The Persistent Low

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Do you feel vaguely unhappy almost all of the time? Are you burdened by a sense of gloom that you cannot explain or fully account for? But you feel the weight, there is no escaping it. You wake up at night and it is there. It may have been your guest for years.

Henri Nouwen, who lectured with great acclaim in most major university centers across the continent, knew this heaviness that sometimes assumed the reality of a deep depression for which he knew no explanation.

Here is what he wrote:

“It was the most difficult period of my life…a time of mental anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life. Everything came crashing down – my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God…everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loved God and gave hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness. I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but the bottomless abyss. (The Inner Voice of Love – A Journey through Anguish to Freedom – Doubleday)

There was an additional ironic element about this siege of mental pain: it should not have happened! Nouwen had spent many years at centers of learning where he had lectured, had found acclaim, but where he had never completely felt at home. And then he became a member of L’Arche community of men and women with mental disabilities, just north of Toronto. In that community he had been received with open arms and been given all the affection he could ever hope for. It had offered him a safe and loving place to grow spiritually as well as emotionally. “Everything”, he wrote, “seemed ideal. But precisely at that time I fell apart. Just when all those around me were assuring me that they loved me, cared for me, appreciated me, and yes, even admired me, I experienced myself as a useless and despicable person. Just when people were putting their arms around me, I saw the endless depth of my human misery and felt that there was nothing worth living for. I felt absolutely homeless…I felt that God had abandoned me.”

I think that most of us, perhaps in a milder manner, can personally relate to Nouwen’s experiences.

This article is not meant to address your possible sadness or even depression, light or heavy as they may be. 

But there are two themes in Nouwen’s book on which we may wish to reflect.

For our mental health we need to keep whatever contact we can find with trusted people in our life, even though we may find it hard to seek their presence. We are meant to live in community. Much of our mental health is connected with the way we can relate to people close to us, to accept and be accepted.

And also we must remember that we have a faithful God. He loves us. His love is, as we say, unconditional. He reaches into the depth of our hearts with that love. In that depth He invites us to say ’yes’ to Him. Where we so confess Him, in our inner being, our burden has already begun to dissolve. We are not alone.

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