Sadness Is Not Depression

I awoke today with a deep sadness. My beloved dog, after a brief and terrible illness, died yesterday. Before the morning fog cleared from my head, I was waiting for her to stand, stretch, and put her front paws on the bedside, as she did every day. And she wasn’t there.depression

One day I hope to write about this wonderful and strange relationship between humans and dogs. It goes deeper than an owner and a pet. Something very primal has bound us together for millennia. Man and dog walked into civilization side by side. We evolved together. We belong together.

And one day, I hope to comprehend why I cried harder after losing my two dogs than I cried when my father, dearest friends, and beloved relatives died. I’m not even close to really understanding that, but I’m still thinking about it. The deepness of that bond is mysterious and powerful. When they are gone, we mourn, perhaps more than we think we “should” for an animal.

That’s sadness, and we all can understand sadness. It’s too easy to say that sadness is caused and depression is uncaused. That’s simply not always the case. It is, however, a useful place to start.

I could feel the difference between sadness and clinical depression this morning. There was a hole in my life where my friend used to be. She was gone and she was not coming back. There was a reason for the way I felt, and that feeling is an important aspect of human life. However awful it is, we should not wish away the ability to feel sorrow. Without it, we’d be less than fully human.

Finding the language to distinguish between sadness and depression is challenging. If you’ve never been depressed–true clinical depression–you simply can’t understand the distinction. We’re left to rely upon sensory analogies that don’t quite capture it.

There’s a texture to depression that is very different from sorrow. Depression is like a yawning chasm deep in your soul. It’s both a weight and an absence. It’s a clinging dank thing that feels almost alive. It seems separate from you. It’s like being suffocated emotionally. Depression is a pain that can almost at times seem to pass beyond pain and into something that’s simply living death.

Sorrow is different. It’s a fist around your heart that squeezes tight. A heavy enough sorrow can drag you deeply into the dark where you find situational depression, but it doesn’t have to. These sorrows can, in the words of Simeon, be the sword that pierces our heart. Even the kind of sorrow that tears us apart — the loss of a wife, child, parent — is not the same as clinical depression, however profound and deep that sorrow feels.

Everyone gets sad but not everybody experiences clinical depression. (And, of course, sadness is a common state for the depressive.) This is why people who say “everybody gets depressed!” or who, to pick an example near to hand, tell you how bad they felt when they lost their dog, are poison for depressives, who just feel pushed deeper into their own, apparently meaningless, uncaused suffering,

I understand sorrow. My father died last summer after a lengthy illness. I wept, I grieved, and it all made sense in a way because that’s how life moves.

When I was a child, my best friend died of cancer. I wept, I grieved, and though it made much less sense than the death of my father (as the deaths of children always must), even then I understood the sorrow. There was a cause, as insensible as the cause seemed. It was part of the tapestry of life, which is bordered on all sides by death.

This morning I awoke feeling sadness because a close companion of many years will no longer be there to love me and be loved by me. I will continue to feel sad, but in time the sadness will be tempered by fond, bittersweet memories, as life and time proceed on their inevitable course.

As we mature enough to comprehend our mortality, we realize that these sorrows are the crosses we are called to bear as part of the inevitable progression of life.

Depression never makes that kind of sense. It’s the never the sharp sting that reminds us we’re alive, but rather the emptiness that makes us wonder if life is even possible.

And yet, it must not be senseless. It must be a kind of calling, as all crosses are. It is a cross that, for too many, never finds even the meager blessing of a Simon to help bear the load. It is a cross that can feel a thousand feet tall and of such weight that it seems impossible to shoulder. It is a cross that appears stripped of all meaning or spiritual benefit.

But it is still a cross, and in carrying it we are drawn closer to Christ, who accomplished his greatest act by passing through suffering to resurrection. Some are called to suffer more, and in the emptiness of depression can fail to see any meaning at all.

That is a mistake. Christ did not free us from suffering or sorrow, but he made it possible to free that pain from its oppressive nature. All things ultimately come to joy in Christ, and if the Christian believes—really believes—in redemption and the life eternal, the oppressiveness of clinical depression can be fought at a spiritual level. The suffering are close to Christ, who promises that, although we sorrow, our sorrow will turn to joy.

And in a way that will sound perverse to anyone with serious clinical depression, this curse can be a blessing. The depressive can be acutely sensitive to emotional states, sometimes painfully so. Emotions which are alien to most people are vivid to a person who suffers.

There is an insight that leads to hard-won wisdom and empathy. There is a deeper sense of connection to the suffering servant who prayed that his Father would let the cup pass from his lips, who wept for Lazarus and lamented for Jerusalem, who cried out in despair from the very cross from which he defeated death. We are intimate with that pain, and in that intimacy, we should find our meaning, our hope, our redemption.

We should never settle for the pain: we should fight it, treat it, medicate it, pray through it. But when, despite all our best efforts to heal, it comes again, we must know that in this moment we are not alone. Indeed, in those darkest times, our souls stretch across eternity to calvary, where all things are made new again.