But what if the word ‘depression’ were to take on a different, perhaps deeper, meaning? As radical as this may sound, what if ‘depression’ were to be associated with, say, ‘repose’, ‘interlude’ and ‘rejuvenation’? How would that change our approach to understanding depression? Treating it? Living it? That is exactly what Jeff Foster, a modern day existentialist at heart, dares to propose:
The word “depressed” is spoken phonetically as “deep rest”. We can view depression not as a mental illness, but on a deeper level, as a profound, and very misunderstood, state of deep rest, entered into when we are completely exhausted by the weight of our own false stories of ourselves. Depression is an unconscious loss of interest in the second-hand, a longing to die to the false. It is so very close to awakening, but unfortunately rarely understood as such. Or as one friend put it, “depression has awakening built-in…”
Combining some of Jeff Foster’s main thoughts along with some scripture reflections, let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?
‘Not a Mental Illness’
To whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear. – Isaiah 28:12
What if, as unfathomable as it may seem…the Lord could be saying about depression: “This is rest…this is repose!” And we do not hear? While I certainly don’t believe that God desires us to be miserable, we also know that through Christ’s own passion and death, suffering can have a redemptive meaning and purpose. What if we’re missing the point about depression and it’s not an illness, but rather, a sort of built-in ‘rebooting’ mechanism that along with therapy and sometimes medication, could actually be a good thing? Perhaps using this perspective, depression could be considered a severe mercy – a vehicle that moves us from one place in our lives to another where we would otherwise dare not go. What if the reason that the Lord allows depression is because it could be a catalyst to something greater (though it certainly doesn’t feel that way)?
By the standards of the American Psychological Association and the DSM 5 (Diagnostic Statistic Manual), to admit to the criteria of having a depressive episode means accepting that one has a ‘mental illness’. With the negative stigma attached to mental illness, is it any surprise that many suffer in isolation, ashamed and trying to convince oneself, “I’m fine” so as not to bear this label?
What if in a therapy session, a client was to be asked: “How has your ‘deep rest’ been this week?” Would that prime them to make sense of their symptoms not as a hindrance but as a part of a journey to deeper truth?
'Our Own False Stories'
“Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life…” -Ephesians 4:22
To what is Jeff Foster referring? How might we our stories be false? Two senses of ‘false story’ come to mind upon reflection – although there may be many others.
First sense of ‘false story’: We’ve been living a false story in the sense that we’ve ever-so-carefully built our identity upon the not-so-stable ground of what others think we should do/be – this is a struggle even for Christians who strive for their identity to be rooted in Christ. We become so busy fulfilling those expectations that we lose a sense of awareness, we lose our true selves in the process. Our story becomes false because while we think we are in control, someone else is writing the pages for us.
Second sense of ‘false story’: What once was true – what once was our story - is now, in essence, false due to a major life change. We are sometimes obliged to begin a new story before we feel like we’ve finished writing the other one. The fact is, as humans we naturally tend to place our identity largely in what we do or upon our relationship with others. So, when that changes, we experience a stripping away of the old self. We are forced to redefine who we are and even if it’s a positive change – like moving to a new place, landing a new job, getting married or having a baby – there is still a loss of that former self. Obviously traumatic changes like a death, divorce, or abuse take that much more of a toll. The depression that accompanies this sense of ‘false story’ might require a grieving of sorts - a true acknowledgement without shame - that there is indeed a loss of self, at least the self that one is accustomed to knowing.
'Exhausted by the Weight'
"Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion."-Isaiah 40:30
What in particular exhausts us? Often it is the energy invested in maintaining the false story (first example above) OR trying to get back to the false story (second example above). One of the single most influential words that has the ability to shape our thinking is ‘should’. You wouldn't think a little word could weigh much at all. Yet if that one word rules the roost of our thoughts, it's no wonder we often feel the weight of the world on our shoulders.
I should just be happy. I should get back to the old me. I should be like this...I should do this or that.
'Should talk' shames us, chaining us to either the past or unrealistic expectations. It does not motivate or inspire us; it simply exhausts us. These thoughts transport us to an alternate reality - the Land of Should - where we are not allowed to live in the present moment. If we follow the bread crumb trail of 'shoulds' in our minds, we will quickly arrive at the 'false story' that is weighing us down.
I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land. - Psalm 143:6
Beyond the exhaustion of the weight from our ‘false stories’, perhaps depression at its deepest root is, indeed, a longing. If we have moments in our lives when we question what our purpose is, where we struggle to find meaning in what we do, when we feel like this world is not enough…perhaps that is not a bad thing. Because this world is not enough. It is not our home. And sometimes God allows us to be homesick for heaven. He recognizes that our minds, bodies and souls need a detox from this world, from our own perceptions of what life should be about (even good and Holy things, even within one’s vocation). He allows us to be so exhausted by all of the pressure of the ‘false self’ that we might enter into a ‘deep rest’…so we can let go and begin again.
'..To Die to the False'
Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. -Luke 17:33
Here we find the solution. Perhaps the more desperately we seek to preserve that ‘false story’ – our ‘life’ as we have defined it– the more intensely our mind, body and soul will seek that depression – that deep rest. But if we can choose to let go of that ‘false story’, if we can in a sense embrace ‘the deep rest’ as a genesis of new life – we will keep our life. We will emerge from depression and find a new story to be written. The concept of dying to self is at the heart of Christianity, in verses such as:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. -John 12:24
Dying to the ‘false story’ – to the old sense of self – doesn’t mean that it never existed. It simply means that in allowing the false story to ‘die’, it can then be the seed that bears much fruit in allowing a new story to grow.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. -2 Corinthians 5:17
If we truly allow the old to pass away – the ‘false stories’ - we might stop saying, “I just want to get back to being my ‘old self’.”
For if we put the old aside, we leave room for the new to come. We can dare to ask the Lord, ‘Who will the new me be?’ As terrifying as it is to redefine ourselves, we will find much more forward momentum in exploring the possibilities of what could be vs. just trying to get back to where we’ve been. Chances are, the new version of ourselves is better – if we choose to welcome the possibility of being a new creation, fashioned and molded by the Potter's hands.
So if, as Jeff Foster says, ‘depression has awakening built-in’, what does God desire to awaken in us? Tucked within the rolling hills of a profoundly obscure ‘deep rest’, might we catch the golden glimmers of a new dawn on the horizon of our hearts? Can we hear the Lord’s gentle, yet pressing call - hidden within the depression? He whispers:
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth,
do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.