From A HELL OF MERCY by Tim Farrington. Copyright C 2009 by Tim Farrington. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Doubt as to whether you are in a dark night or “just depressed” is probably a very good sign; it means you’re alive and paying attention and that life has you baffled, which is the precondition for truth in my experience. It’s uncomfortable, but the more we learn to live with that discomfort–to just breathe and be amid the terror of uncertainty–the more reality can sing us its subtler songs.

You may well be helped through your brutal moods or your bogged-down lows by prescription drugs; you probably need therapy (I need my weekly sessions religiously); and your childhood was almost certainly a mess; but what Viktor Frankl says in his wonderful book “the Doctor and the Soul” is likely still true for you: “The ‘symptom’ of conscientious anxiety in the melancholiac is not the product of melancholia as a physical illness … [but] represents an ‘accomplishment’ of the human being as a spiritual person. It is understandable only as the anxiety of a human being as such: as existential anxiety.”

In general, it is fruitless to treat such existential anxiety as an obstacle. It is more like the coastal fog of northern California, a natural produce of prevailing conditions. The cold Humboldt current of the usual self meets the warm land mass of God–or reality, if you will–and the fog of anxiety arises. We cannot wait for the weather to change before we begin to live. The weather is beyond our control, and the climate of lives is to be lived in, not changed.

The journey to the bottom of the self is a risky one, whatever you call it, and while it may be true that ultimately the best course probably lies between Scylla of a reductionistic psychiatry and the Charybdis of an arrogant “spirituality,” all we really have is a way of traveling, however we map the sea of suffering in which we find ourselves. We are, inescapably, large-brained mammals with messy biochemistries; we are social beings riddled with the symptoms of civilization and its discontents; and we are spiritual animals subject to all the ills the soul is heir to. Our souls and selves do not develop under laboratory conditions; we mature toward our divine equilibrium in the real world, with its inevitable commingling of our neuroses, social dysfunctions, and simple life noise.

One thing is certain, whatever choices we make: we will not miss out on some crucial purgation by seeking treatment for depression or any other form of physical suffering. If we are ripe for what the dark night brings, God will find a way to bring the process to fruition no matter how hard we try to avoid it.

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