Faith in God is no bone to throw to the Black Dog of depression
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has spoken out about episodes of depression he suffers: “Black Dog” in the phrase favoured by Churchill.
But should the Primate of All England not be bathed in the light of hope and consoled by the Good News that he preaches?
I think that to expect him to feel happy all the time because of his faith is to misunderstand both depression and faith. Depression is not feeling sad about things such as trouble at work, the miseries depicted on the 10 o’clock news or even bereavement. Depression is, in the title of a book by Lewis Wolpert, Malignant Sadness. It is to ordinary unhappiness what skin cancer is to a sun-tan.
Depression might be provoked by a blow from outside, but it need not be. Dr Wolpert, as he bravely explained in his book, crashed down into a deep dark hole of depression while living in a happy marriage and excelling in his scientific work.
So how does faith connect with depression?
Here the great mistake is to conceive of faith as a kind of feeling, as if bunny rabbits and daffodils and all good gifts around us sent from heaven above were enough to instil a permanent mood of Christmas morning with the presents to be opened.
In reality, faith is a kind of knowledge. It is the same sort of knowledge as that which tells you your husband loves you (and is not two-timing). Evidencebased it may be, but the evidence is taken on trust, just as New York’s existence is taken on trust by those who haven’t been there.
An epitome of faith is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. There she was, smiling at everyone and saving babies from rubbish heaps while cheerfully living an austere life. What could be a more encouraging picture of happiness? Yet after her death, the contents of her diaries were revealed. “My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains,” she wrote in it. “I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist.”
That was as far as her feelings went. Her behaviour, by contrast, followed the convictions that faith brought. She kept on praying to the God who was hidden by a dark cloud. She kept engaging with the poorest of the poor and urging anyone she met: “If you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” Last year she was declared a saint.
At the same time, it would be wrong to think that dark nights populated by Black Dogs are more likely to submerge those living by faith. If anything, people without faith in a benign God face a sharper tragedy.
For a start the world is full of misery and we’re all going to die, quite soon. Yet that fear of death is filtered out by the standard human psyche most of the time. Indeed young people tend to assume they won’t die, which is irrational.
The real quandary of the human condition is worse than simply a life of pain followed by extinction. The problem, as sketched by the classical humanist Miguel de Unamuno, is that human beings have an appetite for the infinite – for love and the transcendent – that we have no means of achieving. We reach for the stars, and the cold, unbridgeable distance to their brightness brings us anguish.
If the Black Dog lopes behind the Archbishop of Canterbury he is better placed to integrate it into his life by possessing a faith in a God who is ultimately in charge. But the Dog will still be as Black and as snarling.