Faith in God is no bone to throw to the Black Dog of de­pres­sion

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - FOLLOW Christo­pher Howse on Twit­ter @Beardy­howse; READ MORE at tele­graph.co.uk/opin­ion CHRISTO­PHER HOWSE

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?

No.

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.

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