In the recent children’s movie Inside Out, we journey with a young girl, Riley, as she discovers what it means to have emotions. Her primary emotions include: fear, disgust, anger, joy, and sadness. At the beginning, Joy believes it is her sole duty to ensure Riley’s happiness and to quell any unpleasant moments; yet over time, she learns the important role Sadness plays in Riley’s life. In fact, it is because of Riley’s ability to feel grief and loss that she feels comforted during many major life transitions.
Inside Out is a helpful reminder to us that sadness, disappointment, and disillusionment are inevitable companions on our life’s journey. It is impossible to avoid instances of grief and despair, but it is nevertheless important to learn healthy ways to address these occasions.
Even so, we continue to face enormous societal pressures requesting us to put on a façade. Our Western mentality discourages us from openly exhibiting mental illness, struggling through the miry pit of depression, or slugging through the forest of doubt. Our attempts to be vulnerable are often extinguished with commands to have more faith or be more positive – even when our hearts cry quite the opposite.
Sadly, few places demand this mentality to the same degree as the church. Although the church should be a body which promotes vulnerability, support, love, and care, it sadly has become a by-product of this culture, often shaming and dismissing the pain of its congregants. While this is certainly not the case in all churches, I can vouch for several of my friends who have left organized religion precisely because they feel they were not properly cared for within the church during their darkest hours of need.
To be fair, I am quite sure that no church sets out to have this type of mentality. In fact, I believe that many Christians truly do desire to move beyond stigma and into spaces of real and deep encounters that foster inclusion and are presided over by non-judgmental leaders. So with this in mind: how is it possible for the church to begin creating these open and vulnerable spaces? Here are two ideas from my own life:
- Getting beyond “How are You” – We’ve all done it: asked someone how they were doing as a passing remark with no real interest in the answer. In North America, “how are you” is generally used as a typical greeting akin to saying “hello.” Thus, we are often a bit taken-aback when someone goes deeper with this question. Yet, recently, my German co-worker told me that in Germany this is a very deep question. You do not ask such a personal question unless you are expecting a personal answer. One of the best ways to begin a conversation with someone who has a mental illness is to ask them this question and then to wait for a response. To actively listen to what is on their heart and mind, and to respect whatever it is they would like to share. If you ask this question, but the other person seems only to give a standard reply, do not feel awkward gently asking “no, how are you really?” Oftentimes, when someone faces mental illness, they are just looking for a supportive friend and a listening ear. You can really become their life-saver.
- Never undermine the person’s pain – If you have never journeyed through the shockingly dark tunnel of depression, it is quite possible that you do not know what it is like. Thus, it can be easy to dismiss the pain of someone who is experiencing it. You may be tempted to give them all sorts of timely advice or to point out how their life is really not as bad as they think. DON’T. The best advice I can give is simply this: Shut up and listen up. Recently, I have been experiencing a bout with depression. During this time two of the greatest things people have said to me are: “I would never undermine your pain, not ever” and “maybe you just need to allow yourself to be sad.”
In the first case, my friend opened her heart to me by allowing me a safe place to share my fears and frustrations. I feel so privileged to have a friend like this who has never once told me not to feel the way I do. In the second case, my co-worker invited me to fully live into my emotions. This is so counter-cultural because our world constantly craves happiness. We live in a culture of Facebook “likes” where even the most horrific news somehow warrants a “like” thus making it seem elusive if not optimistic. Yet, sometimes in these moments of being downcast, we simply need to allow ourselves the opportunity not to change our thoughts, but simply to explore the reason why we feel as we do.
Depression, trials, and hardships are all unpleasant, though expected companions on this journey of life. While we wrestle through the darkness, we can be reminded that there is light in our world through many people who care about us. Despite our culture’s preoccupation with happiness, I want to encourage you next time you feel that something inside you is “off” to really take a moment to explore it. Allow yourself to discover your inner thoughts and attitudes, find friends who will be patient and accept you in these moments, then allow yourself to be sad – even in a world that won’t stop smiling.
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