I’ve been flat on my back for a couple of days with the flu. I think I’m almost better, but it’s been a rough couple of days, mentally and physically. Isolation has never been good for me, and last night I hit a kind of crescendo of mental anguish as I was trying to fall asleep.
There’s a great episode in Season 3 of The Magicians where Quentin comes face to face with a doppelgänger of himself that turns out to be an outward manifestation of all his depressive instincts. This thing (is it a demonic shapeshifter, or just a kind of magical mirage? We don’t know) has victimized others before Quentin, following them around and droning their worst fears at them until they find the nearest tall building and jump off. It has access to all of Quentin’s private thoughts, and it puts the worst possible spin on everything. It makes everything sound believable.
Anyway, the writers really knew what they were doing, and at least one of them must have some serious experience with some serious depression. Usually when TV shows try to portray “battle of wills involving inner turmoil” they do some funny camera tricks and the actor makes screamy symbolic faces, but it isn’t very convincing. This was.
Jason Ralph’s a good actor, and his face mirrored the way it feels to be cornered by a very determined depressive mood. You squirm, you bob and weave, you call on all your mental resources, you pull out every trick you can think of, but it’s always two inches behind you, snapping at your heels. Quentin blusters to his doppelgänger, “You and I both know that I’ve got a black belt, so come at me!” But it is bluster. Somehow, after two decades of intermittent tangling with depression, I haven’t mastered it yet. I just know how to keep it contained, but sometimes it still gets the upper hand.
I’ve been reading Francis de Sales again, a book called Finding God’s Will For You that my sister gave me ages ago. His psychological insight, from 500 years in the past, always sounds fresh and always goes right to the heart of the matter. He talks a lot about the will of God, and what it means to accept it, to conform ourselves to it. Here’s de Sales on accepting suffering:
The soul makes this act of resignation among so many troubles and amid such opposition and repugnance that it scarcely perceives that it makes it. At least it thinks it is done so feebly as not to be done sincerely or properly…Such acquiescence is neither tender nor sweet and hardly perceptible to the senses, although it is true, strong, invincible, and most loving.St. Francis de Sales. In Finding God’s Will For You, chapter 4.
Most of us are familiar with the idea that we can make use of suffering somehow by “offering it up”. I don’t understand how this works or what it means (though I did write a whole post once on how it works and what it means), but I do accept and believe two key things:
- By accepting suffering, some good (never mind what!) is accomplished.
- We can choose (never mind how!) the recipient of this good.
De Sales supplements this idea by making us understand that not only is this acquiescence possible and profitable, but it is extremely undramatic. It doesn’t feel like a mammoth, triumphant effort of the will. It’s done “feebly” and amid “repugnance”, it’s “hardly perceptible to the senses”. Just the tiniest nod, the slightest fiat, and God shouts, GOOD ENOUGH! and runs with it.
I don’t know why I believe these things so strongly. They are certainly embedded deeply in the Catholic tradition, and for once that seems to be good enough for me. I know that it’s a tremendous comfort to be able to say, in the dentist’s chair or in one’s own bed in a horribly wakeful moment, “I accept this suffering on behalf of _____.” Would I submit to have a tooth pulled if I knew that it would contribute in some substantial and irreplaceable way to the happiness of the dear friend going through a bad breakup? Yes, I would.
Will it stop the extraction from hurting? Nope, nope, nope.