There’s been so much the last two days that’s been shared about the life and tragic death of Robin Williams. Much of it has been incredibly sad, moving, and challenging as we collectively think about the prevalence of depression. After hearing from friends about chance meetings with him and friends who have had a meal with him, I’ve been thinking about this all morning (I’ve posted a picture from my one of my all-time favorite movies, Dead Poet’s Society).
If you had the chance to sit down with Robin Williams and the subject of his ongoing tendency toward depression came up, what would you say? Would you listen? Would you try to fix him? I might be wrong but depression seems to be one of those awkward topics for people, especially followers of Christ. For those of us who have had some training in soul care, even trying to discern between depression and a marked sense of God’s absence can be difficult. Why are we generally uncomfortable around depression?
For one, when we think about and speak about passion in the Christian life as merely an elevated emotional state, being around people who are stuck in the darkness of depression feels awkward. it’s one of the critiques I’ve had of the passion movement the last decade. We somehow arrive at this expectation of people that they should be excited about God all the time. So when we run into people who are depressed, our response can be less than understanding. If our response is, “Here are a couple of Bible verses and come back tomorrow and we’ll talk” then it seems that we are more interested in fixing/correcting another person than actually listening and caring for them. If the Christian is portrayed as you’re “passionate” 24/7 it gives off the impression that we just don’t do “depressed” very well.
Second, we tend to place a heavy emphasis on agency. That is, people are responsible for the choices they make. While I think this is generally true in life, I think we can miss that there is a body/soul connection in people that is more complex than, “You’ve gotten yourself into this mess, now get out.” The reason why this is important is if you spend time around people who are deeply depressed, it’s not just a matter of choosing now to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and then make good choices. Depression doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that can be fixed by, “Just praise the Lord” or “Be grateful for the blessings in life”. I bring this up because in my naiveté early in my ministry days, those were the responses that came out of my mouth.
Maybe third, depression is scary. Even for those who have never experienced a deep, dark place where it feels like you can’t get any “footing” in the swirl of life, how does God create enough space in our hearts to stop and care? It’s easier to just not deal what frightens us. I was listening to the Today show’s report on Williams’ death and one statement has stuck with me. Often just a sincere “hello”, a simple acknowledgment, is the start of caring. In our culture of responding, “Fine” when asked how we are doing, we just don’t know what to do with the response, “I’m feeling depressed.”
What kind of conversation would you have with Robin Williams? Would you do all the talking? Would you be quick to prescribe action points? Would you simply listen? Why is the question even important? Reflecting on how you would respond is important because there are ordinary people around you, who are not famous but they wrestle with the same darkness.