Reprinted with permission of The Christian Century.

Living in Alabama, I encounter a lot of intuitive spelling. I am no spelling snob. In fact, a roadside sign for "Bowled Peanuts" can brighten my whole day, as can a hand-painted billboard exhorting me to "Give Your Loved One A Missage For Christmas." Never, though, have I taken so much pleasure from a spelling exception as the sign at a local health food store. "WE NOW HAVE ST. JOHN'S WART," proclaimed the movable-type sign out front. I imagined dusty all-terrain vehicles screeching up to the curb, relic collectors jostling to be the first through the door.The storeowners had intended to advertise St. John's Wort, the herbal supplement that many people take to ease depression. It's not clear whether St. John's Wort (hypericum perforatum) actually works. A 2002 study showed that it had no more effect on depressed patients than a sugar pill (Journal of the American Medical Association). On the day I drove past that little store, though, hypericum perforatum had just the right effect on me. Yes, I was depressed, but I felt a momentary lift, an escape from the gloom that followed me everywhere: I laughed. If only I could have prolonged that laugh for a few more miles, a few more days.People experience sadness in many ways. I know it as a smothering pointlessness. A good laugh felt like taking a big gulp of air--only after that gulp I wanted another, and so I was always finding new things to laugh about. Gilbert and Sullivan worked for me. So did Flannery O'Connor, old Doris Day movies, Garrison Keillor, and the front page of the tabloid Weekly World News. But I laughed at myself more than anything else. I had learned from Woody Allen movies that neuroses can be funny. Weren't my phobias comical? Weren't my compulsive behaviors, my screwy obsessive relationships hilarious?When I finally went to a pastoral counselor, she asked me if I'd sought help before. I told her the funniest thing I could think of--how when my husband and I had once made an appointment for marriage therapy, the counselor suddenly left his wife and ran off with a patient. Telling her about this, I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the irony of it, gulping for air.She stared at me in the annoying way that was going to become very familiar over the next year. "Why," she asked me, "do you always laugh so hard at sad things?"That question drew me up short. If somebody asked me the same question now, I'd have a ready reply. I'd say that nobody wants to feel sad, thank you, and that laughter eases sadness in two ways. First, it diminishes a wound by diminishing the situation or person that inflicts the wound--making the victimizer less potent, more easily overcome. Second, research shows that laughter releases serotonin in the brain. So comedy is a natural antidepressant!
At the time, though, I saw myself clearly through the eyes of my therapist--giggling inhumanely at somebody else's tragedy, either because I was too self-absorbed to feel affected or because I was afraid of being sad. The choice before me looked fundamental: did I want to be a cold person laughing or a warm person weeping? Other people have different choices to make, but the question of when to suffer and when to seek relief is there for everybody at some point. It takes many forms, some mundane, others momentous. Should I go for a walk or have another beer? Live without the things I want or sink into debt? Stay in this bad marriage or get a divorce? Even looking to Jesus' example for guidance--choosing love over self-interest--there's much left for us to interpret. Is it more loving, for instance, to bail a rebel son out of jail or leave him there overnight to learn about consequences?I've noticed that when the choice looks moral or spiritual, we often choose the benefits of suffering--especially for others (Sometimes love must be tough, son! See you in the morning!). When a problem is physical, though, most people opt to relieve the pain. Liberals and conservatives reach for the Loritab with about equal alacrity. Maybe this dual approach to pain makes sense, since there's no obvious benefit from simply enduring bodily illness, no hope of overcoming a bad headache by living through it. Enduring a bad marriage may strengthen the will and teach the heart to overcome, but living with a chronic migraine can wear a body down.In the case of mental illness, however, the wide range of problems that appear moral/spiritual may actually arise from the physical chemistry of the body. "She really needs a kick in the butt," someone tells you about a mutual friend. "She doesn't do anything all day, just lies around and stares at the wall." While it's possible that the accused is lazy, it's more probable that she's physically sick (depressed), and that relief is only a slight alteration of her brain chemistry away. Many would argue that it's possible for her to feel better without taking drugs: she could try the "talking cure" (regular sessions with a counselor), or an alternative treatment such as herbal or light therapy. If she goes to an M.D., though, she'll likely carry away a prescription for an antidepressant such as Prozac or Zoloft--one of those brave new medicines that promise such good results with so few side effects.
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