by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Leeds Diocese
‘I just can’t cope!”.
Most of us, I’m sure, will have felt like this at some time or other. Times when we just wanted everything and everyone to go away because we couldn’t cope with all that was going on. For some those times are fleeting, but for others the litany of suffering that they have to face or live with can seem not just unfair but unbearable.
I recall listening to the mother who had lost her only child and who felt that she simply had no desire to live any longer; to the cancer patient who was told of her diagnosis on the telephone an hour before the police knocked on her door to tell her that her son had been killed in a motorbike accident and all this just a week after her husband had died from cancer. How does one face such unbearable suffering?
I’m left wondering, however, if there isn’t a more pernicious type of ‘not coping’ that many of us are succumbing to? In June 2017 the NHS published record figures for the use of antidepressants with 64 million prescriptions costing £266 million – a seven-fold increase in twenty-five years! It is likely that the majority of these people are being prevented from feeling the true depths of their pain by the medication they are taking (although I recognise for some it is about chemical imbalances, and for others it is a good deal more complicated than that). Consequently, many people on anti-depressants may continue living exactly the same life that has been driving them to the depths, medicated to a level that enables them to continue doing the very things that are so often making them truly unhappy.
We are creatures of habit. We stick to what we know even it is killing us. So, we continue working in jobs we cannot bear because we feel we must live in a show-home or a city apartment, or maybe we simply haven’t got the courage or motivation to make the break. We stay in relationships that drive us to despair for the sake of… there are so many things we could complete that sentence with. We continue to live in a place that is stressful whether that be beside a noisy bottle bank, frightening neighbours or in complete isolation. We completely fail to find time to think, rest, breathe, enjoy a hobby, listen to music, cook. Then throw in a dash of social media – virtual friends making virtual promises with virtual words that are virtually useless when you really need them.
Yes of course there are economic pressures that so many of us face, as well as health challenges or bereavement which can significantly depress us. But the truth is that this can normally be faced and walked through if the rest of life is “as it should be”.
For many of us, however, it really is not – there are so many tiny little things that mean that every day in a hundred minuscule ways life is not enjoyable, not refreshing, not awe-inspiring, not energising, not worthwhile. And because each of these things seems insignificant in and of itself, we don’t think to change them. We’re fear we’re making a fuss about nothing, surely? Add to these cumulative daily depressants from adverts telling us that we are too fat, too bald, ageing. Or the adverts that tells us we need a new car, more furniture, a bigger house, longer, thicker, blacker eyelashes and enormous eyebrows; more life insurance a fabulous partner, a cruise. Every day in every way we are being told we are not enough just as we are.
Depressing, isn’t it?
I was talking yesterday to a man I’d never met before who – like me – had recovered from life changing cancer treatment some years before. We found we had a number of things in common and one of those was having faced our own mortality. We laughed together as we described our new attitude to life and saw the surprise on fellow diners’ faces. There were so many things we simply didn’t put up with anymore. So many things we had stopped doing, changed, left behind – even people. There were other things we now spent time doing, enjoyed, tried, tested out for the sheer pleasure of it, or challenges we took on that we wouldn’t have dared beforehand. We both felt that we were truly living. We talked about the way facing one’s own death profoundly alters one’s perspective, of how it is almost impossible to feel the same stresses that one felt before because now they seem so insignificant as to be nonsensical.
As a Christian I was struck that despite our faith prior to our near-death experiences we too had succumbed to the culture of being a human doing instead of a human being. That we had placed productivity before relationships which is more than a little ironic for those who worship a God who makes a fairly big deal out of the Sabbath principle, fallow years and years of Jubilee. That we had taken on the mantle of suffering silently through all sorts of mini depressants and stressors instead of changing a single one of them believing ourselves to be doing the right thing. We had allowed these things to shape our daily lives and in some instances, to define us. Both of us described having allowed ridiculous levels of stress to enter our lives in multiple ways.
Christ’s incarnation as a new born baby reveals a dependence in the divine nature upon external, human contact and context, but the Divine does not allow that to define who He is. Jesus refuses to bow to political and societal pressures in many and varied ways – a good Jewish boy, unmarried? Oi vey! He grows into the fullness of Himself even when His own mother and brothers are saying (and I paraphrase), ‘what on earth are you doing? Have you lost the plot?’ Jesus refuses to submit to a life of mini deaths choosing life time after time after time. He walks through His pain, weeping, crying out, surrendering His body even to death itself yet even death cannot quench the Divine Life that springs up into eternity.
It is a Life that begins when we start actively choosing life in the smallest of ways, in each day, repeatedly. A life free from the drugs that keep us taking another pointless step on the road to nowhere. A life that will sustain us when real tragedy hits, as it surely will. A life that will allow us to die peacefully knowing that we have truly lived.
A life that is divine.