I shame at mine unworthyness,
yet fain would be at one with thee.
Thou art a joy in heaviness,
a succour in necessity.
(John Dowland, Tears of Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soul)
So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.”
To understand what it is to be ill, we also need to understand what it is to be well. As I am writing these words, I am struggling with the early signs of a virus. I know that I am not well because I know how my body should feel. The pain in my throat tells me that something is amiss; it should not be there. The same rule applies to mental illness; if we know how our minds should “feel”, then we can recognise also what is abnormal.
But is it so simple? Sometimes our bodies’ responses of pain and distress are signs of health, not of illness. If I were to feel a sudden, inexplicable pain in my chest, I might fear that I was ill. If, however, the pain corresponded to an injury – an object hitting me in the chest, for instance – I would not fear illness. Instead, the pain would be a normal physical response. Far from showing that my body was unwell, it would show that my body was working very well indeed; it would be doing exactly what it should do at that moment.
Much psychology over the last century and a half has sought to establish what “normal” is for the human mind and thus to understand divergences from this norm. Sometimes this is a problematic process. Freud, for instance, famously developed his theories primarily based on highly unusual cases, meaning that he was not able to gain a clear picture of what “normal” actually was. Yet, that aside, Freud’s concept of “normal” – and those of figures who came after him – was premised on some interesting and problematic assumptions. One key assumption seems to be that guilt is a neurosis, perpetuated by religion, and that the healthy human mind should be free from such guilt. This is a concept which Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges in Ethics when he writes of guilt as a healthy response to a relationship with God:
Genuine acknowledgment of guilt does not grow from experiences of dissolution and decay but, for us who have encountered Christ, only by looking at the form Christ has taken.
Rather than pathological or neurotic, guilt for Bonhoeffer is an appropriate response to the true and pure knowledge of God. Likewise, many of our responses of sadness or guilt over our lives may stem from an awareness that things could and should be other than they are.
Guilt and grief pervade the human experience, not only for those who suffer from these emotions in extreme forms. We may assume that extreme feelings of guilt or grief, if not accompanied by some “reasonable cause”, are pathological. Yet it is worth asking if those who do not feel intense guilt or grief are in fact the ones who are not entirely healthy. For some, the everyday pain of life is an intense source of grief, and the on-going disappointments of life with self, others and circumstance can cause a degree of pain which, though not based on clear, concrete causes, is nonetheless palpable and reasonable.
We may assume that extreme feelings of guilt or grief, if not accompanied by some “reasonable cause”, are pathological. Yet it is worth asking if those who do not feel intense guilt or grief are in fact the ones who are not entirely healthy.
Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia explores this idea powerfully. The main character, Justine, struggles with feelings of deep depression which make no sense to those around her. They argue that she should just “try to be happy”. When, by the end of the film, the entire fabric of life on earth is under serious threat, Justine seems the most stable and secure among them; having encountered and confronted the emptiness of life, she is able to deal with what everyone else has previously hidden from. Von Trier’s film operates from an almost nihilistic viewpoint whereby meaning is dictated by the “fact” that “we are alone” in this universe, a view which many – including me – would struggle with. Yet what he presents compellingly in the film is that sometimes the emptiness perceived by those with depression is not entirely a symptom of an illness but a fact from which others hide.
Death, for instance, is a reality which hangs over every human life. Then there are all the ways in which we enter life with expectations and hopes which may never be met, both in life and in ourselves. We repeatedly do not live up to the expectations we have of ourselves, and the disappointments we can suffer at the hands of others are equally great. Additionally, there are the numerous sources of anguish and distress in the world around us. We surely cannot confront the realities of famine, disease and oppression throughout the world, of which the majority of us are knowingly or unknowingly culpable, without feeling both guilty and grieved.
Yet this is a truth from which many in the world today hide. Christians so often hide from it because we expect better of life after finding Christ. We expect ourselves to be good, and we expect life to conform to divine will. Admitting otherwise is often painful and requires a more solid, God-centred faith than we are entirely ready for. In some Christian circles, lamentation seems to demonstrate a lack of faith. In most circles, it simply isn’t done. For those who do not hold to religious belief, it is equally hard. Acknowledging the deep pain of reality without an answer or a reason behind it is no easier than recognising that life does not always conform clearly to that answer or reason.
If so many in the world today suffer from depression, a possible explanation could be that we simply do not give space in life for meaningful acts of grief, mourning and repentance, thus causing grief to fester. In his beautiful series of meditations on the Eucharist – noting that the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving” – Henri Nouwen speaks of the importance of first “mourning our losses”. Without doing so, he writes, we are inclined towards resentment – perhaps in a quiet form, of which we are not readily aware, yet sometimes in more overt forms which manifest themselves in intense anger towards ourselves or others. That, or our resentment reappears in the forms of bitterness or disillusionment. The answer to this problem begins both with an acknowledgment of loss and of the fact that we are in some ways culpable for this loss, the cry for mercy with which the Lord’s Supper begins:
This cry for mercy is possible only when we are willing to confess that somehow, somewhere, we ourselves have something to do with our losses. Crying for mercy is a recognition that blaming God, the world, or others for our losses does not do full justice to the truth of who we are. At the moment we are willing to take responsibility, even for the pain we didn’t cause directly; blaming is converted into an acknowledgement of our own role in human brokenness.
Perhaps this culpability is part of the reason why we do not confront grief: because it might lead to guilt, and we are even more afraid of that than of grief itself. Yet guilt that is justified is not pathological or dangerous, not when there is a clear solution to that guilt: the mercy of an all-loving God.
The reality that life disappoints and hurts is unavoidable, yet it is similarly not the whole story; this is precisely why we can lament. We can recognise that life is imperfect, mourn this fact, and through faith in God participate in the possibility of a different reality. If we grieve the fact that this reality takes a long time in coming, we are of the same mind and heart as all creation, which according to the apostle Paul “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Like Naomi of the Old Testament, we can mourn that life has become bitter for us, yet it is does not need to end there. To mourn means ultimately to avoid bitterness or resentment in ourselves, because we acknowledge pain openly, before God. Yet the key is to also mourn our own guilt and culpability with the tragedy. If we recognise before God that we are part of the problem, we can be enabled by His grace to be part of the solution.
Grief and guilt can become pathological, it is true. They can become such overwhelming emotions that they themselves create new and unnecessary pains and disappointments. Yet they originate in a rational place, and part of the reason why we struggle so much with how to deal with pathological and neurotic feelings is arguably our reluctance to deal with them in their more reasonable and justifiable manifestations. When we walk with God’s people through the valley of weeping, when we recognise our own unworthiness before a holy God, we should mourn. To be mentally healthy in such a place may well involve such mourning.
The good news, of course, is that it does not finish there, but this is a truth that we cannot fully or sympathetically celebrate until we too have walked through the valley of weeping ourselves.
Bonhoeffer, D. 2005. Ethics. Ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Nouwen, H. 1994. With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life. New York: Orbis Books.