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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Doctor Is In (Part 1) - Depression and Empathy

Empathy. It's the core of Christ's teachings: love one another as He has loved us. Love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Because we experience the need for love, we should empathize with that need in others. The desire for empathy extends past the bonds of the church. Art and Music are created and admired because of their ability to "speak" to many different people at once, to empathize with the human experience. It's what makes us want to listen to a sad folk song when we're feeling melancholy, and the tears well up and we think, "Yes. That's what I feel, too. That's exactly what I feel." It's cathartic: we feel validated, understood, and we can move on. When depressed, one knows the truth of empathy, that fundamental similarities make us feel similarly, often more viscerally and painfully than normal people usually do.

Often, what a depressive needs is an empathy way beyond a human being's ability to provide, because greater empathy is derived from greater knowledge of another person's existential experience. You see, no one really knows me. People think they do, but no one is inside my head. No one really understands what it's like to be me, and I'm alone in my helplessness when facing the world. We are depressed, and no one can really help us. We can't even help ourselves. Thoughts like these simply make the depression deeper.

Existential Dread (E.D.) comes from a knowledge of life's futility: death will come and wipe away whatever has given us meaning. At another level, though, it's a knowledge of life's "alone-ness". Death, the ultimate aloneness, permeates our life when we live it cut off from true intimacy, relationship, and knowledge. So if humans can only empathize with us as far as they really know us, and if humans can't ultimately know us that well, what's a patient to do?

Thankfully, the doctor is in and willing to help you with your E.D. This doctor isn't someone who doesn't understand what E.D. is like, either. In fact, He's the only person who's both able to cure your condition and completely empathize with your condition. In this way, He both heals and comforts. God understands exactly what it's like to be us, and He does it two ways:
  1. He is the Mind who permeates all things and is in all things, the one who knows all our thoughts because all our thoughts exist inside Him. He has an omniscient knowledge of our thoughts, dispositions, feelings, and sufferings. He knows what we feel, when we feel it.
  2. If the Christian story's to be believed, God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ and in Him took upon Himself the whole of humanity's miserable experience. In Jesus, God has experiential knowledge of what it's like to be human. He is, as the Scriptures teach, "a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief."
 "We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin." - Hebrews 4:15 

In the midst of E.D. we have someone who knows us fully and has experienced what it's like to be utterly alone, rejected, and headed for death. I'd even argue that, though maybe not to the degree we have it, Jesus Christ at least felt the symptoms of E.D. He was filled with great angst over facing death and facing it alone, seeing vindication ahead but perhaps not seeing how exactly it would happen. At any rate, He was under such distress that He sweat blood. "My soul is crushed, even to the point of death," He told His friends, before they abandoned Him. "Stay here and keep watch with me." 

God, having limited Himself to Man, faced those emotions, looked into the void gaping before Him, the void called Death, and stepped out and into it. Surely we can, too, if that same god remains with us. It is God's empathy with humanity, not just His pity, that gives us confidence that we're approaching a doctor not just to find a cure for E.D. but to find a friend, one who leaves us in the end a lot more hopeful and a lot less alone.

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