One early December morning I awoke at five before the alarm clock went off. My body had finished sleeping, but I had not. I was still tired; not physically, but emotionally. I dreaded the day, not because it was going to be full of difficulties or even because it was going to be full of soporific, repetitious work, but simply because this is the time of year when I can’t seem to get my emotional shirt tucked in. I don’t know why it is, but I have observed that it happens every year this time: my emotions break away from any cause or circumstance and walk a lonely path through gloom, despair, futility, and depression. It comes and goes in waves and surges, then disappears at the end of the month. I’ve even consulted a doctor about it: he says that there are people who experience turgid emotions this time of year for no apparent reason. I am obviously one of them; the only thing I can do is remember that my feelings are spurious and disregard them as much as possible.
Which is, as you can imagine, easier said than done.
So this morning at 6:30 I sat in traffic, a block or two away from work, waiting under my own personal rain cloud for my turn to give a coin to the man in the toll booth, when I noticed the bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It said, simply:
I immediately thought of that other, more cynical bumper sticker with parallel wording that informs me redundantly that bad things happen in life. I suppose the other bumper sticker is not intentionally cynical; I suppose the people who stick it on their car want you to shrug off your troubles, but I am not in a position to do that today. The vulture on my shoulder is not so easily shooed away. So as I moved forward in line, I contemplated the bumper sticker before me:
I would like to tell you that immediately upon seeing this bumper sticker, the heavens parted and a beam of light fell upon me; that the trees blossomed and the birds sang round about me, that I saw God in His Heaven and Jesus reigning on high, that my troubles were lifted, my burdens were taken away, my gloom was dispelled, and my optimism was restored—but it was not so. That sort of thing only happens to Cinderella in a Disney movie. Nevertheless, I was stuck behind this bumper sticker:
However, it did put things in better perspective. My clouds will remain no matter how wonderful my life becomes, and they will disperse at the end of the month, on schedule, no matter how dismal things are. I must remain the way I am for the time being. But because of this bumper sticker:
I thought of all the advantages this phenomenon has given me. When people become depressed or distressed, they turn to their friends only to receive unworkable advice, like
Cheer up, or
Turn it over to God, or
Think of all the people who are worse off than you. The first piece of advice is impractical. The second piece of advice, because it is impractical, becomes a religious guilt trip that compounds the misery. The third piece of advice does not make sense, for why should someone else’s distress make you happy?
Most people are at a loss to counsel the depressed, the distressed, the bereaved, or the suicidal. They don’t know what to say, they cannot cope with the conversation, and the whole thing drags them down… but not me! Every year I go through this emotional fire drill, so I can sit down and chat with such people, and if I cannot lift their burdens, I can help them bear them.
Once I chanced to sit next to a woman in a hospital waiting room. Her only relative was having both legs amputated, and she was in distress. We spoke for an hour. She was so elated afterwards she felt compelled to give me a gift. Rummaging around in her purse, she found a silver dollar, which I still have.
Once I noticed a man whom everyone else avoided; he was depressed. I befriended him and spoke with him at length. Later, his pastor thanked me for talking him out of suicide, but I did not know that was what I was doing.
Once a friend of mine was gruesomely murdered, and his mother came to stay with me while the police solved the crime. Each day brought more and more grisly things to light, and we talked about it every night till three in the morning. We talked until we found God’s grace.
There was a man who told me he was going to hell, his pastor had told him so and had proven it with the Bible. His eyes grew wide in terror and he let out a shriek when I pulled out a Bible and calmly invited him to reexamine the passage with me. He assented, and we searched until we found God’s grace. He said,
No one ever explained it to me that way before! And he fell on the floor and wept.
And so I see that although I am depressed and demoralized and in despair and dread, and although I will most likely remain stuck in the down position until the end of the month, I thank God for this rough time. It looks like a curse, it feels like a thorn in my side, but truly I see that in this my weakness, God’s strength is perfected. Without this experience, I could not have shown all those people that:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:14-21, NIV