Has it really been two months since my last post? Time sure flies. I just got back from a 10 day trip to Kansas to visit a close friend and attend a writers’ workshop. I’d intended to get a post written up before I left, but clearly that didn’t happen. And now, in the aftermath of a very exciting, blessed trip during which I didn’t get nearly as much sleep as I should have, I am experiencing what is likely the start of a mixed or depressive episode. Which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.
An excellent time to write a post on suffering, yes?
What a perfect opportunity to sit back and analyze whether my belief that it’s possible to suffer depression joyfully is at all accurate.
I may be repeating myself, but having a proper definition of the word “joy” is required for this belief to make any sense at all. And pondering that definition led me to a question:
Is it acceptable to conflate “joy” and “peace”?
One could argue that it’s possible to be at “peace” without being joyful. If you take “peace” to simply mean “freedom from disturbance” or “tranquility,” and nothing more, then apathy can fill the shoes of peace just as easily as joy could. An apathetic person feels no disturbance or anxiety. They don’t care enough about anything to be anything but tranquil. But I don’t think anyone in a rational state of mind would conclude that apathetic peace is in any way comparable to joyful peace. It certainly isn’t preferable. Anyone who has ever reached the point of depression where they’ve lost all ability to care about anything in life, knows that the absence of cares does not equal peace. Of course, if you’ve been suffering through a firestorm of self-hatred and you suddenly drop to a level where you don’t even care enough to hate yourself anymore, it can certainly feel peaceful in comparison. Cool water can feel hot to someone dying of hypothermia. But no ordinary person would choose a cold bath over a warm one to ward off a chill. And even the severely depressed person will reach a point where the numbness of apathy becomes a smothering prison that they would do anything to break free from.
True peace is inherently joyful. I’m not quite sure whether you’re peaceful because you’re joyful or you’re joyful because you’re peaceful. But both are simultaneously present and neither would be possible in the absence of the other. True peace requires joy. True joy requires peace. And I don’t mean external peace. A look at the lives of any of the saints demonstrates that it’s possible to be a very peace-filled person in the most turbulent of external situations.
So when I say it’s possible to be joyful in the midst of depression, I believe what I’m really saying is that it’s possible to be at peace. Because to me, peace is just a calm, gentle form of joy. And I can reaffirm with great confidence that yes, it is possible to be at peace while depressed. I’m not saying it’s easy to reach that head space. I’m certainly not saying I automatically feel that way when my bipolar symptoms rear their head. I’m tempted to say “I have to work at it” in order to reach that place. But really, that isn’t true at all. To be honest, whenever I “work” at being a peaceful person, I usually wind up even more anxious and mentally disturbed than when I started. You can’t will yourself into peacefulness. It works about as well as willing yourself into happiness. If you achieve anything it all, it’s temporary, and the experience is a tense one.
So how does one achieve peace? It’s actually startlingly simple. The plain, uncomplicated truth is that you will never have peace if you make it a goal in and of itself. Why? Because true peace is simply a side effect. It’s the result of something else. And that something else is trust.
This year has been a year of trust for me. At the end of last year I read an article about picking a word to focus on in the new year. I sat down and prayed about it. And the first word that came to mind was trust. At the time I thought it was weird, because it struck me as something more applicable to my mother, who struggles with anxiety. But this has been a year of realizations for me about the importance of trust in one’s spiritual life — and a real eye-opener as to how mistrustful I really am. When it comes right down to it, the fastest way to become a joyful person is to trust in God. I mean really trust in God. If you aren’t joyful, you don’t trust God. It’s as simple as that. Last year, I thought I trusted God. But now I can see I was deluding myself. Because I’ve gotten a few tastes of what trust actually feels like this year and the peace and the joy that springs from it is like nothing I’ve never experienced before.
If you want to suffer joyfully, you must be at peace. If you want to be at peace, you have to trust in God. If you want to develop true, childlike trust in God…you have to get to know him. You have to develop a relationship with him.
In the next post we’ll take a look at the process of doing precisely that, and we’ll discuss some tangible steps to take.
Until then, take care and God bless!