No, joyless fundamentalism isn’t an awesome way to cure my depression, but thanks for playing

Some time ago, a very well-meaning person decided to slip me a little pamphlet with the intent of helping me overcome depression. The pamphlet was made from some Russian Orthodox priest’s conversations with nuns, or, rather, his monologues toward the nuns. The passages highlighted involved two postulates (I’m paraphrasing here):

1. Gifted people get assigned some of the worst demons in existence. <<< Which is kind of a fair point, even if you don’t believe in demons. The most exceptionally gifted people I know tend to be the ones with the most problems. Also, hey, it’s a little flattering when someone thinks you’re gifted enough to get the attention of the worst demons evar!!!11! I mean, surely, there is a compliment buried in there somewhere. Maybe.

2. People who have their own opinions about things and happen to be fairly creative and ambitious SUCK. They are enemies of the church, they are enemies of God, and enemies of themselves. They don’t know what it’s like to surrender themselves to any kind of higher power, they are deeply insincere, and they love themselves above everything and everyone else, even as they also hate themselves. They are deeply, profoundly unhappy, because they’re in the service of Satan, even if they don’t realize it, and who could ever be happy servicing that dude? Their mental illnesses are not a medical condition, they’re a direct result of their Satan lovin’ nature.

“This is about you!” The well-meaning person chirped. “Don’t you think it could be helpful with your depression? Don’t you think if you began to let go of all of these qualities that he’s talking about – good things might happen?”

My initial response was somewhat similar to Eric Northman’s:

Eric evil grin

I was going to leave it at that (what could be more eloquent than Eric Northman?), but the more I thought about the latter highlighted passage, the more pissed off I got.

I don’t strive to have a life within the Russian Orthodox church, so the anger could very well be misplaced. People who are much more invested in the concept are better suited to have this type of argument. Yet on the other hand, the majority of the people I know in Ukraine are on the church’s periphery in one way or another, and it struck me as sad that they should be exposed to this.

Obviously, there’s nothing at all odd about an Orthodox priest and writer encouraging humility. And yes, his target audience is important as well. But really now, Father, why not just say: “it would be much more convenient to have a bunch of drooling imbeciles packing the cathedral”? I mean, George W. Bush pretty much got away with something very similar, once upon a time.

There are many complex reasons why “holy fools” are so revered in the Russian Orthodox church – just don’t tell me that one of those reasons has to do with how benign and easy to handle they appear to be (I say “appear,” because the whole concept of a holy fool often involves challenge to authority, even if it’s indirect). In a similar manner, the good Father prefers to preach to a very specific set of people – people who actively dumb themselves down. Cleverly, he uses the hyper-awareness that creative people possess against them. See, they don’t get depressed because they see this world a little too clearly, they get depressed because they’re actually on Satan’s payroll!

I’m not going to say that this is the church’s official position or anything, because that would be simplistic and unfair. But the kind of literature that often passes for Orthodox “thought” these days does, in fact, add to my depression. Of course, I believe that some of the best words ever written about Jesus came from that evil, evil man – Boris Pasternak. What the hell do I know?

I do believe that in order for depression to let you go, you have to let go of certain things yourself. You have to set limits on the amount of time you spend plumping the depths of any number of abysses. And I sure as hell don’t like the dramatic pose of “I am depressed because I am an extremely profound human being! *sniff*” It’s stupid, OK? Your depression isn’t any more interesting or tragic than the depression of some dude who hasn’t read a book in 20 years.

I realize why fundamentalism can appeal to people who are very, very sad. Fundamentalism makes things simple. There are very specific codes of conduct involved. If you’re very, very busy making sure that you’re following rule 1 and rule 12, 678, you don’t have much time to reflect upon how unhappy you are, at least not for a while. I meet people like that in my mother’s church with some regularity. They strike me as a little deranged, but as long as they don’t bother me too much, they might as well knock themselves out.

But at the end of the day, a climb out of a serious depressed state must also involve at least some degree of self-acceptance. So I’m not really sure how denying your nature, even with all of the bullshit attached to it, is supposed to make you feel awesome. Even if you do believe that we are all essentially sinful and corrupt – you still have to live within yourself. You are contained inside a certain body, you are contained inside a certain mind. There’s a reason why you’re you, and not the guy who sells you your cigarettes at the kiosk. And if you believe that the cosmos has a grand design to it after all, you already have great incentive to accept said reason.

Self-erasure doesn’t cure you of shit. It’s actually kind of cowardly. And even people who let go of all worldly things fundamentally remain themselves. You can’t change who you are. What matters is what you actually do with who you are.

Oh, and P.S. The good Father’s attempt to discredit the medical establishment over the definition of any kind of mental illness? Classy. And, once again, clever. Making sure that a church-goer suffering from a mental illness never sees a mental health professional means that much more control.

7 thoughts on “No, joyless fundamentalism isn’t an awesome way to cure my depression, but thanks for playing

  1. “You can’t change who you are. What matters is what you actually do with who you are.”

    Your second sentence is absolutely brilliant.

    Your first sentence is a little troubling. If, by “who you are,” you mean how you define yourself at any given moment — well, you actually can change how you define yourself. That’s partly what growing up is all about — i.e., in growing up, you learn how to intelligently set your own boundaries and how to intelligently change how you perceive yourself. It’s the work of a lifetime, to be sure.

    It strikes me that the phase “You can’t change who you are” implies a personal feeling of absolute powerlessness which is not always justified. At least in certain environments, able-bodied, able-minded men and women are not always absolutely powerless. I would say that one goal would be to create environments where people can test their limits and maybe even extend those limits.

    I could also add a few words about how male-dominated authoritarian religions (e.g., evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism) deliberately try to identify and convert women who feel absolutely powerless, but I’ll stop here. Your own post already makes that point eloquently.

    Congratulations on a great essay.

  2. It strikes me that the appeal of fundamentalism is the ability to pour yourself a tall glass of “shut up and stop asking questions”. I guess some people like the taste.

  3. There’s actually an interesting new perspective arising in some areas of research about depression- that rather than “intelligent people are prone to depression because they are so clever”, more “people with depression are more likely to be intelligent, because being prone to depression means your brain is wired in a different way”. It’s an interesting idea- that a propensity towards depression is not a side effect of intelligence, but in some ways a cause of it, and that a tendency to depresison should not be looked at as a condition to be cured, but more as a perfectly valid neuro arrangement which just requires better upkeep than the neurotypical brain.

  4. Kick ass link, I remember that part when he was pretending to be human. Perfection.

    “There’s a reason why you’re you, and not the guy who sells you your cigarettes at the kiosk. ”

    This other person that none of us has met is insignificant. Who you are today is who you should remain to be. Mainly because its awesome.

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