I often think that when we get to the next life and see things as they really are; when the scales of our mortal blindness fall from our eyes, that we will be surprised with both how much simpler things were than we thought, as well as how much more complex. If that sounds contradictory, let me explain.
We spend our lives running to and fro. We have gadgets that improve our efficiency, but the result is we feel pressure to get ever more done. Our children must be in after-school clubs. We must be available for our employers 24/7. Work is increasingly demanding, while so are the requirements to fit society’s standards of good parenting. And then we add church responsibilities, social activities, and so on, and so on. We spend so much time and effort on these things when our main purpose in life is really the much simpler “Come, follow me.” Not easy, for sure, but simple. I’m sure that when I kneel at a future day before my Saviour and look back at my mortal journey I will say some variation of “Oops”, as I recognise how much time and stress I wasted on things that really didn’t matter.
On the other hand, though, I believe that there is still so much for us to learn about the complexities we experience in life. If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’ve written about, or alluded to, depression a few times. See here for example. This is one area that is particularly prone to unhelpful simplification. How our bodies affect our emotions, and how body and emotions interact with our spiritual capacity are way beyond what we understand. So for example, I subscribe to a number of Twitter feeds that give inspirational quotes. Many of these I enjoy (or else I’d unsubscribe), but they are also dotted with superficiality that makes me cringe. You know the sort, ‘Happiness is a choice’. I’ve just had a quick look now while I’m writing this, and here’s one, ‘The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.’
I recall sitting in a church meeting some time ago now when a leader stood and said that even people with clinical depression could be happy. Wow. If I’d been in the middle of a major depressive episode and heard that I might just decide to end it all, because anyone who’s been there knows that when you’re in that place–not a low mood, but rather, real depression–that just getting out of bed and making it through the day is an achievement. If your spiritual leader then tells you that your depression is no excuse for not being happy then surely, you may reason, hell’s grasp is secure. So there’s no point in going on, right?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for exhortations of happiness, of course. Sometimes we do just need to try and think more positively, and that will itself transform our attitude. There are times when we’re just in a bit of a low mood, and such a quote can be precisely what we need to pull ourselves up again. But sometimes simplifying life in such a way and applying it universally can do more harm than good. Sometimes what we need more of is a plain old, ‘Hang in there. I know you don’t think you’re worth it, but you are.’ That’s why Jeffrey R Holland’s talk, Like a Broken Vessel, struck a chord with so many people a couple of years ago. Seriously, if you’ve suffered from depression and haven’t read it, you need to. Here’s the link.
Now I’ve had a few bouts of depression over the years, and one thing that has always been clear to me when going through such an episode is that I find I can’t feel the Holy Spirit. It’s not just that the feelings are diminished: they’re gone, completely. Concrete wall erected between me and heaven–that’s what it feels like anyway. If you’ve been there you know what I mean. All those people who talk about how our prayers are always answered, and our Heavenly Father listens to us? Doesn’t apply to me–again, at least it doesn’t feel that way. Read the first half of this poem I wrote to get a little more of how I feel when I’m depressed (and others have since told me they’ve felt the same).
But here’s the thing, and it’s something that I only realised last Sunday. OK, let me digress and then I’ll talk about last Sunday.
I’ve known from previous experience, once coming out of the end of a depressive episode and looking back, that the Lord was there. He had his angels helping me through. His love was evident, in hindsight. I couldn’t see it at the time, but it was still there nonetheless.
And I’ve been mightily grateful that He’s helped me through those times. It’s strengthened my testimony of Him, and of the power of His Atoning sacrifice. I would not be here today if not for His help at those times.
But His help to carry me through those times, I’ve seen as solely that–carrying me through it. I still assumed that His help came despite the fact that the Holy Ghost couldn’t be with me to inspire and direct me while in my low points. I needed to come out of it to have the Spirit’s companionship again–or so I thought.
And with that I return to last Sunday. I don’t like to use my blog to disclose about myself, and I wouldn’t do now if it wasn’t relevant to the point. But I’ve been going through a tough period for a while now. And while doing so I’ve had to prepare and teach a number of lessons at Church. It’s been really tough, and I’ve just not had the energy to put in the time and effort I usually like into their preparation. Even going to Church has been tough, but I just couldn’t palm off the responsibility for my class. Usually when I teach in Church, I feel the Spirit with me–at least at some point during the lesson. But not this last little while. I’ve tried my best, but it’s all felt very flat. Because that’s what depression does. It erects this concrete barrier that I mentioned.
Except that last Sunday I learned that it doesn’t. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still didn’t feel anything as I stood at the front of the class and presented material and directed discussion. I didn’t want to be there, and most of what I was thinking was about how soon it would finish. I was almost counting the seconds, desperate for the class to finish so I could go home and hide in my bedroom.
But, despite all of that, the lesson didn’t go the way I’d planned it–in a good way. I’d based it on a blog post from early last year (because I didn’t have the energy to prepare much and that was easy), but it didn’t go to plan. Someone would say something, and the thought would come into my head “OK, so I need to change the order of what I’ve prepared because that leads really well to a point somewhere else.” And then the same thing happened again. And then again. And by the time the class had finished, the lesson had flowed beautifully–far better than I could possibly have imagined even had I spent hours preparing. I had several people tell me afterwards how much they got from the lesson, and that they had felt the Spirit strongly.
I’ve reflected on that experience in the last week. No, I’m still not feeling any better (in fact I’ve had a terrible week), but in my more lucid moments I can see that despite the fact that I’m not in a position where I can feel the Spirit with me, that doesn’t mean He’s not there. In fact, last Sunday He quite clearly worked through me to bless the lives of some people in a classroom. I felt nothing during the very moments that He was directing me and others were feeling His presence.
I was presenting a lesson, but in fact I was being taught something quite profound. The time will come when I can again feel His Spirit–and boy do I look forward to it, because I miss it. But in the meantime, I now know that He is still there, not just carrying me (though that is important), but on occasions at least still able to work through me. Maybe not very often, but it’s happened.
What does all of that mean?
If you’re going through a tough time at the moment, or you know someone who is, then please know that just because you can’t feel anything it doesn’t mean the Lord doesn’t still have His Spirit with you? If you’re trying your best (and your best might be getting out of bed in the morning), then that is all He asks and He will honour His part. With depression you’ll have all sort of weird things going on in your brain chemistry and maybe that blocks you feeling the Spirit. But He’s still there. Please trust in that.
We tend to oversimplify having the Spirit with us. The general rule is that when we are doing what the Lord wants us to do we’ll feel the Spirit with us. Indeed, it’s usually a surefire way to know that something is amiss in our lives if we’re no longer feeling His presence. But that simplicity goes out the window when it comes to depression. Depression also causes us to oversimplify–“There is nothing good about me.”
But the reality is that it is more complex than that. Depression’s simplifications are lies. When we take the Sacrament, we are promised that if we do our best to honour our covenants, that His Spirit will always be with us. That means even if we can’t feel it. As long as we’re trying, He’ll be there. We probably won’t even know when He’s still working through us, but He will still be there.
I keep meaning to write about the Sacrament. Maybe I’ll do that next. If I can get the energy….