I get a lot of emails from people I don’t know. Many of them are asking questions about Orthodoxy or about something that they read in one of my books. But I also get a number of emails from people who are just looking for advice or looking for prayer or guidance. I feel honored that people write me with those sorts of questions, because I’m just a person; I’m not a priest or a monk or anything like that. I do try to pray about it and answer as best I can out of the reading I’ve done or what I’ve learned along the way.
I had somebody write me a little while ago about the terrible depression that he is experiencing. So I sat down and I prayed about it, and as I prayed, I felt like I was understanding something more and more about depression in the life of a person of faith, and perhaps to some extent just him. It did seem to me that I was praying for him, and I felt like this was something I was led to see or understand for him, but it might be useful to someone else, too. So I was going to read the email that I replied. I said:
John, I spent some time praying for you last night, and I wanted to send you my thoughts. Always check everything with your spiritual father, because I could be wrong, and he knows you best.
As I prayed, I felt like a series of thoughts were opening up in order, like walking through the rooms of a house. First I thought about how people in your situation, that is, with a background of using drugs and pornography and then having persistent depression afterwards, might react to their condition in a number of different ways. They could get angry at God, or they could be resentful. They could blame other people. They could fall into self-pity. There’s a lot of traps that are possible here, but from what I hear from you, it sounds like you have managed to avoid all of them. You are very sad, but you’re not self-pitying. You’re not blaming others. You’re not scheming, not manipulative, and so forth. And that’s a very good thing.
Next, I thought of how sadness is actually an appropriate thing in your situation. With all that you’ve been through, of course you would have sadness. That’s a reasonable condition at this point. Then I thought that, as painful and wearying as depression is, that you ought to just accept it. Now, hold on, because there’s further strategy involved, but for right now that you should just accept that you are depressed, and that it is fitting and reasonable for things to be this way, for you to say to God, in effect, that you will shoulder that weight as one that you understand you just have to carry—for now, right now.
Then, next, I saw that, in accepting it, you will begin to discover and get to know the John who is able to recognize sadness as a reasonable thing to have right now. The John who is able to accept it, to shoulder that burden—this is the John that is bigger than the sadness. This is the one who is able to observe the sadness and see its cause and understand its function, and to say to the Lord, “Yes, Sir, I accept this duty. I accept that I must now carry this weight.”
Well, obviously, that’s a bigger, stronger John than the one who feels helplessly caught in the bonds of the depression itself. It’s the you that is bigger than and outside of the depression. The image that came to my mind was a big rock sticking out of the ocean. At high tide, the rock is almost swamped. The waves pound, the lightning strikes, the rain pours down, but the rock just sits there. It stays the same, no matter what it must undergo. I saw this rock as the strong you that is beneath and around and above the sadness, the strong you that has been able, against great odds, to shoulder this weight so far, without falling into blame, anger, sneakiness, resentment, and so on. That’s a big man who can do that, a strong man. I saw the rock that remains unmoved, despite the battering, as simple, strong, and true, like an arrow that flies true to the target.
Next I saw that you can come around, in time, to seeing your depression as an awkward companion, one you’d rather not have to cart around with you everywhere, but you know you’re just stuck with, that you could even develop a wry sense of humor about it. It might be like a pet dog who has a few good points and plenty of bad points, but you keep him around all the same; a dog that you might say he’s yours, and that’s all you can say about him—he’s yours. You could say that with a crooked smile.
Finally, I saw that as you enter this process of healing, a healing that nevertheless may well leave you with some continuing depression, that people who need your prayers are going to find you. People will be drawn to you, to help them understand themselves as they go through similar struggles—people who maybe have not been as able to avoid self-defeating hitch-hikers, like blaming others, whining, etc. Because of what you’ve learned, you’ll be able to help others to find their way out of confusion and into acceptance and to discover their own unsuspected strength.
Forgive me if that all sounds completely nuts. Of course, ignore it completely if it doesn’t sound right. I just wanted to pass it on. It seemed to me to offer you a way out of the misery into acceptance and peace, and eventually something even better and stronger and more useful to God and other people.
So that was the email I sent to John, somebody I didn’t know who had written me about his struggles with depression. As I sat late one night, I just sat up. I was praying. I was praying for him, and I felt like those thoughts came to me in order, like I was walking through a house and going from one door into the next. The central understanding or realization was that instead of fighting against the depression, to accept it and to say: The life I’ve led? Of course I’m depressed. That’s fitting, that’s right, that’s reasonable that I would be this way. And then, by understanding that he is a person who is big enough and strong enough to encompass that depression and decide to accept it, that he’s actually bigger than the depression, and then all kinds of healing can happen after that, culminating, I believe, with other people who’ve struggled with the same awful feelings being drawn to him and being able to learn from him some good advice about how to handle it.
It was such a blessing to me as I prayed to see that series of rooms opening up. I hope it’ll be useful to someone else. That’s why I wanted to record this today.