It’s been hard to avoid hyperbole when talking about the COVID-19 crisis. Unprecedented! World-changing! Life won’t be the same again! We’ve heard it all and will continue to hear it. It’s estimated that around half the world’s population experienced virus-provoked restrictions of one sort or another. In addition to the fears and griefs directly caused by the disease, the lockdowns and quarantines brought genuine hardship, whether from enforced separation (from needed friends, for example) or enforced proximity (as in cases of domestic abuse).
This really has been new. Not because pandemics are new. Indeed, the carnage from the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic dwarfs the COVID-19 crisis. The game changer has been the technology that brings everything to within a few bytes’ reach. We now are globally aware like never before. And yet, that only dented the pains of isolation for so many. It is that sense of isolation that is unnervingly familiar to those with mental illness.
“Having suffered infinitely worse, Christ knew my suffering. Intimately.”
If the lockdown has been something you personally found difficult, then one possible redeeming feature could be greater sympathy. One psychologist observes how the global lockdown immersed millions into some of the daily realities of the physically disabled, with the hope for greater understanding to result. And to the physically disabled, we might also add those wrestling with mental illness.
Deeper Than ‘Depression’
It started as a way of finding my own words, on the advice of a psychologist, and was definitely not intended for publication. But in the end, that’s what happened: it evolved into a book on doing ministry while managing depression. Bizarrely (for I only discovered this fairly recently), it seems that I best process life and what I’m actually thinking on paper (or screens).
But what do you do if there are no words? Words have been my thing for years, as one who loves literature and who preaches and trains preachers. But since my PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis in 2005 (on our return to London from a few years’ teaching in a small Ugandan seminary), as well as being on medication ever since, the most terrifying aspect was the inability to articulate what was happening. This was acutely isolating. Especially from those closest to me.
Words that were commonly associated with depression (including that useless and deceptive catch-all term itself) felt far too limp or puny. “Oh, if that’s all it is, then just have an early night! Or take a few days off? You’ll be fine in a blink!” Those thoughtless “solutions” echoed round my mind. Or even worse, the platitudes from the well-meaning and know-it-all friends. “The Lord will be with you in it all. Pray and you’ll feel great again in the morning. Or don’t you trust his promises?”
Isolated in the Cave
The Lord has been with me in this, of course. But the conviction has been shaken and battered, especially in those darker hours, or rather, months. It’s something to cling onto despite every experience in the cave that screeches the sheer absurdity of doing so. Talk about learning the hard way how to live by faith, not sight (or any other sense, for that matter).
“Caves can function as vast echo chambers. Once trapped inside, the only voice we can hear clearly is our own.”
And he is a God of surprises. For my most important cave-book was not Christian at all, and yet I have little doubt he led me there. William Styron’s Darkness Visible gave me the breakthrough. For here was a words guy (at a far higher plane than I could even aspire to) who articulated the inarticulable. Winner of the Pulitzer and France’s Légion d’Honneur, Styron was nevertheless immobilized by depression late in life, moving him terrifyingly close to suicide. The insight that came as a lightning bolt was his recognition of the need for metaphor. Almost immediately after drinking in the book (in just one afternoon, as sparkling water to a desiccated soul), I latched onto the cave metaphor. I wrote this to describe why it struck home:
Caves are more mysterious, dank, and intimidating in their organic gloom. They seem to extend endlessly into some vast labyrinth. No wonder they are a setting for nightmares and horror stories. But there’s a deeper reason for the usefulness of the imagery. Caves can function as vast echo chambers. Once trapped inside, the only voice we can hear clearly is our own. (When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, 41)
Accompanied in the Cave
Once I started ruminating on his and other metaphors, I was struck by something so obvious and yet previously invisible to me. The Bible is full of them! In fact, some are almost identical to those I most identified with, especially in the Psalms: feeling feeble and utterly crushed (Psalm 38:5–8), the sense of sinking and drowning (Psalm 42:7), the inability to think of anything except escape from fears and the constant dread (Psalm 55:4–8).
Most daringly, the Psalter contains in Psalm 88 a cry of near-despair and loneliness unlike anything else in all Scripture (and, I suspect, unlike any other religion’s sacred texts). God allowed this to be there. How else could it have been included? No one who serves up their religion bright, neat, and formulaic could ever have tolerated such apparent blasphemy. Could it possibly be that the very God I so often despaired of in my cave had actually provided a liturgy for despair to enable us to vocalize precisely that to him in prayer? Psalm 88 is, in a way, an expression or enactment of that desperate father’s wonderfully paradoxical plea to the Lord Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
I think it’s fair to say that the presence of Psalm 88 in the Bible was a key factor in my reviving confidence that God had not socially distanced himself from me or his broken world. That and the psychological turmoil that Jesus’s mission caused him, culminating in Gethsemane. Now, I’m certainly not equating my illness (for it certainly is an illness, rather than necessarily some lack of faith) with the horrors he endured. Far from it. But it did mean that having suffered infinitely worse, he knew my suffering. Intimately. Our high priest can truly sympathize with our weaknesses, our temptations, our suffering (Hebrews 4:15). Even more, none of that puts him off or scares him away. He is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). That meant the world to me. I was not alone. We are not alone. You are not alone.
Companions in Suffering
But what about other people? What about groups, church meetings, conferences, and the rest of it? That’s an entirely different matter. They can sometimes be ridiculously tricky. The last decade and a half have certainly had their challenges, not least because of working in a large central London church and now a ministry that gathers groups large and small for training. Times when people mill around for coffee and small talk are the worst! They have the perverse effect of deepening the sense of isolation.
Post-lockdown, to get out and about, to see wider family, to spend unhurried time with trusted friends, I for one have craved these simple pleasures — such stuff as dreams are made on! But groups, small or large, are not the same as that at all. For the thing that those with battles in the mind crave more than anything — though, of course, I speak mainly for myself here — is companionship. We need friends who understand, who come alongside, who offer a hand up or an arm round the shoulder. Not fixers or analysts, not would-be therapists trialing their latest pop-psychobabble theories, not trite theologies — and certainly not those whose spiritual insecurities are such that they need other believers, and especially pastors, to always be spiritually “sorted” and robust.
“The Lord Jesus is the greatest friend because he truly sticks closer than any brother possibly could.”
But the wonderful thing is that these people exist. They exist in books, and I have found “friendships” in poets and authors long past, both Christian and non-Christian. I have found companionship with fellow sufferers and non-sufferers alike, for the simple reason that they have sacrificially taken the step to listen and accompany (even in the face of their own incomprehension). And I have found them in the Scriptures: in particular Moses, Elijah, King David, other psalmists, Jeremiah, the apostle Paul, and even the Lord Jesus himself. We truly are not alone. We are not like Elijah who, in the pit of his exhaustion, felt he was the only one left (1 Kings 19:10).
Thanks to technology, it was possible, more than ever before, to be physically distanced in the weirdness of the quarantine season without being socially distanced. But thanks to our gracious God, we can know that in Christ we are not and never will be spiritually distanced. The Lord Jesus is the greatest friend because he truly sticks closer than any brother possibly could (Proverbs 18:24).