Forgetting Depression

"Depression says many things. All of them are lies."

Depression says many things. All of them are lies. But the worst of these lies masquerade as truth. They sound like truths—spiritual truths even—but they are subtly twisted, misguided, and misdirected. Depression looks at sin and our fallen state and whispers, “look at the mess you’ve created.” It turns the comfort of prayer and worship into lethargic escapism. Absent of hope, depression evaluates the misery and prescribes unceasing condemnation. It offers isolation as both cause and remedy. Depression takes the hope of heaven and asserts that it would be better to hurry up and get there now.

I write both as one who has lived in the depths of this unique despair and experienced long seasons of victory over it, and also as one who must do battle with those whispers still today.

Last week, Pastor Brian used the term “self-forgetfulness” in his discussion of how to live in true humility. It struck me as such an apt way to describe one of the most effective tools I’ve found to combat depression in my own life.

You may have heard the idea that depression is rooted in selfishness and pride. In times of clear-headed reflection on my own struggle, I can affirm the accuracy of this idea. But the sneaky reality of the experience of depression is that it rarely feels selfish. In fact, it feels the opposite of selfish. A selfish person, I think to myself, would be interested in socializing, interested in starting a new project or enjoying a good meal. A selfish person would seek out enjoyment and pleasure, but there is nothing pleasurable about depression. When I am in the throes of depression, I feel completely disconnected with others and not only uninterested in things that might normally bring me enjoyment, but also incapable of pursuing them.

The reason I don’t see this experience as selfish is because I have a skewed idea of what “selfless” actually means. If selflessness is a concerted effort on my part to do things that will make others happy, then I toil away at pleasing those around me. If they appear displeased, then I take ownership of their experience and am thus unsatisfied. No matter the outcome, I hold myself responsible. Trying to be selfless, then, becomes just another way to focus on and evaluate my own performance.

This is why I find the term “self-forgetfulness” so helpful. It’s tempting to respond to depression by doubling my efforts to ignore the pain or dwelling on others that “have it worse.” I hear the ringing in my ears, “Stop being so selfish,” and try again to do more. When these efforts inevitably fail, I buy into another of depression's lies: maybe I’ll never really beat this thing.

To be truly selfless, I need to forget myself. It’s such a subtle turn of focus, but an important one. It requires me to turn my eyes upon Jesus and to love others for no other reason than the fact that He loved me first. It often means letting God’s Word and other Christians speak into my experience. It takes time and practice to train my thoughts, and it really does feel like a battle for my soul.

As I pursue Christ, genuinely listen and care for those around me, and seek ways to serve the body, I look back to find that it has been days or even weeks since the unwelcome guest of depression came knocking. Preoccupied with truth, perhaps someday I’ll forget his name altogether.