Depression has been the low-hanging fruit of our family tree, along with addiction. It’s an ongoing chicken-and-egg as to what-causes-what. I experienced my first bout of major depression at the ripe age of eleven, spurred on by a scene of Bill and Ted playing Twister with Death. You read that right.
I don’t remember much about the movie, probably because my green brain sponged it. (Truly. I couldn’t have told you anything about it, not the title or the scene, until a synchronous moment a couple years ago.) But I vividly remember that night, telling my neighbor I didn’t feel right and then running home, hopeful that I’d be spared some impending doom. I didn’t have language for it at the time, but looking back, I interpret it as my first encounter with death: I was confronted with not just any old mortality, but my mortality. Twister indeed.
For the next few months, I slept poorly and cried often, positive emotions few and far between. That’s when I discovered my healing balm: music. For the first time, I felt moved by a song I’d heard at our non-denom church, prompting me to rip “God of Wonders” off Limewire and listen on my dad’s CD Walkman. That song parted the clouds for me, time and again, maybe even giving me the space to find words for the feelings. My dad listened to me intently and with a sense of familiarity. His brother, my namesake, had killed himself, and I suspect it was the black dog in my dad that set him on the path that culminated in AA, where my folks met. A wave of relief crashed over me as I reached for the words. We both cried.
My depression gradually lifted, and I soon became aware of a deep-seated fear that the black dog would return. So I took to building fences. I guiltily “acquired” thousands of CCM songs from the bowels of the internet; I started playing guitar for the skater-grunge youth group at our church, where I wrote my first songs; I cultivated a steady diet of apologetics, from Lee Strobel to William Lane Craig to C. S. Lewis. But the dog had grown, too.
Depression at fourteen was similar to depression at eleven but, in my mind, even more intense. Again, I vividly remember that sense of pitch-black apathy rolling down me like a raw egg. Again, I lost sleep and my appetite and any interest in the social luxuries of being an eighth grader. The breaking point came on a rainy day in my youth group, when the dog bit me in the middle of a worship song that I happened to be leading. Not here, not in this place. I choked, got out of dodge, and again cried out loud with my dad. You can’t always get back through the wardrobe, though, and I’m grateful that my family found a psychiatrist. I had a few sessions with a therapist and started antidepressants. I don’t know exactly why or how it happened, but the dog slowly retreated.
In the decade following the dog’s unexpected return, I set to work on yet another round of new-and-improved fences. I pursued music, my highest fence. I also followed my interests in philosophy, another sturdy fence, to Princeton and Oxford, where I hoped to become some sort of creative apologist, a la Lewis. And for five years I sat with patients in hospice, half-hoping to befriend death and do away with fences all together. I learned a lot, and together these experiences set something in motion.
Faith and Certainty
“Deconstruction” or “disorientation” or “disorder,” as some folks call it, is a painful process that, for me, just sort of happened. My paradigm stopped working. It didn’t feel like a series of vocal sins that finally toppled my tower of understanding, or like taking an oath to Richard Dawkins after a failed duel with my former Jedi master. It was more like being handed some square-peg experiences that just didn’t fit. There were clearly gaping holes in my fences, so some of them had to come down, against my will. It was honest and paralyzing.
After experiencing it, I couldn’t go back to where I had been before. The other side of disorientation, deconstruction, and disorder is a new thing: re-orientation, re-construction, re-order. New fences.
Here’s the problem, as I see it: can we trust any fence to be sturdy enough to keep all of life’s dogs at bay, especially once we come to appreciate the fact that our most prized fences have failed us? That is, I don’t think the desolation of “the dark night of the soul” is simply the result of finding some gaping hole in any one fence. I think it’s more about realizing, on some broader existential playing field, that being human means that even our best fences will have holes. And some things—like dogs, or God—will still get over the fence. We’re limited.
In this state of being human, or in this state of being limited, I’ve found some consolation: I’m alone, and I’m also not. That is, there’s a host of witnesses stretching back through the millenia who have walked this path, building their own fences only to watch them come down. The known, the unknown, the abyss, the resurrection—it’s an ancient wheel, and it seems that faulty fences are part of the deal. And yes, certainty is comforting. But certainty certainly won’t always be there.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
What if, for example, certainty and faith were diametrically opposed? What if you not only encountered Christ in the tabernacle but also when you were treading water in the deep? What if the greatest feat of Peter wasn’t that he died a martyr but that he believed despite having seen the miracles? It could be the case that proofs, for all their short-term comfort, actually make faith more difficult. And faith can’t be fenced in.
What if the greatest feat of Peter wasn’t that he died a martyr but that he believed despite having seen the miracles? J Lind
In this state of being limited, I recognize that I’m destined to keep building fences. But maybe, after a few painful failures, I can ask certainty to step aside. Moved as I am by visions of milk and honey and the kingdom of heaven, maybe I can hammer in the pegs with some lightness and levity, appreciating that this is, after all, yet another fence. Of course, I’ll still need to keep half an eye open for that big black dog, or for the divine—but that might even change the way I relate to each of them. On this side of the fence, I’m not in the Land of Canaan, or the New Jerusalem; I’m in the desert of uncertainty. And maybe faith is, too.