The opposite of depression is delight, being spontaneously surprised by the goodness and beauty of living. This is not something we can ever positively crank up and make happen in our lives. It is, as every saint and sage has told us, the by-product of something else. It is something that happens to us and which can never, on our own, make happen to us. As C. S. Lewis suggests in the title of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, delight has to catch us unaware, at a place where we are not rationalizing that we are happy. The famous prayer of Francis of Assisi, with its insistence that it is only in giving that we receive, suggests the same thing.
This is what it would mean to not be depressed: Imagine yourself on some ordinary weekday, walking to your car, standing at a bus stop, cooking a meal, sitting at your desk, or doing anything else that is quite ordinary. Suddenly, for no tangible reason, you fill with a sense of the goodness and beauty and joy of just living. You feel your own life — your heart, your mind, your body, your sexuality, the people and things you are connected to — and you spontaneously fill with the exclamation: “God, it feels great to be alive!” That’s delight, that’s what it means not to be depressed.
- Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality
Rolheiser suggests that the default position for many of us in contemporary culture is “depression,” which he defines as the inability to access our inner energies in order to engage life. When we are depressed (not clinically depressed — that’s something else) we feel dead inside, or at least lethargic. There is a dimness or dullness of spirit that deflates us. We are right to see this as a spiritual problem — it is traditionally recognized as the deadly sin of acedia: a state of restlessness or listlessness that keeps us from our work or prayer, or at least from finding joy in them. We can’t find the energy to care.
The American approach to overcoming such spiritual problems is typically direct and technological in nature. I identify an area of sin or weakness, a habit or fault that I imagine hinders my relationship with God or others, something that displeases God or keeps me from being effective in his service. I develop strategies for conquering this problem, and then seek and make use of proper tools to win the battle. This is the (inadequate) Christian practice of “sin management” that Dallas Willard and others write about.
Life becomes a project. A self-improvement project. Or, in more Christian terms, a “sanctification” project.
I understand the attraction of this kind of methodology. It is logical and consistent with the way people approach work and many aspects of life in modern society. It is easy to understand and communicate. It is practical and satisfies our common sense realism about dealing with life and its problems.
And in the final analysis, it is all up to you and me to accomplish — with God’s help and blessing, of course.
However, Ronald Rolheiser puts his finger on something we forget. God rarely signs on to our projects. While we are diagnosing, strategizing, and implementing solutions for our lives, he’s smiling. He has something entirely different in mind.
When we first moved to Indianapolis twenty years ago, we lived in a rental house. I offered to do some painting for our landlord in exchange for rent, and he agreed. So I went to work, painting the house and garage. When I got to the back of the garage, I thought it would be fun to let my little preschool boy “help.” I poured some paint in a bucket, put a brush in his hand, and let him have at it. Oh, that was fun! Paint everywhere! Of course, I had a lot of clean up and touching up to do later, but I wouldn’t trade anything for those hours “painting” with my little boy. It was, as Rolheiser says, delightful.
I sometimes think that all my work for God, all my sin management projects, all my attempts at improving myself are like my young son trying to paint the back of the garage. I really have no idea what I’m doing and even when I understand what God is telling me to do, I don’t have the spiritual coordination to pull it off.
What I hadn’t counted on, however, was my Father’s smile and the delight in his eyes. I never knew it could feel so good to be such an utter mess — with him. There I stand, covered in paint, having completely botched the job, yet never closer to him, never more filled with joy.
It’s not up to me after all.
Joy breaks through.
Suddenly, in the middle of my ordinary day — the laughter of God.