My Depression and the God of Esau
IMAGE: PHOTO OF PAINTING WITH JESUS
My first encounter with really powerful depression came in the MTC. It worsened in the field. I cycled through periods of intense productivity and soul scouring depression a few times a month. As a missionary, I framed everything I experienced within the vernacular that was closest at hand. I attributed the depressive cycles to moral failure, not working hard enough, not being pure enough in my selflessness, despite the fact that I was clearly undergoing symptoms of clinical depression.
I viewed these dark episodes as the consequence of the sin of inadequacy. The wages of obedience, I was certain, were peace. While the Gospel could not ensure a steady income, friends, clothing, or food, I reasoned - the one thing I thought I had a right to was inner peace and assurance that I was "On the Right Path." I was deeply hurt and confused when that assurance did not come when I needed it most desperately -- a feeling I'm sure many of us, depressed or no, can relate to, to one degree or another.
In one of my darkest moments on my mission the noise of anxiety became so overwhelming that I simply walked out of the apartment during morning study without saying a word to my companion. I wandered the city haranguing myself for being weak, for having not measured up, agonizing over how I would get through the rest of my life having failed my mission, which, I had been taught, would set the pace for the rest of my life as an LDS male. When the fog of panic had settled and I could once again see clearly, I returned to the apartment to face my shaken companion and district leader, took a train into the city where the mission president was stationed, and accepted my mission president's invitation to just "man-up." My cycles of hyper-productivity and worsening depression continued, but I was thankfully able to finish and feel proud of the work I did.
I have struggled with severe depression regularly in the 10 years since my mission. It wasn't until the end of my missionary service that I started to notice a kind of tidal pattern to the ups and downs, suspecting, for the first time, that these dark moods were a product of a maladjusted brain, and not due to moral failing or a displeased God.
As I've mapped out the darker corners of my psychosphere over the following decade, one thing has become resoundingly clear: I can't always trust my feelings or self-analysis, especially when the cadence of my thoughts darkens and takes more cynical or caustic tones. Depression, to a large extent, is a phenomenological lens through which everything is filtered for me. While I have made enormous strides in navigating these emotional byways, depression is the central and defining struggle of my adult life. Everything I do is an accounting of it, an offering to it.
One of the things depression stole from me was the God I had envisioned growing up. God, I found, had nothing to say about the dark moods I passed through. And his representatives, despite their immediate accessibility, didn't either. I felt a deep isolation that made the concept of a loving God remote and inaccessible. Relief did not come when I needed it most, and there was no assurance that everything would be OK in the end, that this pain served a purpose. So I looked for alternative narratives.
In the years after my mission I discovered a movement in art that flowered around WWI called Dada, and it resonated deeply with me. A group of artists, meeting in Switzerland, saw the human search for beauty and "the good" as a failed venture in lieu of the war. They rejected the primacy of accepted forms of artistic expression, the virtue of beauty, and the privileged status of order and reason. They embraced chaos and absurdity. An incredibly fecund period of experimentation ensued, leading in turn to many other modes of expression , including surrealism and cubism, radically challenging how people looked at and defined "art."
Here I found my narrative. I would, I decided, reject my inherited assumptions because, on a pragmatic level, they didn't work. I hoped that a personal Renaissance would follow, and in starting from scratch that I would discover avenues that would have otherwise been inaccessible had I kept trying to move forward from the same foundational premises.
During this period, and while a student at BYU, I encountered the writings of Carl Jung. An English professor and dear friend, Suzanne Lundquist, introduced me to him and I instantly fell in love. Jung provided a way of looking at religion that accounted for the most horrible things I had experienced and which did not insist on religion being externally, objectively true. This allowed me to hold on to the value of undeniably, unforgettably powerful experiences I had received while actively LDS, without having to follow the usual train of logic that this meant that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and that all subsequent truth claims established by the Church were also valid.
Moreover, Jung insisted that symbolism was essential to the spiritual life, and that spirituality was essential to health, but that these things pointed inward, not outward - avoiding in this subjectivity the distasteful problem of dogmatism. Christ was a potentiality for wholeness within all of us, and Christ himself was paradigmatic of the fully individuated human being. Like the Buddha, he was a pattern to be followed, realized even, and not just a god to be worshiped. This also allowed me to move away from perfection as a paradigm to the more humanistic goal of wholeness.
I remember reading the story of Jacob and Esau as an assignment for this same class and being overcome at its potency in a way that I had never before experienced. Esau, in my mind (and working through a Jungian, archetypal interpretative lens), represented my depression: my impulses, my wild, intemperate desires that often led me to dissipation in attempts to quell the pain I felt. Jacob represented the impulses of my rational mind for holiness, education, connection and community: my healthy brain.
The part of the story that I'd always missed, and which has become foundational in how I approach religion, occurs long after Jacob's con, years later when these estranged brothers are reunited. Jacob approaches Esau's home with caution, fearing violence against his person, the promise of that old blood feud. He sent his servants and gifts before him like a shield. Esau, however, in one of the most shining examples of forgiveness and radical love that I've come across in scripture, abandons formality and the long sedimentary buildup of enmity, runs to his brother without hesitation, and falls at his shoulder, embraces him, kisses him, and weeps. Jacob, stunned, and perhaps a little overwhelmed, says to Esau: "I have seen thy face as though I had seen the face of God."
It was Esau who had the greater compassion, and the greater capacity for forgiveness, despite the fact that he had by all fair estimation been wronged, tricked out of his inheritance, and dealt an unjust hand by his parents. This Esau is the wild man, who sold his birthright to satisfy his desire, and the same who is typically held up as an example of how not to comport oneself.
I found within this story a metaphor that moved me deeply. I would not find peace through alienating or shunning this other part of myself, my "demons" -- supposedly the adversaries of my better nature. In fact, I might just see the face of Christ, who had been so painfully absent for years, in that shadow-half. I might find in its shade a relief from the heat of my self-loathing and unobtainable expectations. Maybe I could extrapolate from the experience, as did Jacob, a higher more perfect love in the reconciliation of my healthy-self with that other I had bucked against and buckled under.
Was the face of God somewhere to be found in my depression? Some of the most powerful feelings of love I have felt in my life have come from embracing the wound that I understand now will never heal, and which will always be a significant part of who I am. And having to show a love to myself, that had been so inaccessible on my mission, revealed a God much closer than the God of Kolob who did not comfort nor heal. Depression showed me the limitations of the God I had built with my understanding: broke him, even. I've learned that the task of rebirthing God, slightly more evolved (hopefully) with each iteration, is my task, and mine alone -- as it is for everyone else.
At least for now, I have trouble approaching the idea of God as an anthropomorphic externality. Mormonism as a paint-by-numbers guide to heaven has no meaning for me. I lost that paradigm to depression (and then further had it drug through the mud by the usual information). In its place I hear an ethical call to envision a God that is better than the former to whom I prayed. I hear a call to be that God, as Esau was in the transfiguration of that moment for Jacob, as hard as that can be. I believe that we are not only complicit in creating the God in whose image we ourselves are re-created, but that it is our moral imperative to create an increasingly moral God.
I believe that God is the injunction to be creators in a way that best promotes life and its continuation, from the personal to societal level. My depression is Esau, wild, impetuous, and the embodiment of the need to love and for love, all the bolder for its caprice. The pain brings consciousness of my ideological limitations -- wisdom, as Satan brought it to Eve. From consciousness comes the capacity to create, and with the capacity to create, a moral imperative to create God, that I too, might increase in my capacity as a Creator until salvation is not just a concept, but more of a practice with social, environmental, and technological impact.