Fog Warning, Winslow Homer (1885)
Fog Warning is likely Winslow Homer’s finest piece. He produced it during a time of living and painting in the late 19th century off the coast of Maine. It tingles with a subtle drama. Portrayed is a solitary fisherman, his small row-boat, heavy with a catch of halibut, crests a wave. He is glancing over his shoulder at the main ship to which he must return. It is still a long ways off. In the distance, the fog is rolling in.
It may appear to be a somber depiction of New England fishing life, but it more dire than that. The 1876 volume The Fisheries of Glouscester records:
His frail boat rides like a shell upon the surface of the sea … a moment of carelessness or inattention, or a slight miscalculation, may cost him his life. And a greater foe than carelessness lies in wait for its prey. The stealthy fog enwraps him in its folds, blinds his vision, cuts off all marks to guide his course, and leaves him afloat in a measureless void.
This fisherman is facing real peril.
Homer keeps the scene unresolved. And I can’t help but see it as a portrayal of depression. Those of us who have experienced depression can relate to this solitary figure. The inner plea, “No. No. No.”
I think depression is hazardously misunderstood, which is part of what gives it its smothering power. A power to conceal safety from us, a power to isolate, a power to evoke dread.
When I was in high school, these dark periods of adrift began taking place. Driving home from a social gathering on the interstate at 30 mph, or going lifeless among friends. I was there, but, then again, I wasn’t. I wasn’t. It was someone else. Still, where was I?
In college these transmuted into prolonged and painful travails; harsh episodes of self-reproach intermingled with addictive cycles of escapism. What John Bunyan might have called Sloughs of Despond. (Unlike Vanity Fair, I’ve yet to see a publication seize upon that titular phrase!) “This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended,” Bunyan wrote. Though millions of cartloads of “wholesome instruction” be swallowed up by it, “… it is the Slough of Despond still, and so will be, when they have done what they can.” It is the place of being confronted with our lost condition, and, I would argue, the lost condition of all.
Still, our society handles those thus buffeted and cloaked in their frail crafts with such awkwardness; it’s no wonder we’ve no clue how to handle ourselves. And so we hide and pretend, which, of course, are versions of the same tactic. But why do we do so? Especially when we are so desperate for human help? It was, after all, one named Help, who offered Bunyan’s Pilgrim, “Give me thy hand!” (His companion Pliable, for his part, abandoned him declaring, “Is this the happiness you have told me of all this while?”)
Full disclosure: for almost 6 months I’ve been writing 2-3 pieces each week on this site; gobbling up interesting things to read, watch, listen to, consider and passing them along, watching posts give shape to themselves as ideas eddied around large, compelling themes. Like Homer’s fisherman, I was enjoying the success of landing conceptual quarries. Then I glanced over my shoulder and saw the fog rolling in. I willed a couple more pieces out before I lost my bearings.
The world around me greyed. Ethos, pathos, logos gave way to spectral silhouettes. Writing and relating to the world, a hapless churning of oars toward the indeterminant—straining for familiar sounds and signals of safety. Several posts lay discouragingly incomplete.
Throughout, I’m thinking, “Damn!” (You can bet this isn’t a “how I got healed” piece.)
Many of you know that I’m a Christian. But unlike Bunyan’s Pilgrim (named Christian), we Christians are too often like Pliable, “You call this happiness?” I’m convinced that this demonstrates a misconstruing of depression: namely, that it indicates unhealth. I believe the broader culture mishandles depression similarly, and I’ll address that too.
Depression is unpleasant, but I’m convinced it is oftentimes symptomatic of health in an very sick world. I meet with so many students and young professionals who bemoan their own bouts with this condition. Invariably, their requests for prayer and council are aimed at “making it go away.” I’ll ask, “do you think this might be worth embracing or interrogating instead of fighting?” Few accept this odd overture.
There is a sorrow or an anger or a hopelessly warped situation below the surface of depression, is there not? Wouldn’t a certain numbness or heaviness or even despond be natural—normal? Depression is where we see lostness as it is, and we are grieved and angered and perplexed. It is a type of internal reflex. As a Christian, I would argue that Jesus is the most whole human the world has known; he saw things as they were and responded in mentally and emotionally right ways. But do we remember his quality? “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, as one from whom men hide their faces.”
It could be argued that insufferable cheerfulness indicates a sort of neurosis in its own right—an inability to connect appropriately to the world as it is. A fanciful delusion.
The greatest among us have discovered ourselves in this region—this slough of depression—and that must hearten us in the travail.
But we must also let depression instruct us. Most of the time we find ourselves thrashing around convulsively (often in our thoughts and emotions) plotting our escape, but we cannot thus gain an escape velocity; nor should we. We need to practice what Fredrick Buechner called “the stewardship of pain“; keeping in touch with it that it might burrow to our deeper selves and engender in us a compassion toward others. Never burying it, but rather treasuring it and trading with it in the world as something valuable with which our Creator has entrusted us. Our pains are for us and for the world—if we’ll let them be!
This is where our spiritualizations often go astray. We treat prayer like an eject lever or morality as a rehearsal for a probation hearing. “If you are depressed, then you’re doing it wrong!” But this is exactly what Scripture doesn’t say! Joy and lightness may come, but, if they are prized above growth, our pain will miscarry. We must hear the angel’s words to Joseph, “Do not be afraid, for this is conceived of God.”
In this way the world at large often fumbles with depression as well. It is stigmatized as a flaw or liability; not something you’d offer voluntarily at a job interview or on a first date! It feels like the proverbial thread from which a whole garment is bound to unravel. But it isn’t. Depression is normal season in the normal human emotional climate. It is brought about by an eclectic convergence of internal and external forces. It may be enigmatic and is certainly inconvenient, but should not occasion caustic shame nor ashamedness.
I vividly recall a 1990 SNL skit starring Rob Lowe called Helmet Head. It featured a World War II veteran whose helmet had affixed permanently to his head during combat. The comedic hook is that in every social setting this man is accosted with advice by well-meaning acquaintances. (“Have you tried soapy water?”) This poor soul remains comically isolated from the world around him on account of this peculiarity, and this is exacerbated by the outlandish oblivion of others.
Those of us prone to depression can feel like Helmet Head. I remember sharing about a struggle I was having with depression during my college days among a group of friends. For the next 20 minutes each one offered a bit of helpful advice in turn. “Have you tried soapy water?” Depression is better observed than interpreted; better accepted than solved.
Depression is not monolithic either: not resultant of too little faith nor too little dopamine. It comes about in ways that are far from straightforward or tidy or singular. If we’re to find our way through its bramble (or help others do so) we must eschew the formulaic and dogmatic. It isn’t that medication or exercise, sleep or prayer, therapy or Scripture aren’t all restorative components. But offered glibly, without a deep and personal empathic involvedness (or as panacea) to self or others, only denies the multifaceted nature of this human ailment.
In his magnificent book The Road Less Traveled, therapist and writer M. Scott Peck observed the indispensable role of love in a counseling relationship (and also in all relationships). He offered,
Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is not effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful.
Love starts with kind sorrow, travels unhurriedly through non-critical listening and creates clarity through connection more than correction. Love does not presume to solve. Love offers glad presentness. I believe this can happen toward one’s self or to another, but, ideally, it is both.
There is a quote which is often apocryphally credited to CS Lewis: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” He probably didn’t say it. But it is true. To be human is to be psychosomatic—composed of soul and body. Both deserve needed attention in the area of depression. While the secular humanist would focus primarily on physiology, increasingly science is showing certain immaterial forces at work in our neurology and physiology. Affection withheld or given, trust demonstrated or betrayed, safety familiar or foreign—these are so often the shaping forces of our synapses and chemical levels! When depression is reduced to only a chemical imbalance or neurological misfiring, we stop too short. When those from faith traditions insist on more, better prayer, theology or morality, we under-appreciate the God-given human corporeal makeup. We become more spiritual than God! In between these two regions lie disputed boundaries of psychotherapy and spiritual formation, support groups and fellowship among others. Any more, I see the religious and unreligious alike borrowing and appropriating from one another’s troves, which should be good. But still the formulaica and dogmatism infect. Beneath so many efforts is a yearning for a known solution; something tried and true.
The legend goes that King Ptolemy once pulled his math tutor Euclid aside after an especially discouraging lesson and demanded to know the secrets of geometry. To which Euclid replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.” Even the king would have to endure.
And there is no royal (nor righteous nor refined) road through depression. The path is rigorous, rough and perpetually unpredictable. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think there were helpful lessons for the pilgrimage (of course, this is largely why Bunyan wrote as well). But the foremost error we can make in this realm is to deny the human complexity of the matter.
The hynmist John Newton extended large portions of his life to the poet William Cowper during his excruciating fits of depression. Cowper lived with Newton at his parsonage in Olney, and the two wrote hymns together.
During this time, Cowper penned the hymn Light Shining Out of Darkness. One stanza reads:
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev’ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Newton was keeping awake Cowper’s vital human agency. As with head trauma, one shouldn’t allow the injured to nod off. Depression is most devastating when it has separated us from our agency (even as we reckon with our loss of control).
And if “carelessness or inattention” pose as threats to the fisherman in fair conditions, how much more must we be careful and attentive enshrouded in fog? Not frantically so, but aware. So too, we must have hope. Depression is debilitating, true. But it summons a type of grit as well. It beckons us toward a hardier, more resilient lifestyle. Maybe humbler. More capable of grace. Hope clings to the opportunity depression presents to us. Christian hope accepts the non-arbitrariness of the fog.
Cowper’s put it thus,
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
But Newton was doing something more through his involvement in Cowper’s life.
Imagine yourself rowing through thickening fog toward an unseen ship. You are plying your oars. The only sounds are the clumping and creaking of the boat and the sloshing of the water. Your muscles ache with fatigue. Then you hear a voice, and, through the fog, you reorient. The value of that voice is not its content, but its nearness; that it is near! And that each time you hear it it is nearer still.
I imagine Homer’s rower making it, but not without turmoil. I like to think we are being asked to contemplate a harrowing drama. One in which we might locate ourselves.