[Welp, no way to write this post without worrying my mother. But really, I’m fine, just had a harrowing day or two a while back. And I took notes!]

A good1 depression, like a good virus, is a master of self-perpetuation. Its primary job is to attack various systems in the host; but its secondary and more important job is to ensure its own longevity.

A virus perpetuates itself in three ways.2 First, by making copies of itself; second, by adapting to the host’s defenses; and third, by turning the host on itself — convincing the immune system, for example, to attack elements of the nervous system.

A really masterful3 depression works the same way. It starts simply enough, with the kind of thing that would make anyone feel bad: an awkward social interaction, the reappearance of an old sin, or any personal failure, shame, deficiency, or spell of hard luck.

But then the thing propagates itself exponentially, the master depression spawning several sub-depressions, and each of these spawning their own sub-subs,4 until the system is completely overrun by continuous waves of guilt, shame, and helplessness that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once.

At the onset, there is a particular cause; but by the time the thing gets into full swing, everything is the cause. Like the lover who sees every blade of grass as proof of the goodness of the world, for the truly depressed person, everything — every interal and external event — is a fresh reason to feel like utter crap.

But this is not the cleverest part of a really well-designed depression. At this point, the virus’ job is to convince the host that killing it (by means of prayer, distraction, charity, etc.) is not in the host’s best interest. Here is the argument it uses:

  • You [the host] were happy until A happened.
  • A revealed you to be afflicted with devastating personal deficiency B.
  • Thinking about B makes you unhappy. Not thinking about B would make you happy again.
  • However, given the seriousness of B, it is your duty to think about it until you have resolved it.
  • Moreover, not thinking about B would be only to mask the problem, rather than to solve it. So to ignore B would be a kind of self-delusion — successful only until A happens yet again.
  • Better to be conscious of the harsh reality of the thing than to live in a fool’s paradise. You know, like Neo when he takes the red pill. Let’s see how far down the rabbit hole goes!
  • Therefore, under no circumstances must you permit yourself to stop thinking about B until you either (i) decide on a course of action that will utterly eradicate B from your life, or (ii) discover the secret error in your thinking that caused B in the first place.

If the depression does its job well, the host will choose option (ii) and decide to think his way out of the depression — without ever noticing that THIS HAS NEVER EVER WORKED BEFORE, not even a little bit.

But even if the host chooses (i), he will end up at (ii) eventually anyway, since the process of deciding to radically change his life will lead him right back to brooding on A, which starts the whole process over again.

Trying to think your way out of a depression is like trying to put out a fire by using gasoline. It’s like trying to quench thirst by drinking salt water. It’s like trying to fix a broken leg by walking it off. You can’t fix the problem using your mind, because your mind is the thing that’s sick.

What do you use then? Anything else. Here’s what I usually do.

  • Pray, maybe something like this: “Lord, I can’t see any reason for not feeling this way, but I trust that there is one, because I know that you are good.5 In the meantime, until it goes away, I accept the pain it causes, and ask you to use that pain for [x, y, and z].”
  • Find something to do: call a friend, clean the house, go for a walk, get some exercise, work on a project for somebody else. If you’ve got an Adoration chapel nearby, head over and bawl your eyes out6 with a journal nearby.
  • Whenever the depression’s self-perpetutating mechanisms reassert themselves — whenever you’re tempted to start thinking it all through again, trying to find that hidden secret — pull the plug on that thought, shut the process down, and continue what you’re doing.
  • Repeat.

It might take a while, but you’ll get over it. Next time will be easier. In the meantime — and this is important — you’re not where you were before. If you’ve offered the thing up, you have helped yourself and others more than you know. In the economy of grace, freely-accepted suffering is better than gold.

1 “Good” in the sense of “very successful at doing what it does.” You know, like in Kung Pow: “I think it is a great plan, because it is so bad!”
2 Well, I’m pretty sure a virus works this way. Apologies to any actual biologists in the audience (I know of at least one of you). Poetic license, etc.
3 I say masterful because a depression, like a virus, works so well that I can’t help seeing it as designed by a talented technician with a subtle intellect and a twisted will.
4 With a very slight nod to Herman Melville.
5 Just plain good. Categorically good. Resist the urge to elaborate on why he’s good; you can think about that later, when you’re sane again.
6 But quietly, so as not to disturb the old ladies too much, although they’ve certainly seen it all before.

20 Comments on “Quine”

  1. Liz says:

    I struggle with anxiety more than depression, but I’ve found the following question helpful: what would I be doing in this situation if I wasn’t anxious. Then I do that. Not sure if that would help with depression. Oh and btw, adoration heals just about everything, it seems. That and confession. Don’t know where I’d be without it.

  2. Christine says:

    Steve, I’m not saying that this applies to the kind of depression you’re talking about, but I do want to put in a good word for medication. When you’re suffering from a chemical imbalance that won’t go away no matter what you do to cope with it, medication can be a valuable, even a life-saving, help. I might not be alive today if my spiritual director (my own Fr. T) hadn’t suggested that I see a doctor and look into the medical side of the darkness I was experiencing.

    And if you do think you might have a chemical imbalance, don’t give up just because the first antidepressant you were prescribed didn’t help or had bad side effects. There are a lot of medications out there, and not all of them work for everyone. My doctor tried 8-10 different medications before finding one that helped me (I was an unusually difficult case), but I’m glad she and I stuck with it; all of the failed attempts and side effects were worth it when we finally found something that helped! A good psychiatrist will work with you, really listen to you, and be willing to try new things or combinations of things until he or she finds something that helps. And new drugs are coming out all the time.

  3. current lector says:

    Hi, Steve:

    That business about one’s thoughts getting locked onto a fault (real or imagined) is so true, in my experience.

    Your insight into how it works is dead-on. I really enjoy your blog.

    One of the main things that seems to work is to let go of the judgment and hand it over to the only real Judge. He is probably going to be a good deal more clement than oneself. As a highly commendable book by an Anglo-Catholic priest from the 1960s stated: “…the cure for scrupulosity is the same as it is for all other forms of pride, which is the cultivation of the habit of looking out and away from the mere self; the habit of looking at God in all his love and power…”

    BTW – how does Keanu Reeves fit into this? I know he’s an actor, a fairly good one.

    Is it this meme, which I just found: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1996460,00.html ?

  4. Joe says:

    Wait, you can’t walk off broken legs? See, this is why people think gay guys are such wusses! No, but feel better—assuming this was prompted by something that is happening with you. And I assume it was.

    I think that your analysis is spot on for what it’s worth. Some of the smallest little bugs in my life have turned into the most overwhelming, nothing-will-ever-be-bright-again sicknesses. I almost always come out better in the end though. That’s how I became a Catholic actually.

  5. Laura Vellenga says:

    yes. this is EXACTLY how my mind functions when i am anxious/depressed/in the middle of an ocd flare — even though i’m on medication. in my experience, meds help take the edge off so that you can actually do the mental work that keeps you (eventually) from spiraling down in the first place. meds alone won’t keep the flares from happening but they help keep the bottom from dropping out while you learn different ways of thinking and reacting. thank god for drugs, therapy, and spiritual direction.

  6. Bryan says:

    What you have described is exactly what I experience, but there’s also this huge dread added on when I can feel that a major depression is on the way. I start praying “Oh no oh no oh no, Lord. Please not again.” I always end up in front of the tabernacle, saying “If this will glorify you, well ok then. I accept it. Just keep my soul safe while it’s too dark for me to see you.” while I don’t automatically attribute my bouts of depression to the Enemy, I do believe he knows when I’m particularly vulnerable; so I double up on making use of the sacramentals the Church has provided for fighting him.

  7. Sarah says:

    This is a wonderful post, and one I need to bookmark. When I am depressed, I cling to my bed and think and think and think (with some comforting masturbation in between.)

    I always know full well that if I just made the steps of getting out of bed, and getting dressed and DOING something, I would feel better.

    This Saturday, I fell into that depression again until I got an invite to a house show for my friend’s band. I am not a partier, I would only know the one band member at this party, and I really didn’t want to go. But I knew I had to get out of bed. So I got up, did my hair and makeup and went anyway. I drank a little vodka, danced, made some friends, and I think I was probably more un-distractedly happy than I had been in a long, long time.

    Sometimes it really is just a matter of getting out of bed.


    (you need to read that, srsly. hehehe)

  8. Jamie says:

    Hmm. Yep. Good one, yet again.

    I was just reading about this today. It’s from Volume 2 of the stuff from Direction for our Times (…a lady, pseudonymed Anne, writes down what Jesus tells her, and it’s great stuff.) The following is what spoke to me most this morning (because I really just needed a big God-hug), but I put the whole thing at the bottom.

    “You fear failure, perhaps because in the past you
    have failed. Consider, My dearest, that you
    may be attributing failure to yourself
    where none exists.
    …You are succeeding now, My beloved child, because
    you are sitting quietly while I minister to
    your soul and heal your wounds. Yes, we
    are a success. Together, we do not fail.”


    September 3, 2003
    I wish to tell My souls about the joys of
    Heaven. My children, there is no bitterness
    in Heaven. Bitterness and distress are not
    intended for you, even on earth. These are
    experienced by every soul at some time
    during their earthly time, but souls should
    not see bitterness and distress as the
    defining characteristics of their life. My
    child, if you feel you struggle often with
    these destructive patterns, you must spend
    time with Me. I am the Divine Healer. I can
    remove all hardness from your hearts so
    that you are liberated to love with no
    barrier. In that way, you become a more
    effective servant because you are open to
    receiving love, as well as giving love. My
    child, I do not wish to add to your grief.
    You will not pursue a relationship with Me
    and be disappointed. Run joyfully into this
    relationship with Me because you are
    guaranteed to succeed. I, the God of All,
    am making this guarantee to you. You fear
    failure, perhaps because in the past you
    have failed. Consider, My dearest, that you
    may be attributing failure to yourself
    where none exists. Put another way, once
    you begin to walk in unity with Me, your
    God who loves you, you will see success and
    failure more clearly. What may have
    appeared to be failure to you in your past,
    may look like success to you when viewed
    from My eyes. I am looking at effort, not
    result. The result of an effort is My affair
    and you must leave that to Me. So, in the
    name of reflection, look back now on your
    life. Think of these things that haunt you
    as failures. Did you try in these endeavors?
    Did you often do your best? When you saw
    a thing falling apart did you attempt to
    change your approach? Perhaps your
    failures were not failures at all. Perhaps
    you were seeking and not finding. Be at
    peace. You have found Me now and I will
    bring you every success, regardless of how
    the world views your endeavors. You are
    succeeding now, My beloved child, because
    you are sitting quietly while I minister to
    your soul and heal your wounds. Yes, we
    are a success. Together, we do not fail.
    Today is your beginning. Start freshly with
    Me right now and all possibilities open
    before you. Your heart begins to ache and
    this feels almost like pain, but a pain you
    would not run away from. This is divine
    love, little soul. This is how it feels when
    you allow your God to love you. You feel a
    longing. Your heart looks around initially,
    because your heart cannot determine the
    object of its longing. This is the beginning
    of becoming a saint, My child. These first
    stirrings are a desire for unity with your
    God. This desire grows stronger and
    stronger and you can measure your
    holiness, if such a thing were necessary, by
    this aching. I tell you solemnly, with all of
    My Godly majesty, you will achieve
    fulfillment of this longing in Heaven.

    1. Nayhee says:

      Jamie: I’m keeping my distance from “Anne.” It’s got too many of the standard red flags of dysfunctional groups. I wrote up a short little two-part series on why (they’re not long). Here’s part I: http://hindinayhee.blogspot.com/2011/08/who-wants-to-join-cult-part-i.html

  9. Michael says:

    I have had a number of discussions over the last year or so with my pastor, and he recommends three things for battling clinical (genetic chemical imbalance) depression–as both he and I do: prayer, exercise, and medication. I cannot express to you how much of an impact all three of these make on my life. From your blog entries, I can tell that you are big on the first two… Those are the two I need to work on most. Feel free to elaborate on how to strengthen those two aspects for people like me.

  10. Christine says:

    By the way, as someone with a degree in Classics, I appreciate your use of Greek in your tags for this post.

  11. Sean says:

    I needed this post. This is exactly where I’ve been these last several weeks, and it is never just a psychological affliction, it always goes to one’s relationship with God. Thank you, Steve, for helping put into words my experience with such articulation and precision. It’s helpful to feel companionship and…normal.

  12. Mary says:


    I hope that journal has some thought records in it! Thought records are a great way, I’ve found, to combat the big black dog, and really help me get out of a cycle of anger and rumination over B – whatever B is at the time.
    Mind Over Mood is probably the most famous workbook that teaches cognitive behaviour therapy thought records, but you can probably find some online.

  13. Babs says:

    Yes. This is dead on. The rosary of the seven sorrows with meditations also helps because the petition is not that we avoid suffering, but learn how to suffer in a way that opens us to the flood of grace that offering it up can tap into.

  14. Rosie says:

    this is so good! Especially the part about not proving to yourself that God is good. I always fall into that–I think, “well, I should be thankful for everything in my life! And all of creation!” and then, in the state I’m in, I look around and can’t find a single thing to really appreciate.

    Mary, thanks for the recommendation of Mind Over Mood, I am looking into it–it looks very helpful.

  15. Erik says:

    Gotta love the Quine reference.

    He’s a big name in symbolic logic.

    Do I get some sort of prize now? Or not… Thanks for writing steve!

    1. Hmm, prizes. I actually only learned about Quine recently, from xkcd of course.

  16. anakinmcfly says:

    Thank you so much for this post; it’s exactly what I needed to read. I’ve spent way too long trying to think myself out of depression. And thank you for tagging it with Keanu Reeves, because that’s how I found it when it popped up in my Google News alerts for him.

  17. George says:

    Awesome post! Reading it was like taking a breath of fresh air. I needed this right now. I have bouts of moodiness/depression and I think in some respect a lot of it comes from my lack of mortifying/controlling my thoughts and imagination. You give some very practical advice with just the right dose of humor. Thanks doc!

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