A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson was invited to deliver the Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral. Not everyone knew before that morning that he was an Episcopalian, but in the pulpit he revealed something else that almost nobody had known. Only 2 weeks before his preaching date, he had been hospitalized for depression. Gerson told the congregation, and since his sermon has gone viral, has now told millions of others, that like an estimated 10 million Americans, he lives with chronic clinical depression.
He described eloquently – he’s a writer, after all – how with depression your brain takes a chemical imbalance and winds a narrative around it, convincing you of things that simply aren’t true: that nobody cares about you, that you are accomplishing nothing, that it’s never going to get better. Gerson believed he was coping normally, but people who loved him knew different and helped him get into the hospital for treatment.
In an interview on the PBS Newshour afterwards, Gerson commented that “there are a lot of ways to recover from [depression], but…[one of them is that] you have to have a recognition that you're not right.” The way you see reality is distorted because of the interaction of this chemical imbalance and the human brain’s universal need to make up a story and believe itself. I recognized the truth of that comment, because back in my 20s I experienced a few months of situational depression, and realizing that my story about what was going on was not right was a big part of my feeling normal again.
Gerson pointed out, though, that whether or not we have ever suffered from situational or even chronic depression, being depressed is a “condition [that] works as a metaphor for the human condition.” Let me read you some of his words:
All of us – whatever our natural serotonin level – look around us and see plenty of reason for doubt, anger and sadness. A child dies, a woman is abused, a schoolyard becomes a killing field, a typhoon sweeps away the innocent. If we knew or felt the whole of human suffering, we would drown in despair... I suspect that there are people here today – and I include myself – who are stalked by sadness, or stalked by cancer, or stalked by anger. We are afraid of the mortality that is knit into our bones. We experience unearned suffering, or give unreturned love, or cry useless tears. We imagine that we are like gods, and still drop dead like flies on the windowsill.
All of those reasons for doubt, anger, and sadness are out there, in this world, and we know it. We could go around the pews and compose a litany of pain right now. And our brains, depending on our serotonin levels and our family history and our environment, will inevitably make up a story about that situation and believe their own story. For some of us, the story our brains make up and believe is like the one Michael Gerson’s did: if things are like that, life really is just a tragedy, and there’s no real joy out there. And therefore, say our brains, your behavior reflects reality. You’re coping normally. This is just how it is. You’re right. But that story they make up isn’t true.
For more of us, the story our brains make up is that our best bet is just not to pay too much attention. Our strategy should be to skate along the surface of life, keeping ourselves distracted, trying to do a little good here and there, and enjoying what pleasures and achievements come our way without asking too many questions. And therefore, say our brains, our behavior reflects reality. You’re coping normally. This is just how it is. You’re right. That story our brains made up isn’t true either, and today, Ash Wednesday, is the day that the Christian faith gives us the opportunity to, as Gerson put it, have the crucial, healing recognition that we aren’t right.
Our brains have it wrong. The choice is not between either looking at all the evil in life and despairing, or trying to look away from all the evil in life and settling for the best you can manage. There is another choice, and it is what we see in the Christian path. It is what we see when we look into the face of the God who both descended into the pit of hell for us and brought love and life out on the other side. In this way of life, as Christians, we are blessedly free to tell the truth about our own suffering – our depression, our addiction, our rage, our fear – knowing that after we admit we aren’t right, for example via a grace-saturated day like Ash Wednesday, true healing can come. If you are embarking today along with the rest of us on the series of practices we’ll be doing week by week as a parish, outlined in our Lenten guidebook, you will discover through these very ordinary, specific daily behaviors several ways that God makes strategic interventions at the very points where our brains have taught us to cope in ways that aren’t right.
In his sermon, Gerson testified to this fact as powerfully as he testified to the reality of living with chronic depression. As a practicing Episcopal Christian, he was able to speak from experience about how people like us who have staked our lives on Jesus Christ are seeing that we aren’t right, letting go of the stories we tell ourselves, and being put back into our real right minds by the small daily interventions of God’s grace. And as that happens, we receive far more to testify to than our own struggles. As Gerson put it:
In our right minds – as our most sane and solid selves – we know that the appearance of a universe ruled by cruel chaos is a lie and that the cold void is actually a sheltering sky.
In our right minds, we know that life is not a farce but a pilgrimage – or maybe a farce and a pilgrimage, depending on the day.
In our right minds, we know that hope can grow within us – like a seed, like a child.
In our right minds, we know that transcendence sparks and crackles around us – in a blinding light… and fire, and tears, and a warmed heart… – if we open ourselves to seeing it.
If you want to open yourself to seeing it, this Ash Wednesday can be the door. This Lent can be the path, and it can lead you to Easter – which means, to your right mind. To a new life that neither marinates in its own pain, nor blandly distracts itself from it, but lets God intervene, day by day, to transform it with the alchemy that is uniquely his. Let’s walk through the door of Ash Wednesday onto the Lenten path of transformation. Let’s start now.