Recent seminary graduate N. C. Harrison examines the (potentially) divine origins of depression, a silent killer of men and women.
“With my voice I cry to ADONAI, with my voice I plead to ADONAI for mercy,” Psalm 142:1—a Lament of David.
Speaking as one who has suffered, from time to time, with bouts of depression and anxiety it is good to know, with King David of Israel and other such luminaries by my proverbial side, that I am in good company. Although it is often a malady associated with women, depression is also a great, silent killer of men. It does not just kill their bodies outright, however, but instead works to kill their hearts, minds and even spirits.
Many of the old sages wrote that all Scripture was like an orchard. This led to or came from (or the matter might have been co-arising) the PRDS method of interpretation, based on an acrostic for the Hebrew word for orchard. The four letters represent peshat (literal meaning), remez (the deep or allegorical meaning), derash (the text’s connection to other texts) and sod (the mysterious or esoteric meaning of the text). It is similar, in many ways, to the fourfold allegorical method of interpretation, proposed by Dante, but possesses a deeper connection to the inner self and to the matters of the Spirit instead of to the political world. This makes it, perhaps, more useful for examining David’s cry to his Lord as a man in pain.
The literal meaning of the text, in this Psalm, is fairly clear. David cries out, in an agony of frustration, to ADONAI. His “spirit has failed” inside of him and it seems like no one in the world cares about him or understands him. His enemies surround him, setting traps, and plan to destroy the great man through ambushes and guile. All is utter darkness and the only thing which can aid the king in this situation is to call upon his Lord to deliver him from those who have persecuted him because, in all other ways, he has been brought low and—for all his considerable strength—his enemies are arrayed in a position of strength against him.
When one considers what might have brought David to this state of despair the slate is, unfortunately, full of choices. Although he achieved much professionally and militarily, bringing a golden age to the kingdom of Israel, his life was a tragic one beset by violence, familial strife and personal failure. This Psalm of lament could have been written while David was on the run from his king Sha’ul, for example, and separated from his wife Michal and best friend Yonatan. This must have been a difficult time indeed for David as he wandered in the rugged countryside with only a few loyal retainers like Joab and Uriah.
Another difficult time which could be referred to in this Psalm might occur immediately following the death of the prophet Shmu’el, David’s mentor and surrogate father figure. He could have also fallen into a deep depression brought on by guilt after committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of his close friend Uriah, or after arranging to have this close friend killed. Even more terrible, perhaps, might be the pain brought on by the loss of one of the three sons who died before he did, any parent’s worst nightmare, or the disastrous mess that he had made out of his kingdom through a series of perfectly avoidable bad decisions.
There are plenty of connections to other lines in Scripture brought forth by this text. Over half of David’s Psalms are laments, after all, which is not surprising considering the brief biography of grief provided for him above. One can also associate this situation with the grief over Yosef that Ya’akov felt, in Genesis 34:37, which led him to rip his clothing asunder, put on a garment made of sack-cloth and mourn, saying that he would go event unto the grave weeping for his son. Another patriarch responds similarly, in Iyov 1:20, after learning that all of his children, servants and animals have been slain by reavers and a strong wind. These are clear cases of situational depression, a grief brought on by identifiable sources.
There are not just references to the misery of men all throughout Scripture, however, but also in many other types of literature. When he began to write The Divine Comedy, Dante found himself in the midst of a dark forest with a wolf on one side and a leopard on the other. St. John of the Cross, perhaps Christianity’s foremost mystic, wrote extensively about his “dark night of the soul” and John Donne, a writer of elegance, reason and deeply felt emotion, spent as much time brooding over the prospect of death in his Seventeenth Meditation (the source of a famous quote about a tolling bell) as he did railing against it in his Tenth Holy Sonnet.
As one moves forward into the nineteenth century he can find the defiant speaker of Henry’s “Invictus” proclaiming that his “head is bloody but unbowed,” a statement in the first person no less ferocious than Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to his father, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” T.S. Eliot expressed the dislocation of anxiety, grief and depression more eloquently and pointedly than anyone when he described “a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” and a “room where women come and go, talking of Michelangelo,” where Prufrock feels ghostly. His final image of drowning and mermaids’ voices, “singing each to each,” but not to him, seems to be the cry of one who longs desperately to be a part of the conversation but cannot be due to his confining cage of personal shadow. He asks, again and again, “so how should I presume?” and watches the “lonely men in shirtsleeves, leaning out of windows,” but cannot bring himself to ask the “overwhelming question.” He remains alone, trapped in his role as “an attendant lord” unable even to be Prince Hamlet in the play of his own life.
It seems strange perhaps, after using the words of literature’s greatest minds, to finish here with a quote from Ozzy Osbourne, but at least one line of the song “Paranoid” summarizes all of this as well as anything ever could. ”Make a joke and I will sigh and you will laugh and I will cry,” Ozzy wails, “happiness I cannot feel and love to me is so unreal.” This is how certain moments feel to a man who is afflicted with depression, crippling anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder: sometimes it is difficult to get up out of bed and he only makes it because he knows that in a few hours he can go back.
With all this in mind… what next? What universal, esoteric mystery can be revealed about the anxiety and melancholy which have afflicted me and so many others? I don’t know. I really wish that I could say something, draw some conclusion, but all I can offer definitively is a shrug of my overly broad shoulders.
My only thought here comes from Imago Dei—the notion that mankind is made in the image of the Lord. If we can feel anxious, depressed, grief stricken, obsessive…then maybe He can, too. There is evidence for this in Genesis 6:6, wherein ADONAI sees the wickedness of mankind and laments that He has made such a devilish being, wracked by frustration and grief.
Perhaps, considering that the Lord Himself can feel sadness, David wasn’t just calling out for help in Psalm 142 but was, in fact, speaking to a friend who could lend a sympathetic ear. I don’t know if this is true or not—my thoughts on the matter are informed, as I just graduated from seminary this week, but in no way authoritative—but I rather like it. Maybe if even ADONAI feels like He just doesn’t want to get out of bed on some mornings, then the rest of us can find some strength when we don’t.