From Depression To Delight
by RON ROLHEISER, OMI
It’s not easy to be grown-up and not live in a certain depression. Depression is the disease of the normal person.
But what afflicts most of us is not clinical depression, an illness requiring professional attention, but a certain chronic joylessness. There’s too little delight in our lives.
When we’re not at our best, and many times we aren’t, our mood is almost always coloured by irritation, frustration, jealousy, anger, pettiness, bitterness, and a sense that life isn’t fair. Many is the day when there isn’t a lot of joy in our lives.
However even at our best, our lives still often feel dour, duty-bound, heavy, pressured, sad, and lacking in delight. How often, on any given day, do we suddenly fill with joy at the feel of our own bodies, at the feel of the world, at the feel of friendship, at the feel of faith, at the feel of just being alive, and spontaneously say: “God, it feels good to be alive!” At such a moment we wouldn’t be depressed.
But we can go on for years, be hard working, honest, church going, duty-fulfilling folks, and never experience such a burst of joy. We see this kind of joy mostly in the very young; we need only to walk past a small child who’s just been fed or a kindergarten playground to hear bursts of spontaneous delight and to hear someone shouting to the effect that: “It feels good to be alive!”
How do we recover that?
Too often, as adults, we try to do it by working hard at creating pleasure, enjoyment, and delight in our own lives. We try to crank up joy and delight, meeting life with the attitude: “I’m going to have a good time, whatever the cost!” But what we produce is seldom joy. That’s why, so often, we go home from a party feeling more empty than before going. Many of our attempts at creating joy and delight are really only attempts at keeping depression at bay. Our socializing tends to be forced and compulsive rather than spontaneous and fulfilling. For most adults, excess is a functional substitute for delight.
But, here’s the secret: No matter how hard we try to find delight or joy, we can’t find them. They have to find us, catch us by surprise, blind-side us. Every spirituality or psychology worth its name tells us that joy and delight are always a by-product of something else. What?
They’re by-product of acting like God acts, strange though that sounds. Simply put, when we act like God, we get to feel like God; and when we act petty, we get to feel petty! When we do big-hearted things, we get to feel big-hearted; and when we do small-hearted things, we get to feel small.
Whenever we, in our own small ways, begin to imitate God’s selflessness and graciousness we will begin to feel like God. But how do we do that?
We act like God when we are selfless without resentment, when we give without counting the cost, when we give out of our sustenance rather than out of what we have in excess, and when we give our own lives away so that others, particularly the young, can live.
There’s a wonderful expression of this in the hit musical, Les Miserables, when Jean Val Jean, already an old man, goes to bless the young Marius at the barricades. This young man in fact poses a huge threat in that he will soon take Jean’s adopted daughter away from him. Yet Jean, the prototype of an Elder, goes to bless him. When he arrives at the barricades he finds young Marius asleep, but he also finds him in a situation where his youthful idealism and naivete are likely to lead to his death. And so, as he blesses him, he addresses these words to God: “God on high, hear my prayer … Look at this boy, he is young, he is afraid. … So take my life, let him live! Let me die, let him live!”
This is what it means to act like God. To offer one’s life for another, particularly when the cost is high, and particularly too when that other might not even know what you are doing for him or her and might not be grateful for it.
And this isn’t easy to do. It’s painful, as T.S. Eliot once said, costing not less than everything. But I’m certain that, whatever else Jean Val Jean was feeling after blessing young Marius, he wasn’t depressed. You can be sure that sometime after doing this, Jean Val Jean would have had such a sense of the beauty, preciousness, and the wonder of life that he would have spontaneously uttered: “It feels good to be alive!”
The air we breathe out into the universe is the air we will inhale. That’s the law of karma. When we act like God, we get to feel like God. And God is never depressed.