t), the test couldn’t tell you if the imbalance caused the depression or resulted from it. The problem with immediately opting for a medical explanation is that, once the decision is made, every other perspective seems superficial or irrelevant. Why, for example, would you bother considering issues raised by personal suffering when a pill might provide relief? If depressed persons assume that their problem is fundamentally medical, asking them to look at their relationships or their basic beliefs about God will seem as useful as prescribing physical exercise for baldness. Exercise is always helpful, but it won’t grow hair…Some who are depressed strongly react against the suggestion of a possible spiritual cause. Others race toward the idea; they hope that once they discover the core sin, everything will change. They feel as if they must be spiritually deficient because they have no joy, no deep affection, no spiritual vitality. Maybe, they think, they are among the “lukewarm” of the book of Revelation (Rev. 3:16), a group they rightly would like to leave as soon as possible. But depression is a time to revisit both our own expectations and God’s for our emotional life. Contrary to what we might think, God says that strong faith can coexist with emotional highs, lows, and everything in between. It is a myth that faith is always smiling. The truth is that faith often feels like the very ordinary process of dragging one foot in front of the other because we are conscious of God.” (Edward T. Welch, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness-Light For The Path, 30–31 (Kindle Edition); Greensboro, North Carolina; New Growth Press)
The Danger Of Failing To Realize Possible Spiritual Causes Of Depression
I think it is also important to notice that one of the dangers of modern day psychiatry is that it is founded primarily upon the teachings of evolution. As a result, many in the “medical” field have attempted to create a “disease” for just about everything. For example:
“Until the last fifty years or so, Western culture strongly reflected the core Judeo-Christian conviction that God created the human race and put us all here on this beautiful globe we call Earth, and that we, alone among all creatures, were given the ability—and destiny— to choose between good and evil. That was then. Today’s cultural elite, including those in the healing arts, basically no longer think of man in spiritual terms, of morality, character, self-understanding, repentance, and forgiveness. Rather, most of today’s experts look at man and see a soulless animal whose behavior problems are mostly genetic or organic in origin and, in any event, usually manageable with drugs…While understanding is in short supply today, the mental health establishment is great at naming syndromes and conditions—maybe to give the rest of us the impression they know more than they really do. Are you an angry volcano inside? You may have “intermittent explosive disorder.” Hostile toward authority? You could be suffering from “oppositional defiant disorder.” Worry too much? Probably a case of “generalized anxiety disorder.” Do you suffer from “road rage”? It’s now a mental illness, according to some psychologists, called “aggressive driving spectrum disorder.” Are you a normal boy who fidgets because you don’t like shutting up and sitting still at a desk for six hours a day listening to a teacher? You may be diagnosed, as millions of American children already have been, with “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” After it became widely known that public school administrators and other nonmedical personnel were coercing multitudes of American children—between 4 and 9 million, by most estimates—into taking Ritalin and similar psychostimulant drugs, experts finally got concerned and put the brakes on the rampant overdiagnosis of ADHD.26 The U.S. Congress as well as many individual states passed legislation to halt what can fairly be described as an orgy of overprescription of Ritalin and similar meds for the nation’s children. Though the legislation wrested power away from school personnel and returned it to parents, every year still sees millions of new “cases” diagnosed. What about addiction? Do you compulsively get drunk when the stress seems too great? While such was once considered a moral flaw or a character weakness, it is now widely categorized as a disease— which logically would make addiction to all other drugs, legal or illegal, a “disease” as well. Are you a lying, cheating jerk? Then you have a disease—especially if you have tattoos. I’m not kidding. Research conducted at Michigan’s Center for Forensic Psychiatry has determined that “certain criminals with tattoos are more likely to suffer from anti-social personality disorder,” or ASPD…Do you get it? Everything bad, from temper tantrums, drunkenness, and road rage to “pathological lying, cheating, stealing, physical aggression and drug abuse,” is now a disease. Everything is physiological or genetic and treated with drugs. Nothing is your fault. You’re an innocent victim. Furthermore, many of us like it that way. We like the idea that whatever is wrong with us amounts to an organic disorder, that there’s no sin, no weakness, no deficit of character on our part. Our egos love that; it comforts us.” (David Kuupelian, How Evil Works: Understanding And Overcoming The Destructive Forces That Are Destroying America, 104-106 (Kindle Edition); New York, NY: Threshold Publications)
If we attempt to separate the possible spiritual components of depression, this is the result. I believe that there are medicines that can treat depression; however, that is a far cry from the belief that every spiritual issue needs to be treated with a specific medicine!
Herein lies the dangers of relying solely on psychiatry: this system is based primarily upon an evolutionary view of mankind. In other words, according to modern day psychiatry, man is an animal; therefore, any “issues” he has must have a physical cause and must therefore be treated physically (i.e., with some new form of medication). A person who believes that man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and whose problems are primarily spiritual in nature will have a different “approach” to working with someone then will a person who believes man is an evolved animal originating from a puddle of goo.
The Shack hits upon something here which we often are not aware of ourselves: often, our personal bouts with The Great Sadness may be a problem of the heart. Our spirits may be broken: ours may be a disease of the soul. Only Papa can truly heal us of our depressions and sorrows.
Psalm 19:7-The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
Psalm 147:3-He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
In a pending article, I will share some more thoughts about “the great sadness” from one of the Prophets of the Old Testament who dealt often with this malady.
The grace of The Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.