There is an expression: “Jonah Days.” Elijah, Job, and King David experienced them as well. They are days when you are unable to get a positive perspective on life. Those days tend to be full of self-pity about how horrible life is treating you. Unchecked for too long, it becomes self-defeating and leads to melancholy or depression.
In this book, God called on Jonah to give a message of redemption to the evil city Nineveh. Unwilling Jonah instead chose to sail away in the opposite direction, as if he could hide from God. Then Jonah got into such a state, so angry at God that he said it would be better if he were dead (Jonah 4:1-9). I think the reason Jonah rejected this call is he couldn’t equate the mercy he received from God to be given to the unworthy people of Nineveh. Most of the prophetic books are written by the prophet with this one more on the prophet. Jonah resembles a spoiled, immature person who hopes his pouting will change God’s mind. This book is full of contrast, other characters responding to situations better than Jonah. God views sin as just that, a sin. It separates us from the Lord (Rom. 6:23). That is the moral of the story and a message for us on how we respond when God shows love and forgiveness to our enemy. This book questions the Jonah character within us.
Here is Fred Buechner in his book Beyond Words, take on the story of Jonah:
“If it was a whale that swallowed Jonah on his voyage to Tarshis, it couldn’t have been the right kind of whale you find in those waters because their gullets aren’t big enough. Maybe it was a sperm whale because they can handle something the size of a prophet without batting an eye. Or maybe, since the Hebrew word means only ‘great fish,’ it wasn’t a whale at all, but a people-eating shark, some of whom attain lengths as great as thirty feet. But whatever it was, this much is certain.
No matter how deep it dove and no matter how dark the inside of its belly, no depth or darkness was enough to drown out the sound of Jonah’s prayer. ‘I am cast out from thy presence. How shall I again look upon thy Holy Temple?’ (Jonah 2:4), the intractable and waterlogged old man called out from sixty fathoms, and Yahweh heard him and answered him, and Jonah’s relief at being delivered from the whale can hardly have been any greater than the whale’s, at being delivered of Jonah.” (what with all his bellyaching)
The book of Jonah stands as an important link in the chain of prophecy. The three days in the pit of despair, in the belly of the fish, foreshadow the same number of days Jesus was on the cross after his crucifixion and before his resurrection with his being spent “in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:39). It gives a glimpse of Christ’s death and resurrection hundreds of years before it happened. To identify Jesus’ to this prophet at the lowest point of Jonah’s life is echoed in the book of Hebrews (2:17). It says Jesus was made human in every way so that He might become merciful. This reference is referred to as the signs of Jonah in the New Testament (c.f. Matt. 16:4, Luke 11:29-30).
At the risk of being misinterpreted when I say depression, Jonah days seem to end up being selfish days. Sometimes those who don’t suffer depression can interpret it as someone being self-absorb. If I’m, to be honest, I do not believe we deserve anything, good or bad, in life. God doesn’t owe us anything. I’m not entitled to anything. What I do get is all because of His mercy and grace. I can work hard toward something, but in the end, the perfect outcome is not from any of my human efforts. I ask myself when life is an uphill battle, one of those two-steps-forward-three-back kind of a day, why am I grumbling? Particularly when my necessities are covered, I stop and reflect. Once I complained about the difficulty in finding someone to hire to clean my house. I could afford to hire these chores out yet; I was still whining about it. That is nothing more than entitlement thinking.
One definition of depression is anger turned inward. Jonah’s depression was a direct outcome of his resentment, ill will, lack of forgiveness and jealousy of God extending his hand to Nineveh. Not all depression stems from this, but it can be part of the complex package it arrives in. There is a difference between depression due to chemical imbalances in the brain and what Jonah was going through. I don’t believe depression is a sin. In the context of Jonah developing his character, it was part of his spiritual lesson to see beyond his selfish desire to what God wanted him to do for the people of Nineveh.
“I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me” (Ps. 69:2) describes the spiraling downward effect of depression. So does the prognosis of turning to God (Ps.40:2,3), “out of the mud and mire, he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”
Truth: If you want to catch little fish, stay in the shallow water; if you want the bigger fish cast a line in deeper water because deep down the fish are stronger. Depression often brings tremendous depth to our personal relationship with God as we learn to surrender to His direction while traveling through the dark valley. Depression is no respecter of man and can cast its shadow over anyone. One trait a person of faith has is to their way to remember God as their refuge of strength (Is. 4:6), the shelter during a storm. Unfortunately, you can’t ignore depression, as the psalmist says it engulfs you. The irony is that there can be good found in it. Serendipity never fails to reveal herself when coming out of the despondency.
From her book, In the Shadow of God’s Wings, Methodist pastor Susan Gregg-Schroeder writes there are (mostly unopened) gifts in depression (Ps. 36:7-9).
“These gifts are the vulnerability, discovering one’s authentic self, patience within a process, living with paradox, creativity, and hope. Despite the exhausting emotional pain, me all alone tightening my grip on my faith. New dimensions of prayers came in my solitude, a peace I would acquire when the world is out of control, a goodness and gentleness instead of the lashing out, and a hope was developed that can never be broken eventually came. God does not waste the difficult. Whether He engineered it or not, He will redeem this circumstance and turn it into a gift.”
Author and minister George MacDonald (1824-1905) who was an inspiration for the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Madeline L’Engle, said: “Afflictions are but shadows of His wings.”.
Depression is not a sign of mental weakness but occasionally is a sign of being tired from remaining strong for too long. I never know when melancholy is going to rear its head and overshadow me. It begins with a self-defeating voice instead of the one that says, yes, you can. Depression is not my daily companion, but it’s friend melancholy visits more often than not. I cannot “cure” it. I make it easier for myself, though. I analyze my melancholy to see if it is not instead disguising as a poor-me-pitiful party because I didn’t get my way. To me, that is what a Jonah Day means.
(A funny thing happened while editing, spell check changed the spelling of melancholy to melancHoly. When I stumbled upon this, I thought what a perfect reminder. By being more aware of my “down” moments I can expose myself to what is holy.)
The days outside of the Jonah ones that involve wanting to hide or stand still in the whirlwind around us are a different kind of day. Then we do need to slow down and think through what we are doing (or not doing) to cause or magnify events to spiral out of control (an example is not putting enough gas in the car, or paying a bill on time). It is when there is the onset of a shock that is atypical in life (a car accident or the surprise death of someone), which doesn’t allow preemptive time for self-care efforts to head off the shock. For example, we know there will be a ceremony of a kind after death. We prepare for it the best way we can emotionally. But what if you went to a funeral to find it is your loved one and not someone else who had died? Those are the tough episodes. Self-care, when going through these crushing bouts, is subjective. Traditional avenues of care through therapy, medication, and support of loved ones prove to be helpful.
In dealing with this mental health issue, there is no one size fits all fix. A remedial care approach that works for me is removing the background noise of the world, not to take on or expose myself to all the challenges at once when I am unwittingly spiraling downward. Referral to medical help is not altogether inappropriate, but I do maintain that in the management of depression there also is the business of tending the spiritual side.
I have always wondered when taking certain medication if it blocks the ability to do personal soul work? I don’t see ever taking medication to enhance spirituality. Perhaps it’s because I have had heightened spiritual moments when no synthetic chemical high was required.
Parker Palmer writes that being “medicalized,” obscures the spiritual dimension of some forms of depression. “Although it is the furthest thing from the mind when I am in this state, a helpful meaning can be found in the experience. Compassion can result when coming out on the other side of it. When suffering, if viewed this way, according to Palmer, with a supple and open heart, it makes for more empathy toward the suffering of others to develop.
Being a resident compared to the land of Oz, I resonate with Parker’s poem, Harrowing, which captures the seedbed of depression:
“The plow has savaged this sweet field. Misshapen clods of earth kicked up. Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view. Last year’s growth demolished by the blade. I have plowed my life this way. Turned over a whole history Looking for the roots of what went wrong. Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred. Enough. The job is done. Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be Seedbed for the growing that’s to come. I plowed to unearth last year’s seasons. The farmer plows to plant a greening season.”
Another Parkerism is, “For me, getting lost is not always a bad thing. It forces me to notice, feel, and think things I might otherwise miss. But if I stay lost, I cannot be present for others as I want to be, and eventually, I’ll lose touch with myself (if I stay there too long) …I know I will get lost again, but it is good to know that silence and solitude can help me find my way home…”
Rainer Rilke shares the same thought another way with “Loving the dark hours of my being.”
When I think about God fighting alongside me in my melancholy or its fraternal twin depression, I think of a fight song soundtrack. It’s the 1812 Overture written by the composer Tchaikovsky (to include the cannons). He also publicly noted his cyclical lapses into depression., undergirded by a dogged dedication to look for beauty and meaning amid the spiritual wreckage. Blog writer Maria Popova describes bouts of depression as an intimate tango of sadness and radiance that is ultimately what gives music its timeless edge in penetrating the soul.
Listening to music is a form of antidotal therapy for me. I focus on melody to silence the “noise in my head,” particularly when in my home instead of leaving on or watching television or listening to the news or talk shows. Also, when I need to concentrate on a specific topic and want to distract what I call my monkey brain antics, I let the music distract that portion of my brain that wonders about, that tends to be emotional so that I can get to the other part of my brain for problem-solving. It helps me to jump over the invasive negative, distracting, or unproductive voices to be in a mental place I want to dwell.
My preference is to listen to music without lyrics to prevent me from getting too caught up in words. Who has not associated a moment or person with the lyrics of a song? I enjoy listening to music with the lyrics sung in French or the bossa nova jazz theme because I do not understand the language as well. The beginning of my habit of listening to music was developed when I was young. Sunday mornings were not for church going in the home I was reared. Instead, we listened to opera music. The lyrics were in a foreign language, and I couldn’t understand them, so I cued in on the melody and harmony instead. Occasionally, my parents told the backstory of the opera. I am not particularly gifted in the music department I lean more to being a dilettante about it.
The roots of jazz music are based on sorrow, racism, and eroticism. Educator and writer John Mark Reynolds says nothing justifies the sinful nature of witnesses to sorrow, but the genius (of jazz) transcends the evil. Jazz has transcended into a beautiful expression of art. He compares the roots of Jazz to be both in the church and in “dens of vice.” Musicians of color had a hard time getting work, but God and the devil have always competed for the best music. The blues (the music genre or emotional melancholy) will endure because, until heaven, sorrow endures. Jazz endures because we are souls embodied, bodies with souls.
Another remedial tool in my self-care kit is I am transitioning to enjoying my solitude and the silence that can come along with it. Society’s stigma of solitude (as opposed to always stay busy and be productive) is not healthy. I remember after my mother had died (during the same period of three weddings, one for each of three remaining unwed children scheduled all within a six-month period of each other right after my own marital relation dissolved, plus going through a major downsizing move). Pastor said, “Now it is time for you to take care of you.” I understood what he was saying (Ps. 46:10), however helping and caring for others nurtures and enhances strength in me.
Sara Maitland, who did a study on solitude shares some of the benefits:
A deeper consciousness of oneself
a deeper attunement to nature
a deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual)
increased creativity, and
an increased sense of freedom.
Contrary to thought, solitude helps us to be better at relating. It is through traveling in our own interior landscape that can be truly liberating. Our thoughts are better thought through; we know what we believe to be true about ourselves.