I have been prone on occasion to depression, never clinically diagnosed, just the old sort of nasty depression that has never yet had to be treated with medicine. I’m no medical doctor, so don’t take anything I say here with any sort of medical say-so. Nonetheless it does seem to me that depression—and by that term here I mean not a chemically induced, medically treated sort, but an environmentally induced deep sadness—would be, at some point, a part of any human being’s journey in the complex modern world in which we find ourselves. The complexities of modern life often seem to roll over us. No sooner are we upright from one wave of difficulty that some new technologically enabled, or wealth enabled, or consumerist enabled trouble hits us.
In that beautiful little book A Testament of Devotion, the Quaker Thomas Kelly notes that the human psyche was not designed to handle the overwhelming barrage of grievous facts which pummel us through mass media, the unending facts of human suffering and war and oppression.
He wrote those words in the 1930’s, no less.
How much more so these days. I found myself simply having to turn off the radio reports, turn my head aside to take in as little as possible of the video of the chemical attacks in Syria. The wretching of the children, their wails, are in fact, too much for my pscyhe.
More pressing upon me than the despotic regimes in the middle East is the hard work of parenting three teenage boys. Our three boys are, in fact, all beautiful human beings, and beautiful in every way. But their God-given beauty does not change the fact that they deal with the onslaught of the difficulties and complexities and grave allure of a materialistic, indulgent, and self-obsessed society.
So my lovely wife Laura and I often find ourselves grieving the hard road they must travel. We know full well that the challenges faced by all us wealthy westerners are qualitatively different than the challenges faced by the desperately poor in the slums in Nairobi. But as some saintly person once said, that difference does not mean that there is not a fundamentally real, fundamentally painful, poverty of affluence.
I have long been interested in the ways in which theology may, or may not, speak to the world outside the church. As an adolescent I was schooled in pusillanimous church arguments by the preacher, arguments I took way too seriously, because, well, because he told me I should. I’m not so interested in those debates I take to be rather petty and trivial.
What I’m interested in these days is wondering how we, how I, keep on going.
This is one reason I find the Christian tradition compelling: if, in fact, the crucified Christ is raised from the dead, then it is in fact possible to have a resource for perseverance in the midst of our flat-footed realism about the painful nature of human history. If, in fact, the crucified Christ is raised, then it is possible for me, for us, to proclaim that, yes, we know—we know life is hard, that the brokenness of our lives is inescapable and fundamental, and yes, we know that the Trail of Tears is not just a sorry path from North Carolina to Oklahoma, but that in fact the whole sorry journey from east of Eden to last week’s Syria is one grievous, harrowing trail of tears, a path to which there seems no end—if in fact the crucified Christ is raised then we can say that yes, we know all about those old inescapable, overwhelming facts that become too much for our psyches to bear, but we can say too that there has broken into human history a new fact, the fact patient suffering love has been, after all, victorious; that death has been taken captive; and that kindness and mercy, are, in actual and new fact, the only way forward, or, at least, the only way forward if we want to get very far.
I find that theological assertion compelling, and convincing enough, to grant me some reprieve today from the depressive malaise of contemporary life, with all its attendant ills. And not only a mere reprieve, but even a space for genuine joy. For if it is true, then it is quite possible that today, I need simply to practice kindness and justice and mercy, and find therein a new gladness even in the midst of the old facts of grief and hardship and cruelty.
Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of www.TokensShow.com and the Dispatches from the Buckle Podcast, and the author of Who Is My Enemy?