Monday, September 15, 2014

Student Depression

Last weekend, a former student contacted me to share his experience of a recent loss. A close friend of his, after having struggled for years with crippling depression, took her own life. This young man, in the wake of her suicide, has been left not only with the pain that attends her loss but, also, with a burning question: what, if anything, can be done to help others who experience such crippling darkness that death seems the only way to stop the pain? 

Drawing on his own harrowing experiences of depression, Jesuit William Lynch described the feeling of hopelessness as containing, in varying degrees, elements of the following: 
  • Sense of the impossible - no matter what one must do, it seems too daunting. Whether it be to get out of bed, or go to school or work, or look through the day toward the evening, it seems too much. 
  • Sense of too-muchness - the whole of life seems too much, too big, too burdensome. The smallest task is overwhelming, things others might take for granted become herculean endeavors.
  • Sense of futility - in the heart's depths, where once there burned a flame that provided a steely resolve, there is nothing. One experiences a lack of feeling, a total numbness.
For the person for whom hope has been extinguished, it would seem that all of one's interior resources have been vanquished. Where once a still, small voice encouraged, "Come on! You can do it!" there is no silence, a deafening absence of sound, which is experienced as a constant reminder "There is no use."

"Hopeless" by dobytek
I would observe that, if these observations ring true, they would be experienced particularly acutely by young people today. We frequently read about the pressure students are put under: be involved, be studious, be extraordinary. These days, there's a competition to get into kindergarten! High school students are under constant pressure to get good grades and high test scores. College students feel pressure to declare majors early and have a life-plan by the end of their first year. 
Our expectation is that young people "Dream Big" and "Aim High." A person for whom hope has been extinguished can hardly "make a wish" on a birthday candle or on a distant star. 

Adding to Lynch's metaphor: if on a journey through the desert we come upon a collapsed traveler, his immediate desire will not be to construct a water park or aqueduct. Instead, if we ask what he wants, he will simply say: water. It is not the big dream or career blueprint that is the sign of life. The sign of life, and the sign of hope's endurance, is the ability to make even the smallest wish.  

I mention this because I think all of us need to be increasingly mindful of the pressures and expectations we place upon ourselves and others. If we see a fellow traveler stooped under her burden, our assumption should not be that she's lazy or unwilling to walk further. If our students, or young friends, seem somewhat ground down by daily life, we should not ignore it or attribute it to "a phase." Hopelessness is not a phase. It is an affliction, a soul-tearing ordeal. We cannot dispel the darkness for another, but we can help to fan the dimming flame of the heart. 

As I think back on my own former students, I wonder what would have happened had I been more attentive to certain things. The student who packs a bag slowly, with labored breath, and sort of shuffles out the door. The student who stares off into the distance, his skin pallid, somehow there but not there. The forced-smile that tries to distract from the ocean of tears behind the eyes; the assurance that "everything's great" when you can tell, somehow, that it's not. If I could do it over, I'd not ask them big questions, questions I know now to be overwhelming. Perhaps I'd ask, instead, "what do you want to have for lunch?" or "if you could make a wish today, what would it be for?" If it sparked conversation: great. If the student couldn't articulate even the simplest wish, then it might be a good sign that intervention was called for. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

You Can't Go It Alone

It was hard not to notice this summer, as I spent many, many, many hours in various airport, just how many "self-help" books populate the shelves of various retailers. Some celebrate the power of positive thinking, others promise a program of seven-day personal transformation, others assure personal and professional success if you just follow the ____ number of steps contained in the book.

As a genre, these books tap into a common core: you can rely on yourself, and draw upon your own resources, to bring about the change in your life that you need.

So long as you buy the book!

It's often hard to admit that we need assistance in our lives. There is such pressure to maintain a certain image, to keep up a certain appearance, that we fear having people discover we're not as good, or smart, or competent as we think they think we are. Thus we try to fix ourselves on our own, try to pull ourselves out of the quicksand traps we've fallen into. We say things like, "I'm going to take up running after I lose another ten pounds" and "I'm going to go take some cooking classes after I watch the Food Network for a few more weeks to learn what I'm supposed to do." (I heard that last one at the airport)

Our spiritual lives aren't immune to this. One friend of mine shared that he'd been having a hard time praying this summer but he was looking forward to next year's Lenten season to get back to it.

Last night, before I fell asleep, I was praying with Psalm 49. Here's the passage on which I lingered:
No man can ransom even a brother, (this is a maxim, not a statement of fact)                     or pay to God his own ransom.
When a prisoner is taken hostage and ransom demanded, the prisoner depends on outside assistance for help. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18 plays on the powerlessness of captives: if you're in prison, there's no way to work to earn the money to cover your debt. When one is ransomed, captured, or ensnared it no longer within that person's power to enact a self-rescue. We, all of us, need an outside rescue.

I cannot help but wonder how big a hit the Self-Help industry would suffer if those who bought the books hawked to them dared to risk an inward glance to name the places in their lives where they were being held prisoner. Rather than looking to a book to give them the advice so that they might free themselves - as if we had the talent and skill of a spiritual MacGyver! - perhaps it would save them money, and help to save themselves, by asking another for help. 

To open ourselves in vulnerability to another, to admit our shortcomings and our inabilities, to allow someone else to see us for who we truly and really are...not only is this the first step on the road to healing but it is also the first step on the road to authentic friendship. So, too, is it the first movement of prayer and of faith's journey. For in professing our faith, we admit that we cannot go this path alone, that we cannot pay our own ransom, but that in the Holy One of God we have found the merciful one who will enter our chaos, who will pay our debts and save us, and who will walk with us as our brother and friend.  



Monday, September 01, 2014

And another summer passes away...

Sitting down to pray this morning, I found myself particularly struck by the day's first reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.
Tomorrow, I begin what I suspect are my last two years formal classes: I begin my PhD in theology here at Boston College. In a slight sense, I'm breaking sequence in beginning my degree an academic year before priestly ordination. Thus I will complete my first year of studies, I'll be ordained in June, and then continue my studies next Fall.

In light of this new adventure, today's reading is especially pertinent for, at the end of the day, even a fancy degree in Catholic theology has at its core but one element: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. In a world where the young and hip are deemed beautiful and the new and shiny seen as desirable, the person at the heart of Christianity cannot help but to give pause, for we preach a crucified man, one who was despised by those around him, as the axis of history.

Academic theologians, I reckon, succumb fairly quickly to conforming to the expectations of the Academy and use big words and complicated phrases to talk about Jesus. We use phrases like "ontological matrix" or "retroductive warrant" or "postulatory finitism" as we stumble and stutter to say something about this Jesus fellow, about who he was and still is for those who've met him in faith. One gets the sense that many theologians experience something analogous to locker room envy when they're in the company of other scholars, so they puff themselves with big words to feel less insecure.

What I found most convincing in my own life, though, were the lived testimonies of other believers. Family and friends, teachers and mentors, from many of these models I saw the shape and credibility of Christian discipleship. Father Stephen Moran and Monsignor Corrigan never attempted "sublimity of words" yet, in their witness, they helped to draw me deeper into my own faith. No one ever argued another person into belief. The best a believer can do is extend God's hospitality to another wayfarer and invite her or him to "taste and see" for themselves the goodness of faith.

I share this brief thought as much to think out loud as to share with readers where I'm at. As this summer draws to a close and I return to the books, I sincerely hope that Paul's words will remain in my heart. Likewise, as I prepare for ordination, I hope always to be mindful that it will not be by words alone, but by lived example, that others will encounter and either be intrigued by, or repelled from, the Gospel. 

The Final Chapter?

At 3:34 this afternoon, I saved a completed draft of the fifth and final chapter of my dissertation. I semi-knew yesterday that I was neari...