Can You Struggle with Depression, and Be Joyful, at the Same Time?

An excerpt from Blessed are the Misfits: Great News for Believers Who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They’re Missing Something

In A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe stars as mathematician John Nash. We see Nash in his college years, brilliantly succeeding at math, but finding it difficult to relate to humans.

Nash doesn’t have many relationships other than his wife, his good friend Charles, and Charles’s sweet little niece, Marcee. Nash’s mathematical gifts land him an appointment with MIT, before he’s secretly hired by shadowy FBI Agent Parcher to use his mathematic abilities to crack Russian coded messages.

Now, I can’t write about this without including spoilers. (The movie’s worth watching, even if you know how it ends.)
Nash eventually learns a devastating truth: he’d been hallucinating his friend Charles, even little Marcee, for years. And the FBI agent wasn’t real either. His tireless, frenetic work to combat the Soviets was meaningless. No one, in fact, was retrieving all the data that he had been collecting and dropping off at a secret location.

As the movie depicts the years ahead, Nash still suffers from his delusions, but he learns to live with them. He clings to the truth: they aren’t real. He and his wife, Alicia, manage to survive as a couple, and Nash goes on to succeed on a spectacular level in his career, winning a Nobel Prize for his work on game theory.

On their way out of the Nobel ceremony, Nash sees Charles, Marcee, and Agent Parcher, waiting for him, smiling. Alicia asks him, “What’s wrong?”

Nash says, “Nothing.” And they keep walking.

And that is how I can write this book, or do much of anything, for that matter.

Brant, you’re a failure! may be stuck in my head, looping for the rest of my life. Maybe it will never, ever go away. But it’s not true. I know it.

Like Alicia Nash, my wife tells me so.

And if I believe the things Jesus said—really believe the things He’s on record saying, not just pledge allegiance to a modernized Jesus of my own devising—I have to believe God loves me and finds me very valuable. If I believe what Jesus said, I also have to believe there’s an Enemy who is, above all things, a liar (John 8:44).

(To be sure, people struggle to believe in a real Evil like this: a spiritual entity who wants to destroy us in rebellion against the Creator. While the rest of humanity seems to have little trouble believing such a thing exists, we modern Westerners find such a belief too simplistic, too dated. Jesus, however, sides with the rest of the world.)

So there’s the truth, and then there are the lies we believe about ourselves, things that have perhaps rattled around our brains since childhood, or other lies about ourselves pushed on us by our surrounding culture.

To be like Nash, then, from A Beautiful Mind, means I acknowledge the lie (Who cares what you think, Brant? Stop writing!) and confront it repeatedly with the truth: some people do care. My writing can actually be a blessing to people. It can be freeing. I’ve seen God use it before. Yes, I’m flawed and perpetually full of self-doubt, but I’m going to keep going.

So my inner monologue says I’m a waste of time? I’m a failure? God is condemning me? He’s turned His back on me?

So what? My inner monologue is wrong.

There’s a scripture that means a lot to me now. It’s in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, when he says this:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (4:8 NLT)

I’ve seen this scripture reduced to a mere “power of positive thinking” reference. But notice the first word in the list: true.

True things. I have to fix my mind on what’s true. Yes, we suffer delusions, sometimes of grandeur or failure or, commonly, both. So we’re told to return to what is true.

This means stepping outside of myself often enough to criticize my own thoughts. I’m certainly critical of others’ ideas, so why not my own? Why can’t I investigate my own manners of thinking, my own seemingly logical conclusions, and ask tough questions?

This isn’t double-mindedness. This is mental health.

My inner monologue simply can’t be trusted. It has to be held up and cross-examined in the light of the truth.

It’s curious how our self-perceptions can vacillate even during the course of a single day. One minute we’re saying, “I’m such an idiot!” for locking our keys in the car again. Then we painfully remember the selfish thing we said that hurt some- one, something we can’t get back.

But mere moments later, we’re quietly confident we can find our own meaning in life and be our own ultimate authority.

Maybe we should question this.

I have to question, too, my own melancholy, my own depression. The writer of Psalm 42 did the very same thing:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you. (vv. 5–6 ESV, emphasis added)

He’s acknowledging the reality of his feelings, but also the greater reality, and he’s redoubling his efforts to live in view of it. His emotions simply do not square with what he knows to be true.

We see the same pattern from the writer of Lamentations:

My soul continually remembers [my affliction and my wanderings]
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” (3:20–24 ESV, emphasis added)

Now, if you look closely at this, it’s doubly instructive: The writer doesn’t say his issues are gone. He doesn’t say the struggle is over. Like Nash, his “friends” are still there. And yet . . . he has hope, because of the truth.

The truth is full of God’s faithfulness and mercy.

Very few people can understand this. I know this, because I’ve tried to explain it to people. How can someone be simultaneously struggling with depression yet be deeply joyful?

My downcast soul is rooted in my experiences, my fallenness, my physiology, my humanness. Those things are real.
But so is my joy.

And my joy isn’t rooted in what’s fleeting.

It’s rooted in a hope that’s very real.

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