Monday, August 10, 2009

(Re-)interpreting Circumstances

..[S]eeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role, and through
My dead lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.
~ CS Lewis, "Prayer"

Last night I revisited that classic scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s in which Audrey Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly, explains to her friend Fred what it’s like to have the mean reds. “You mean like the blues?” he asks. “No,” says Holly, “the blues are because you’re getting fat or because it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

Fred concedes that he does and Holly tells him that when she comes down with the ‘mean reds’ the only thing that does her any good is to “jump into a cab and go to Tiffany’s.”

She famously adds, “If I could find a real life place to make me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.”

I think this “feeling” which Holly describes is one of well-being, security, and deep-down satisfaction; whereas the ‘mean reds’— (a somewhat fancier term for depression) – are marked by enduring feelings of fear, insecurity, and emptiness.

This scene - which I believe is even more resonant now than it was in 1958 - inspires the question: why are so many women and, more specifically (for my purpose), ‘women of faith’ suffering from the mean reds? And how do we overcome them?

I think that part of the answer, in addition to redefining expectations, has to do with how we ‘frame’ the narrative of our lives; that is, whose voice we allow to be Authoritative.

Most of us, whether we realize it or not, respond to the pain in our lives by crafting elaborate victim narratives for ourselves... We think: 'My life is this way because of... “ shoddy upbringing…” “…my lack of education or opportunity…” " excess of education or opportunity (which alienates me from people by inviting scorn and envy)..." “…my poor health…” " failure to get married..." “…my failed (or failing) marriage…” Etcetera. Ad infinitum.

Why is this?

We consider, or, more accurately, we presumptuously assume that our version of events is Authoritative – that it is the only version – and we are unwilling to concede there could be any other.

It wasn’t always this way.

During the Victorian period, for example, most novels (such as Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities) were written in a 3rd person omniscient voice. The narrative perspective reflected the belief of the culture: 1) that there was a God; and 2) that God's perspective was True. Dickens didn't say, "It felt, to me, like it could have been the worst of times;" or, "in that moment it seemed to me like the best of times." No, he says, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. No qualifications. No alternate interpretations.

In contrast, today’s novel is more likely to be told in the 1st person; the perspective is not objective but subjective; it is fractured, partial, and open to interpretation (I am thinking of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces). No one, in other words, picks up a novel and expects the narrator to give them an unequivocal - or even, necessarily, reliable - account of events. Instead, we expect to read only this narrator’s interpretation.

The point I am making is this: how we tell stories says a lot about how we view the world.

This problem – of warring over who gets to tell the story, of whose version is “True” – has been around for millennia, since the Fall of Man. The bottom line is, who am I going to let define what is ‘true’ in my life? And not just in my life at large, but in this situation, at this precise moment? Me? My feelings, family, or friends? Or God, speaking to me through his holy Word?

Romans 12.1 says: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

You'll notice that this is a command, not one in a series of infinite options which I can electively choose if and when I feel like it; and it requires that I respond volitionally, as an act of my will. Do not conform, it says. Instead: be transformed.

Our ‘response’ is also a responsibility – something for which God will call us to account.

I have been depressed… I know what it is to wake up in the morning and feel that you are five miles below sea level.

But I discovered – in the process of utilizing all the conventional resources – that in order to sustain any kind of lasting ‘mental or emotional health,’ to experience the ‘abundant life’ which Christ promises, I must constantly – over and over and over again – ‘reframe’ the narrative of my life, examining every facet of it through the lenses of biblical truth.

Instead of allowing my mind to wander and drift through valleys of gloom and self-indulgence, I must actively “dwell” (NAS) or “meditate” (NKJV) on things pure and lovely, things praiseworthy and noble (Philippians 4.8); I must, in fact, commit my whole life – and not some sliver or fragment of it - to the process of (heartsoulmind) transformation.

Do prescription medication and talk therapy, increased nutrition and exercise, help one to overcome the ‘mean reds?’

Of course.

But I don’t believe any of these can, in themselves, enact the kind of lasting internal change that is accomplished by the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God and its application in our lives…

If and when I give God this ‘right’ – the right to define what is ‘true’ in my life – then it is not only my perception of my circumstances which is altered; it is (slowly, and over time) my very experience of the world. I may not be "happy" as our culture defines it, but I will learn to develop lasting contentment as I find irrevocable security in Christ. This - unlike the fleeting satisfaction that comes from having things 'my way' - is something that no one can take away from me; and which no 'faulty' circumstance can overturn.


Michelle said...

With over 27 million Americans on antidepressants, it leaves one to wonder what kind of child-like souls will fill a nursing home in the near future? Wisdom comes directly from the pain and humility of life. Since it is easier to swallow a Happy Pill than go through the growing pains of maturing through it, what will we be left with in a generation when such a large number of Americans choose to take the medicated way out of the 'mean reds'?

HM Baker said...

While I do believe there are instances for which prescription medication is an appropriate method of treatment, I don't believe it should ever be the only or primary method. I agree that we live in a world where pain - even the kind that leads to a growth in character - is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. I don't condemn people for electing to go on meds; I just hope to encourage all of us that part of how we worth through 'the mean reds' is by examining our fundamental assumptions about what is 'true.' And that we choose to allow God to use the pain in our lives to make us more like Him.