For the last couple of months I’ve had the pleasure of reading through John Piper’s The Pleasures of God (Multnomah, 1991) with some friends from church. The main thrust behind the book is the idea that we don’t truly know someone until we know what makes them happy, and that it’s the same with God. Piper then takes readers on a deeply encouraging and edifying exploration of the pleasures of God, including his pleasure in creation, in doing good to those who hope in him, and in personal obedience and public justice.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the inclusion of Clyde Kirby’s “10 resolutions for mental health,” which Kirby, a former English professor at Wheaton College, first gave at a lecture in 1976. These resolutions aren’t so much about mental health, I think, as about developing a child-like sense of wonder and joy at the creation that surrounds us and this life that God has given to us. Are these the kinds of thoughts and activities that could help someone with depression? Absolutely. But ultimately, this is about the kind of joy that anyone can experience given the right balance of self-forgetfulness and God-pleasing awe at the world around us.
Below is first, Piper’s reflection on the heart behind these resolutions, and then the resolutions themselves. Enjoy!
“One of the tragedies of growing up is that we get used to things. It has its good side of course, since irritations may cease to be irritations. But there is immense loss when we get used to the redness of the rising sun, and the roundness of the moon, and the whiteness of the snow, the wetness of the rain, the blueness of the sky, the buzzing of bumble bees, the stitching of crickets, the invisibility of the wind, the unconscious constancy of hearth and diaphragm, the weirdness of noses and ears, the number of the grains of sand on a thousand beaches, the never-ceasing crash crash crash of countless waves, and ten million kingly-clad flowers flourishing and withering in woods and mountain valleys where no one sees but God” (80).
1. At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.
2. Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death when he said: “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”
3. I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence, but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual manhood.
4. I shall not turn my life into a thin, straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.
5. I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.
6. I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.
7. I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”
8. I shall follow Darwin’s advice and turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably, as Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.
9. I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggested, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is now.
10. Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls himself Alpha and Omega.
In showing us Lincoln at his lowest – in the darkest fits of gloom and depression – and at his best – telling humorous stories to guests, comforting others who are suffering, and achieving great political triumphs – Joshua Wolf Shenk offers a picture of an integrated life.
He shows us that suffering, even in the form of mental illness, which Lincoln had, need not be the whole story. Indeed, it can be a crucial part of one’s personal growth and maturity into greatness. Lincoln never wished for affliction and surely he must have wished depression away many times during his life. But with the help of others as well as several coping mechanisms, such as reading poetry or telling jokes, he harnessed the monster of depression in a way that strengthened his character, his endurance, and allowed him to rise to the great historical challenges that confronted his presidency. I like how Shenk puts it in some of the last lines of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006):
“The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity, and joy are possible in life, it is easy to be impatient with fear, doubt, and sadness. If one desires to ‘stir up the world,’ it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story’s end can forsake its beginning and its middle. Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there…The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await” (215-216). (Emphasis mine.)
My last post on Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), offered a brief preview of how Lincoln embodied mental illness and mental wellness (and even greatness) at the same time.
To best appreciate Lincoln’s greatness – his strength of character and mental fortitude – it helps to see him at his darkest, most desperate moments – in the valley of depression. This is the picture I want to offer here.
Lincoln once confided about his depression to a colleague, a fellow politician, who didn’t suspect that he suffered from depression. This man recalled, “He told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket” (23).
His second episode of major depression was triggered by a “long period of intense work,” “profound personal stress,” and “a stretch of bleak weather.” He “spoke openly about his misery, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide. He was unable to work. His friends feared that he might kill himself, and that if he lived, he might go insane” (23).
“By the time he was in his early thirties, he faced a lifetime of depression…The acute fits of his young manhood gave way to less histrionic, but more pervasive, spells of deep gloom. Dramatic public avowals of his misery gave way to a private but persistent effort to endure and transcend his suffering. Yet the suffering did not go away…And even when he began to do the work for which he is remembered…he continued to suffer” (23).
These passages describe a turbulent, and pitiable, emotional and mental state. Because of these episodes and his behaviors, some even thought Lincoln was crazy. Yet at this very point, it is worth remembering that this man, who couldn’t carry a knife from fear of hurting himself and at times believed that he would go insane, went on to become president of the United States and steer this nation through the Civil War and take the first major step toward freeing the nation’s slaves.