Saturday, October 31, 2009

Event Horizon

This time of the semester is awful for writing; I notice that last spring there was a similar midsemester lull in my blog entries. Life is full of rhythms, which has been something of a theme with me lately. There are microrhythms and macrorhythms, daily routines and seasonal variations. We can dance with time gracefully or we can wrestle it for a blessing. And maybe that choice, too, has its own rhythm.

One of those rhythms, in my life, is the rhythm of depression. I don't struggle with depression because struggling doesn't help. I don't suffer from depression because as corny as it sounds, suffering really is optional. I prefer to say that I have some experience with it, assiduously avoiding any kind of value judgment. Mine is admittedly mild; I'm remarkably productive, even when I'm in a funk, and I'm not (currently) on medication. There are steps I take to help manage it, but the reality is, in my experience, that it comes in waves and rhythms, and I'm learning to recognize them.

The idea that I might be depressed came as a shock to me when I first confronted it -- or was first confronted by it. I'm rarely sad, so it never occurred to me that I might be depressed. Stressed out? Sure, sometimes. Unstable? Duh -- have you met me? (I'm a musician, for God's sake. We are not normal.) But depressed? This did not come to mind, at least not to mine. I equated depression with sadness, and I had elaborate mechanisms for keeping negative emotions, like sadness and anger, at bay. It certainly didn't occur to me that this might itself be a symptom.

What I've discovered is that, for me, being genuinely sad is a luxury, and this is precisely what makes me susceptible to depression. Depression is not sadness but a kind of affective fog, a numbness that nothing breaks through. An insuperable case of the blahs. And my normal emotional baseline is relatively inert. I'm not easily moved. What this means is that it's not really a far cry from here to a bona fide depressive episode, where the fog rolls in and I feel like I'm staring into a gaping existential maw.

It's easy to think, in these cases, that what I need is something to believe in, some kind of hope, but that does not seem to be true. What works better, for me, is to simply roll with it. To embrace it. To lean into the rhythm when it comes: Yes, I'm depressed right now. Yes, it's quite possible that life has no intrinsic meaning. Yes, it's kind of hard right now to maintain the patina of social acceptability. But if life is meaningless then it always has been, and I've felt better in this meaningless universe and will feel better again. And if it's not meaningless, then what I'm experiencing now is simply the perception of meaninglessness, and it will pass. If it gets too bad, I'll get some help; in the meantime, let's not make any major decisions.

One of the things that has helped me a lot is to give up the quest to find meaning and accept responsibility for the task of making meaning. To embrace the gaping existential maw, to fling myself into the void and reverse my assumptions: depression is not some exception to my usual and better-adjusted self but a quite understandable response to my apprehension of our utter contingency. It's not that life is meaningless but that we can't know, and therefore have no way to tell which kinds of meaning might actually obtain and which bits we just made up. In which case, what we consider the normal range of human emotion is basically an arbitrary response to the vagaries of life based on a sense of meaning that has no foundation. A flattening of affect is a perfectly reasonable response, if you ask me.

Except that it's really no fun, and not that interesting, and all other things being equal I prefer the times that I can ignore that and appreciate the wondrous diversity of life. Being in a depressive episode simply means I've temporarily lost my mojo, that I'm off my groove a little bit. It is my psyche at rest, and maybe sometimes I need that rest. It is indeed a rhythm, and maybe somehow I need that rhythm.

I'm also a very religious person, so this has (of course) manifested in how I think about God, and something I've found very helpful is to recognize that I'm what's called a theological non-realist. This marks a kind of d├ętente between my atheist and believing selves, mostly by denying either of them the last word. The gist of it is that none of our God-talk apprehends the "really real." We're all shooting in the dark. God could not exist at all, or God could exist and be nothing like what is taught by our favorite religions.

There could be an infinite number of Gods, creating each other like some nested set of ontological Russian dolls. Our universe could be utterly and starkly alone, a cosmological fluke. The "really real" could be God, or not-God, or any number of variations of God or not-God. We have no way of knowing, no vantage point that allows us purchase on the answer. Some of our speculations could be correct -- even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes -- but we're still clueless as to which bits those might be.

Instead, our God-talk is usually about something else, often having to do with ethics or justice. We bind up our sense of what is right and good and true and we project it into the ether and call it God. Sometimes we do it almost that baldly. And yes, even my theological non-realism is likely a product of something else, some artifact of my personality or upbringing or cultural conditioning -- and this might tank my assertion if it didn't follow so neatly from that assertion. That's actually one of the things I love about it.

I don't why being here would bring with it such a palpable sense of peace, but it does. The fact that I love working for a church does not need to make some kind of deep ontological sense because there isn't any such thing. There are any number of very human reasons that I love it and those are good enough. Being on a church staff is not, at the end of the day, intrinsically any more ironic than getting up in a good mood -- or getting up at all. I'm not there to undermine or challenge what they're doing, but to help them do it, even if I can't sign off on the metaphysical assumptions behind it. People need it, and I need it, for various and varied reasons most of us don't think about and don't want to. And none of us gets to be in charge of what those reasons are supposed to be.

A 14th-century English mystic described God as being within a "cloud of unknowing, " which is quite possibly a bridge between my skepticism and the mystical path. For the author of the Cloud, the way forward is direct experience of God rather than the pursuit of knowledge, and I'm just as skeptical about direct experience as anything else. On one hand, I recognize the validity of the mystical experience and there are a number of my own experiences I'm rather fond of.

On the other hand, I'm a lousy mystic. I've dabbled in centering prayer and even chanted Psalms, but I'm not interested in the kind of discipline required to take the mystical path seriously. Plus, I find some of it a bit dubious; as sympathetic as I am to the value of the experience, I don't usually buy the explanation of what the experience is supposed to be. Union with the Godhead -- or an induced brain-state? Transcending the self -- or suspending the process by which we define the boundaries of self? Tell me that meditation helps you cope with the world, and I'll believe you. Tell me that you've seen the face of God or become one with the universe and I'm liable to change the subject.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing assumed that there was a "really real" God in the center of that cloud. I'm not so sure, though of course I can't rule it out. Years ago, as my conservative theology began to break down, I could feel my assumptions about the Bible slipping away. It dawned on me that if the Bible were true, it was in the sense of pointing to Something Else, and at the time this Something Else presented itself in a kind of vision, of something stark and terrifying -- not exactly malicious, but not warm and cuddly either. Somehow I knew that if I continued to play out my curiosity, it would mean facing whatever this was. Later, when belief in God failed me as well, it was like I looked to the place where God used to be and there was nothing there, just a stark desert landscape -- which is why I use a desert landscape for my Facebook profile.

Scientists use "event horizon" to describe the theoretical boundary of observation, a place beyond which we cannot see or measure or explore. It's the point in a black hole where light bends in on itself and can't escape. It's almost as if the the universe insists on keeping certain mysteries to itself. I feel the same way about this "cloud"; it's not so much that God is hidden behind it as that we simply can't see or know what lies beyond. When I first encountered the desert landscape of my soul I thought maybe I'd just call the empty place "God" and get on with things. Robert Jensen, in All My Bones Shake, says that God is the name we give to the mystery of the universe. This is not, for Jensen -- who is both an atheist and a Christian -- a "God of the gaps," but a way of recognizing our inclination, in the face of wonder, to form praises on our lips.

And maybe, in a nod to my English mystic, I can decide that the "really real," whatever it might be, is God -- even if God doesn't exist. I'm not sure I'm ready to go there, but it's an option. It might serve as a way to remind us of our smallness, our contingency, our unknowing. Most of us strain, somewhere, for a glimpse of the numinous. I can't tell you how you're supposed to do it, or where. But sometimes, on that desert landscape, I can see a bit of a breeze, if I don't try to look too hard.

And that's enough.