Clinical Depression vs. the Rich Tapestry of Human Experience


Yesterday’s comments prompted me to do some thinking, especially about one of the questions — “Does depression ever have a useful purpose?”

My first inclination is to say, “No,” at least when we are speaking of clinical depression.

There are different types of clinically diagnosed depression, and they all represent organic ailments that can disrupt life and lead to serious consequences if not treated. These range from milder forms of atypical depression to major depressive disorders that are persistent and may be experienced in connection with psychoses and event catatonic states. Some types are associated with bodily changes that occur when people experience life or health changes, such as perinatal depression in new mothers, depression in those with cardiovascular disease, or various forms of geriatric depression that beset the elderly. Some people respond poorly to the annual changes in nature and suffer from seasonal depression, and of course there is depression associated with grief that affects people in a variety of ways. Treatments for clinical depression may range from lifestyle adjustments to cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants or other medications all the way to electroshock treatments and hospitalization.

Clinical depression needs to be taken seriously. According to this site about depression, major depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and it affects almost 19 million Americans in a given year, costing an estimated $30 billion annually. Up to 15% of those who are clinically depressed commit suicide.

Depression is like being in a totally round room and looking for a corner to sit in.”

• Laura Sloate

If you suspect that you might be clinically depressed, if you are experiencing the following symptoms to an extent that it seems unusual to you or those who love you, and if they are disrupting your life in any significant way whatsoever, I urge you to seek some help.

  • Sadness, anxiety, or “empty” feelings
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Insomnia, oversleeping, or waking much earlier than usual
  • Loss of weight or appetite, or overeating and weight gain
  • Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism
  • Feelings of helplessness, guilt, and worthlessness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering
  • Restlessness, irritability or excessive crying
  • Chronic aches and pains or physical problems that do not respond to treatment

I went through a period of depression about fifteen years ago. I’ve always been a melancholy type, but when I had a hard time sleeping during a particularly stressful period of my life, I knew something had changed. I can always sleep (it’s one of my spiritual gifts!) and insomnia was so unusual to my life experience that it got my attention. That moved me to get help, and I’m glad I did. There have been other seasons in my life when I failed to do that, and I carry regrets with me to this day.

If you need it, I hope you will get some counsel and assistance. The most “useful” thing about clinical depression is that it might cause us to realize we need help.

• • •

But let’s get back to our question.

Despite what I say above, upon further reflection, I think the answer to “Does depression ever have a useful purpose” is more complex and nuanced than a simple “no.” One reason for this is that people use the word “depression” to cover a wider range of human experience than clinical depression.

Some of us are more prone to be melancholy people, but we do not have a major depression disorder.

Some of us cry more easily than others.

Some of us are more “low energy” than others.

Some of us are introverts and find certain social situations emotionally challenging and draining. We withdraw. We’d rather be alone or with one or two others.

Some of us are not optimistic people. We tend to see the glass half-empty and think being realistic means not always smiling or saying everything will be okay. Others tend to see us as negative party-poopers who need to lighten up.

Some of us find the sadness and brokenness of the world overwhelming; we are sensitive to that and to some extent, preoccupied with it.

Some of us actually enjoy the profundity of a world that is filled with both darkness and light, sadness and delight, tragedy and comedy. It’s far more interesting and compelling. Sad songs, rainy days, and painful experiences satisfy something deep within us.

“You say you’re ‘depressed’ – all I see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.”

• David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Some of us find lament more true to life most of the time than rejoicing.

Some of us are analytical and we tend to emphasize the “down” side of things in conversation because everyone else is looking at matters from an upbeat perspective.

Some of us struggle with guilt and regret, and we tend to beat ourselves up.

Some of us have trouble concentrating.

Some of us are not very confident about ourselves and we tend to think others don’t like us or might not if they knew us better.

Some of us tend to be worriers and we find it hard to let our worries go.

Some of us have a lot of fears — some rational, perhaps some not — and they can restrict or even paralyze us at times.


What I want to say is that the world is filled with a wide variety of people who might use the word “depressed” to describe themselves at any given point in time, or who others might suspect are “depressed.” But the characteristics they display are simply part of the rich tapestry of being human, of having a human personality in a world like ours. And these human peculiarities can all be useful and beneficial as we learn to appreciate one another, trust one another, and love one another.

Not everyone is meant to be a Tigger. We need Eeyores too to make a world. And everything in between.

And God might even use people with clinical depression to bless the world (in fact I’m sure he has). Some of those psalmists and prophets should’ve seen the doctor as far as I’m concerned. But God used them anyway, so in a way I guess you could say that even the clinical forms of depression can be useful.

But that’s up to God. If that’s where you think you are, don’t be a hero — get help.

53 thoughts on “Clinical Depression vs. the Rich Tapestry of Human Experience

  1. When it comes to rock, there’s a punk living inside Neil Young, right next to his cowboy and folkie. And Crazy Horse, the band he played with on this particular song and on many other projects throughout his career, is the world’s greatest rock band (alongside all the other world’s greatest rock bands).


  2. You know, I never thought of Neil Young as rock, but this song proves it.

    He is a great songwriter even if you can’t stand his voice. My wife can’t listen to him. Or to Iris Dement, but I think they’re both incredible.


  3. The Christian solution to life is to unmake you. To deny yourself, to deny who you are, and craft you into someone else’s image. That image is often not Jesus’, for his image is more about loving others and helping. It’s an image that comes out of you. Whereas for many, it’s an external image.

    Depression would be the natural result of someone telling you you are nothing but a worm and should change everything about you. You lose yourself.

    I remember one evening, still at the cult, when I was seething and frustrated, had just had some extremely bad interactions with some people, and I was driving and listening to Muse’s song Butterflies and Hurricanes, and these lines just cut through everything, to the point where just a few minutes later I was venting as I had never done before to a close friend, who honestly said quietly “I didn’t know it was that bad. I didn’t know you felt like that.”

    Everything you are
    And everything you were
    Your number has been called
    Fights and battles have begun
    Revenge will surely come
    Your hard times are ahead

    You’ve got to be the best
    You’ve got to change the world
    And you use this chance to be heard
    Your time is now

    Let yourself down
    Don’t let yourself go
    Your last chance has arrived


  4. Yep, I’ll take Advent over American Christmas.
    But, man, you mention ‘Advent’ to evangelicals and they break out in a rash.
    The few churches who choose to call it Advent season, it’s really American Xmas dressed up in Advent.

    Why can’t believers learn that we’re called to be still? Psa 46:10, is just one of many in scripture. Read, Nouwen, etc…we’re so busy doing, we can’t ‘be’ — thus, referring to someone’s point above, depression does, I think, come from a Christianity that’s ‘churchianity’ (thank you, M.Spencer).


  5. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that God uses people like a machinist uses a tool, to “fix” something. I don’t think God’s relationship with us is like that, especially if God is Love. I realize that there may be/likely is a way to nuance that to assert that God’s love touches people through those who are not “100% together”. I’m not saying that people intend to be condescending, but that’s how that expression strikes me – as another riff on having to defend God in a world full of sorrow and pain, and perhaps not “making progress.” I hope I’m being clear.

    I think depression or any other mental illness or dark feeling, aside from being a possible bellwether of a physical problem, is an opportunity for finding Christ in Hades with you. I don’t mean that glibly. Some people are in a truly hellish place, and Jesus is actually there with them; to experience that is to be united to his sufferings. I think that’s the only way any suffering has meaning and can be transcendent. (I believe he is with everyone who suffers, whether they are able to find him or not – not finding him doesn’t change his love for us.)

    And maybe encountering people who are bearing this kind of suffering is an opportunity for US to enter into their lives, however they allow it. Giving a cup of water in Christ’s name is about more than offering H2O. “When I was in prison, you visited me.”



  6. Hi charlie-

    May the Lord continue to help you. I’ve found that as long as you can do loving things ***freely*** – not as the result of manipulation by other people, that’s okay. If you feel compulsion about anything, it’s not really love, and will be as bad for the other people as it is for you. Christ went to the cross ***voluntarily*** – and even if you end up doing something that has an element of your own suffering to it, as long as it is freely given it’s good, even if those others don’t get it. And practice gratitude whenever you can.

    Does that make sense?



  7. Darkness isn’t the problem. Darkness is as necessary as light. The problem is when, for whatever reason, you get stuck in thinking and feeling that, however it may be for others, there is only darkness for you, and there will never be any light.


  8. We’ve had pits, melody, and defiance, but not enough noise for my tastes (tell your father-in-law there’s more to the picture than meets the eye):


  9. With all due respect to your father, I think Neil is one of the most unique and talented rockers that has walked this mortal coil. A very different esthetic from what our parents knew, but real nonetheless.

    Another gem from Neil, who went down into the pits in many of his songs, but also defied the darkness with beautiful melodies, and beautiful noise:


  10. Thanks, Mike.

    I recognize myself in a lot of this, during certain periods. You’ve been very helpful in identifying the problem, which is always a good start.

    I’m glad you did not say “NO!” to the question “Does depression ever have a useful purpose?” Your preliminary answer, “The most ‘useful’ thing about clinical depression is that it might cause us to realize we need help” may be a bit circular. But the realization that one is depressed (and you’ve helped with that greatly) may be a first step in getting that help.

    It’s helpful to be reminded that God has used people with depression. It’s in the bible, and nobody can take that away from us. Reading the comment by StuartB, above at 1:28pm, it looks like some have tried to do that with him, too. It’s not a Christian thing to do, and they should teach people that in seminary.



  11. “Inside Out” was a profound movie experience for me because of how it unfolded and how Sadness came to the forefront. Amazing movie.


  12. I like his concert intro to “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” when he says something like, “It starts out really slow and then fizzles out altogether. It’s a song guaranteed to bring you down. It’s called, ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down.’ ”

    I was watching Neil Young on Austin City Limits years ago with my father-in-law, who commented a few times that “with very little effort he could be a successful comedian.” Meaning, that he wasn’t at all impressed.


  13. Thank you Laura W. and Christiane…it’s true…changes the dynamics, and they can’t handle it, even after I explained my depression, etc. Can’t be in their circus anymore.
    It’s very toxic.
    My heart issue is, although I’ve forgiven them, it’s how do I give grace, and more grace, and more grace?
    Also, two books helped a lot thru this:
    Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf
    The first time she drowned by Kerry Kletter (fiction)

    Would recommend these to those who have family (or any) relationships that are toxic.


  14. And I’ll tell you, Advent sure beats the typical American Christmas season.

    American Christmas Season: One-two months of nonstop shopping, planning, office parties (attendance mandatory), partying, etc, climaxing in One Day where you pig out. And report for work at 8 ayem the next day.

    Advent: Four weeks of quiet decompression, resting up for a twelve-day party (Christmas to Epiphany).


  15. I agree, Laura, through my stroke, grief over losing my husband, and the broken back, I’ve become both empathetic and compassionate. And grown to see how I’ve hurt others. God can make good come out of misfortune.


  16. One useful purpose for depression is that it is a symptom of a process going on inside your body / psyche. Something to observe or be observed, and something organic. One might never seek help or cure if it weren’t visible.


  17. “…going to a Lutheran church is equivalent to sliding in to hell.” LOL! New marketing campaign for the Lutherans!

    I know quite a few Lutherans who want to be more like the Christian(TM) megachurch. Allen’s comment about being on someone’s prayer list to be saved because he’s going hell made me think how many Lutherans (& probably other mainline denominations) don’t realize many evangelicals do not consider them “real” Christians. I know I’ve heard that regarding Catholics. I am assuming it’s because of not holding to the decision theology. “When did you turn your life over to Jesus?” 50 some years ago and last month and last week and 5 minutes ago.


  18. Don’t take this the wrong way, but one of my writing contacts once related an insight from a speaker that “Have you considered that depression might be your spiritual gift?”

    Obviously this doesn’t apply to the Black Dog that mauls you to suicide or near-suicide; his context was that it is often the dark and strong emotions that put power behind writing, something I have experienced in my own small-press attempts. The stories I’ve done that practically wrote themselves were always the darker ones — “Kill 23”, “Conversation with a Dying Unicorn”, “Lament for a Cobra in a White Dress”.

    And we need some of the darker and more somber insights to balance off the Happy Clappy Joy Joy you find in too many church environments. You wonder why so much Christian media is dysfunctional fluff? Why there are no artists, no writers, no C.S.Lewises rising in the mainstream today? Look no farther — churches drove them away with Over-Spiritualized Happy Clappy.


  19. “Hell hath no torment like Constant Forced Cheerfulness.”
    — G.K.Chesterton, “Three Tools of Death” (Father Brown Mystery)


  20. Anybody besides me identify with the character Sadness in Pixar’s movie “Inside Out”? I’ll take Sadnesss’ ability to empathize with others misfortunes over anyones incessant cheerfulness.


  21. Almost seems like a chicken and the egg thing. Which came first, the spiritual problems or the physical issues? Did a physical issue lead to his spirituality? Did his spirituality create a physical issue? No clear answers, but I deeply suspect a lot of our doctrines and spiritual beliefs are a result of something being seriously wrong in the natural, and our minds grasping at straws for relief. See: Augustine, Mary Baker Eddy, the SDAs, etc.


  22. Correlation is not always causation. The greatest periods of depression in my life where when I was the most plugged in to religion and Christianity, especially the fundamentalist “deny self” varieties. These periods of depression ONLY lifted when I walked away fully and “lived in the flesh” so to speak. Once that happened, I was able to suitably recognize my need for better health, diet, sleep, etc, so that the improvements started snowballing.

    Ergo, after seeing this pattern repeat in my life time and time again, the greatest single cause of depression in my life is Christianity and religion. Now many have tried to gaslight me and tell me that I just ‘didn’t understand’, or didn’t try hard enough, or wasn’t spirit filled enough, or didn’t crucify myself enough, or whatever. But is that really the case after nearly 30 years of sleepless nights filled with utter despair at not being able to change sufficiently, trying every new thing to succeed? I doubt it.

    I’m sure many are able to be happy and positive and depression free while maintaining a semblance of Christianity and faith. Some even struggled and in a moment of mental anguish developed entire new doctrines to ‘cure’ themselves; just look at Augustine and possibly even Luther. But others can’t. Has Christianity failed? Perhaps, unless the goal of Christianity is to change how a person behaves towards others, rather than how a person feels inside.

    Bottom line, I’d rather be healthy and happy and going to hell then depressed and sick and going to heaven. Those are the two choices seemingly available, and I’m done looking for cures. I’ve put the hammer down and stopped hitting myself with it. And honestly, most days, I wonder why I still visit this site at all anymore.


  23. On thyroid: Getting levels checked is a great suggestion. Lethargy, inability to sleep, problems with concentration, nervousness, etc. can all be symptoms of high or low thyroid production. I’ve been there and can attest that this is true. (See also: being able to wear shorts in a snowstorm in Chicago without feeling cold. But I digress….)

    I knew someone (not me) who went through an entire spiritual crisis of more than a year, at an age where such a crisis might be considered “normal.” After interpreting it as a personal issue, he was later diagnosed with thyroid issues. Medical treatment fixed the problem.


  24. Here’s a riff off of that: when David is telling us about the God who is angry every day, and more… is this GOD revealing what HE is like ?? Or is it revelation telling us what WE are like, or tend to be ?? E.Peterson says the Psalms are meant to expose US for who we are, that we might learn to talk to GOD about the ugly us…..


  25. As one Eeyore to another, I have lived with depression all my life. This is in a Christian world where one must be happy and smiling all the time. They have never read the Psalms, which are brutally honest on depicting depression, anger and many feelings that Christians don’t like to talk about.


  26. “I think I am on a prayer list at a small church to get saved.”

    We had a prayer request in our church a while back for a couple who were “devout Catholics”; the “requester” asked for prayer for their salvation.


  27. One thing that I have observed, both in myself and others, is that we may not deal well with change both in ourselves and others. If you remove yourself from a particular environment for a time, you can’t go back and expect that the people in that social group are the same as when you left it. Some have left, new ones may have come in, and the ones that remained have not typically been carried by inertia; the world has moved on. Our social settings have seasons, just like the year. (I am fighting aging tooth and nail; not going contentedly into the sunset.)


  28. If you’ve never listened to it, try Sixpence None the Richer’s 2002 album “Divine Discontent”. There’s an undercurrent of melancholy and dissatisfaction throughout it. Fits right in with some of Jars of Clay’s stuff.


  29. That’s not all bad…. maybe a good idea to get saved, and saved, and saved again….. but not the way those ladies mean it, some editing required.

    fwiw: as an Anglican, I’m too Catholic for my protestant friends (some of them), and too Protestant for some of my RC family. hmmmmm: drowning or burned at the stake,,,,,, what is it today ?? Maybe I’m a closet Anabaptist…


  30. “…we do change, there may be undercurrents of constancy, but people change over their life more than many suspect of themselves.”

    Ha! Over their life? Certainly! I change from moment to moment much of the time!

    “The quote “It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human” is spot on.”

    +1 and reminds me of this quote from Michael Spencer’s classic (and most meaningful to me) post, When I am Weak:

    “We need our brokenness. We need to admit it and know it is the real, true stuff of our earthly journey in a fallen world. It’s the cross on which Jesus meets us. It is the incarnation he takes up for us. It’s what his hands touch when he holds us.”


  31. Thank you for your comment, this is identical to what I experienced. I thought it was only my family that thought Lutheran’s are going to hell. I think I am on a prayer list at a small church to get saved.


  32. ” Their complete lack of support has been so blatant, so in-Christian, so unloving, I’ve had to put distance between us…just to say sane.”

    sounds like they are treating you in a toxic fashion …… and yes, it’s ‘okay’ to distance yourself from family members and ‘friends’ who are negative and toxic when you are beginning to heal up yourself and grow stronger

    someday, in your own strength, you might then be able to reach out and help them, so growing stronger now is a good priority not only for you but someday, maybe for their sake also

    God Bless. And know you can find a lot of strength in the quiet places of the faith where we have a chance to listen to the ‘still small voice’ of God 🙂


  33. Hi Charlie, glad you found some answers. Just a thought, perhaps an explanation about your family’s reaction. One observation I have from attending recovery groups is that when one person in a family gets better, it upsets the family dynamic–the belief system that a family has. There may even be pressure to change back. I certainly encountered that in my family.


  34. low-energy folks: get your thyroid levels checked 🙂

    always good to start with a physical when facing symptoms of depression ….. to rule out physical causes that CAN be treated to alleviate certain symptoms, yes . . . . . and then to get referral to responsible, trained help for what is psychologically-based (although, as I grow older, I am convinced that we are more integrated as human persons than divided into ‘physical’ ‘mental’ ’emotional’: we are ‘all of a piece’ as persons. The trouble with one part of us affects the whole person much more than we give it credit for. We can’t ‘isolate’ our difficulties any more than we can ‘compartimentalize’ and ‘shelve away’ important issues rather than taking them down off of the shelf and dealing with them responsibly in their turn . . . . or we will find that these issues come ’round like a boomerang and hit us in the back of the head.


  35. Yessss, Neil: The “Y” of C-S-N-and Y who is an Eeyore with a screamin’ guitar and a story to tell. I think you have to be a valley dweller, sometimes, to write “Needle and the Damage Done”


  36. There was a recent movie on which only a clinically depressed young woman was functional during the end of the world. I assume it was because she had already rehearsed it neurologically exhaustively.

    I couldn’t finish it. It was too boring.


  37. I want to address yesterday’s post and today’s.
    Depression is something I have dealt with since my college years. Nothing ever super major, nothing that a bit of counseling couldn’t help; I personally didn’t need meds, but am certainly not against those who truly need them. My brother took them, without dealing with the real, underlying cause(s), and he’s still a wreck…but thinks he’s happy cuz he goes to a mega church where every is showy and what great thing is God doing in your life? It kills me.
    Sought counseling these last 3 years….almost done! My marriage is back on track, great relationships with my kids, able to handle difficult situations, stand up for me, draw boundaries…and so on.
    So now, my mom and brothers can’t figure me out, think I’ve changed for the worse. Their complete lack of support has been so blatant, so in-Christian, so unloving, I’ve had to put distance between us…just to say sane.
    BUT, pretty much everyone else loves the changes, sees how happy I am, loves that I am now who I am.
    I have become who God made me to be–not who my (family of origin) wanted me to be.
    I speak truth in love. And I VERY much agree with the post from yesterday, Chaplain Mike. Soooo tired of the Christianese broken record of read your bible, etc etc.
    Done. I would encourage anyone, who even thinks they need counseling to get it…we’re all damaged I some way, and there are fixes that can help and get us through.
    I also think that post-evangelical wanderings these last 12 years for me, was a part of it. But, as I started reading others, Capon, Wright, Nouwen, Merton, thanks to this site and its bloggers and posters, the solitude and the stillness has brought so much peace and perspective and encouragement and insight, I wouldn’t have had otherwise. The convergence of the two, timing wise, was perfect.
    Chaplain Mike, I’ve hijacked your ‘I’m a Christian who worships in the Lutheran tradition’ phrase…sorry, but it so easy me up perfectly. My mom pretty much thinks going to a Lutheran church is equivalent to sliding in to hell. I’ve tried explaining — she won’t hear it. Oh well.
    Just sayin’
    Thanks for these two days’ postings.


  38. Interesting timing: Sara Groves “All Right Here” has been in the car CD all week. I’m pretty sure she’s an Eeyore. Her music helps me explore my own sadness, there are others who do that also (Neil Young, Fernando Ortega and Jars of Clay come to mind). Music like theirs helps me know that if I am crazy, at least I have company.


  39. I get to the “Some of us… ” list and can identify with all of those; at various points in life I’ve been all those things, and am a couple currently. Something it is always important to remember is that humans are inconstant – we do change, there may be undercurrents of constancy, but people change over their life more than many suspect of themselves. Often times we seem to edit and splice our own memories to reinforce a narrative of continuity … it is good to have journals and/or old friends to whack one upside the head from time to time.

    The quote “It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human” is spot on.


  40. No, he meant you have to have exactly the perfect amount of sunny, not too much, not too little. Helpful! 🙂


  41. Not everyone is meant to be a Tigger. We need Eeyores too to make a world. And everything in between.

    Speaking as a depression-prone personality myself… it’s nice to know I’m appreciated. 😉


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