February, in the last few years, has become a difficult month for me. Begin with the fact that it’s the time of year that winter seems to sink its teeth in in a last final effort to weigh me down before spring finally warms up and releases me from the cold; factor in seasonal affective disorder; add the continued melancholy of a perpetually unsatisfying celebration of Valentine’s Day and then the anniversaries of the deaths of both of my grandmothers and tad-da: the worst time of the year.
I try to head off my depression and anxiety as best as I can, making plans long before the depressive episodes begin and letting my close circle of friends know that the time is coming and to bear with me, but there’s no way to completely circumvent these feelings.
This time of year is so blah. I feel like I’m accomplishing nothing. I don’t want to go outside, oftentimes, because of the gray and the cold. I cancel plans or just don’t make any, and then worry I’ve sabotaged all of my friendships beyond repair. Sometimes I just cannot help but get caught up in this current, and I know that I just have to ride it out.
I’ve decided to read through the book of Exodus during this woeful period of time.Exodus is full of good examples of God’s faithfulness, even in humanity’s increasing inability to show gratitude to the God who is so good to them. The Israelites making their way to the Promised Land complain every little situation, even against the amazing miracle God has shown by delivering them from their captors in Egypt. Compared to being freed from a lifetime of bondage and slavery, their trials should seem trivial! But who am I to criticize their reactions? I do the same thing.
When it comes to suicidal notions, I have never been terribly active. I used to think it was because I wasn’t suicidal at all, but I’ve recently discovered that I’m dealing with an equally ugly thought process: passive suicidal urges. I will never take my life deliberately. But sometimes, as I walk to the bus stop to go to work or back home, a car will cut just a little too close to the sidewalk, and I will think, “Man, if only they had been a little closer. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this anymore.” If someone were to bump me while standing on a crowded train platform, and it resulted into my toppling onto the third rail, I would hardly be mad. My counselor has gently informed me that these thoughts are no better than a more active plan.
There’s an alley that I walk past most days when I go to take the bus to the grocery store, or to church on Tuesdays after work. If you live in Chicago you can envision such an alley, and understand how easy it would be to not be seen by an oncoming car, and to not realize that there is an oncoming car in the first place. Twice in the past few weeks, I have, though no action of my own, come close to being hit by cars coming out of this one particular alley, and kept from any injury.
One might chalk it up to basic driver courtesy or my ability to look up from my phone every few seconds to make sure I’m not walking into anyone or anything. I, however, especially after the second time, began to see this as God trying to get my attention. I hear him say, Hey dummy! Because God can be real with me, of course. Hey dummy, if I didn’t have a reason for you to be down here, doing what you’re doing, I’d get you out. But I need you to stay put for now. Trust me.
Ah, the magic word. Trust. Easy to say, hard to do. I believe that God hears our struggles. But I also believe he pushes us past them. I’m reminded of when my dad made me promise that, if I signed up for the swim team, I’d see it through to the end of the season. My time on swim team was not pleasant, for reasons that are far to complicated to be sandwiched in here. I think my dad knew I was having trouble, and he wanted me not to be. But just removing me from a hard situation wouldn’t necessarily have helped me. I learned something, whether I liked it or not, from sticking with it. I think God does this with us too. Aren’t we so much better after we learn what there is for us to learn? Hindsight is 20/20, though, isn’t it?
So I have not been hit by any cars coming through any alleys here in dreary, gray, and very windy Chicago. I am still here, because no cars have come erratically careening over the sidewalk to take me out. No one has pushed me, on purpose or on accident, in front of an L train during rush hour. And to think, sometimes I am not grateful to God for giving me life, every day. If you’ve seen the Veggitales Jonah movie, you might remember the scene where Jonah (portrayed by Archibald the asparagus) finds a spot and claims it as his front row seat, waiting for God to smite the city of Nineveh. The sun is hot, so God grows a tree to provide shelter for him while he waits for God to validate Jonah’s frustrations. God also provides a worm that eats through the plant and it is no longer helpful to Jonah. The same thing happens in the biblical text, but I have a very funny mental picture of Archibald/Jonah flopping down in the sand, wailing dramatically about how he’d like to just die over the indignity of it all.
I know we all like to think we’re a Paul or a Timothy or a Mary when we compare ourselves to biblical characters, but oftentimes I believe I am a Jonah. The funny thing about Jonah is that Jonah’s story ends there. It ends with God saying, “You were so concerned about this plant, but you did nothing to plant it or make it grow. Should I not have concern for Nineveh, a whole city teeming with people?” (Jonah 4:10-11, paraphrased.)
We never know what Jonah has to say for himself. Some days I think that Jonah was a stubborn guy who lost sight of his faith and what it meant for him to follow the Lord. He might have just died there, in the heat, of his own stubbornness. Some days I think he might have been filled with remorse and compassion and took it upon himself to go back to Nineveh and apologize for wanting God to smite them and help them get it together. Maybe they could all realize their imperfections and work on being better together.
I continue to get up and go to work and not be hit by cars in alleys. God continues to give me life, and I know I am never grateful enough for it, but some days I am as grateful as I can be in my human capacity. Some days I am not. But God always gives me a chance. He is infinitely patient with me. He loves me even when I don’t love myself.
There’s a fine line I walk when writing posts about mental health and faith. There is always hope in faith to overcome. But there is also space for struggle,hardship, and lament. I won’t end this post by saying I am better now, that my depression is cured and I won’t ever have these thoughts again. Because it’s not, and I will. Christianity is not a place for false hope. It’s a place where hope and hardship can rest together.