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Why God Hides Himself – Climbing out of Depression

We can be depressed for various reasons.  Perhaps we feel that:

1)   Jehovah has withdrawn his favor from me

2)  My life is no different than those in the world around me.

3)  There is no specific purpose to my individual experiences

4)  I no longer respond emotionally to spiritual stimulation

Or maybe there are other experiences causing our depression.  How do we climb out of that depression?  How can we be strengthened and encouraged by the Lord?

Popular Bible Student elder Carl Hagensick provides some answers.    When God Hides Himself

1 comment to Why God Hides Himself – Climbing out of Depression

  • greg (Bible Student)

    I listened to “When God Hides Himself” a long time ago. I really enjoyed it. Thanks to Br. Carl, and to the writer’s of this page for making it accessible to us all.

    Depression is such a dark and ominous cloud which afflicts and oppresses so many persons. I know that was true for me. Each one of the four example expressions at the top of the page are almost word for word the same things I wrote in my own personal journal. I’d like to maybe contribute something by sharing with you a bit of my journey to, through, and beyond those expressions.

    I spent several decades of my life being severely depressed. As a teen, I used to cut myself. I attempted suicide several times, and obsessed about suicide incessantly. During those decades that I was depressed I spent most of my time thinking about all the things that were “wrong” with me, about all the ways I wasn’t good enough, and about all the things I told myself about myself. I continuously judged myself as bad, inferior, abnormal, defective, pathetic, hopeless, sick, twisted, disgusting, and unlovable.

    To make matters even worse, it seemed to me that most of my JW experiences seemed to both reinforce and demand such a hateful view of self.

    I wonder… does this sound anything like what anyone else has experienced? Do these words capture even a little bit of anyone else’s experience?

    Speaking from my own personal experience, my depression developed and consumed me in stages, one piece at a time. One of the first things I lost was my perspective, and with it went the ability to see myself as loveable; then I lost the ability to notice anything worthwhile in myself; then I lost faith in God’s capacity/desire to love me; next I lost hope; and then I finally lost even the desire to invest in hope. I actually came to view having dreams and hopes as simply investments in certain disappointment. How bleak an outlook is that?!?

    As a severely broken, desperately suicidal, hopelessly pessimistic husband and stressed-to-the-max father, I was trying to work through various issues stemming from abuse I suffered during my childhood. As well, my wife and I were struggling to raise a severely disabled child while also struggling to exist on what we were later surprised to discover was considered to be far below the level of dire poverty. My ever compassionate and loyally supportive wife even lovingly called me Eyeore (from Winnie the Pooh). My attitude towards life had dwindled to, “why bother?”

    Can you relate to that?

    In experiments performed on dogs many decades ago, researchers were surprised to discover that dogs who were restrained and immobilized and then given electrical shocks learned not to even try to escape, not to resist, but to just accept and endure the pain as inescapable. When these dogs were subsequently placed in a different environment–one in which the dogs could easily escape the painful electric jolt, the dogs still didn’t attempt to move away from the pain, but instead just lay there whimpering and cowering in the corner until the painful jolt was over. These poor dogs had learned to be helpless.

    People who are abused as children, or even as adults, learn the same lesson that escape is impossible, that resistance is futile, and that the pain they constantly experience is just an unavoidable part of their life. But tragically, people often learn one more thing that animals cannot learn: People can be manipulated and coerced into believing that they DESERVE the pain they receive.

    Living life as a child in a devout JW home taught me how to cower in a corner and lay there and “play dead.” Like when the grizzly bear mauls you, and you’re supposed to just lie there and play dead and wait until it loses interest in you and wanders off back into the woods. Even worse though, I also learned to believe that I deserved to be mauled.

    In his book “The Brighter Side of Human Nature”, Alfie Kohn said: “Control breeds the need for more control, which is then used to justify the use of control.” That’s what the insidious Watchtower Organization does to people: it subtly maintains that all human beings are horrible little creeps who constantly need to be told what to do, and that they therefore deserve to suffer their just desserts from a lovingly-cruel, harshly critical and vindictive God. It seems my parents must have learned this lesson well and thoroughly believed it, and so they were determined to instill the same sick and twisted belief in me.

    As a child, once I got used to playing dead, all I could do was wait to be dead and fantasize about being more dead.

    Has anybody else ever been there?

    When such a condition of captivity is the only “normal” a person has ever known, how does one even begin to recognize that one is in such a condition of captivity? How does one come to wake up and question the abnormality and illegitimacy of such an unhealthy condition? If I have been conditioned to believe that such a painful existence is both normal and deserved, how can I possibly ever even imagine dreaming of escape? Can a person ever really escape from such a tragic prison? How does one heal from it?

    Has anyone else got some insight or learned something they can share about the dawning of their own awareness and the early beginnings of noticing that something isn’t quite wonderful?

    I once read something that essentially said, “Every once in while it occurs to you that you don’t have to experience things the way someone else has told you that you have to. Whether suddenly or gradually, you come to realize that you are free to experience things differently, and in your own unique way.”

    Speaking only for myself, I count myself lucky because I got tired of the pain. I got tired of the crazy-making. I desperately sought relief at almost any price, and was even willing to contemplate suicide in order to escape the misery. Fortunately, I had experienced one or two moments in my life when someone had unexpectedly treated me with kindness, compassion, sensitivity, and gentle caring. Although they were somewhat confusing at the time, without those brightly contrasting experiences, I don’t imagine I would have ever dreamed of seeking escape or relief.

    Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Frankl also wrote, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

    In searching for a way to reclaim my own hope and relief, I eventually learned that I had unwittingly learned to give up that last great freedom. But that alone wasn’t enough to bring about change. Suddenly discovering that one’s self is imprisoned does not magically free one from that prison. I believe it was by God’s grace that I eventually encountered some antidotes and inoculations with which I could begin to combat the poisonous ideas that I had long been injected with.

    One of the antidotes I discovered was the phrase, “The Map is not the Territory.” Another antidote I discovered were the words of Ernest Becker who said, “Depression is [often] the result of Cognitively Arrested Alternatives.” At first I needed a bit of help to understand what these two expressions meant, and how they fit together, and how I could use these tools, but I now appreciate that learning the meaning of those phrases really saved my life.

    “The Map is not the Territory” is just another way of saying that “Words are NOT the Experience”. Just as a map is only a rudimentary sketch of an actual location, words only provide a representative summary of an experience. It is extremely dangerous to confuse the description for the experience. The words I use to describe an experience can and will shape –and even distort– the perceptual concepts I form about an experience. So mindful care is crucial when I’m choosing words to describe an experience, because the words I use will almost inevitably ascribe some sort of meaning to the experience, and this will ultimately shape –or even distort– my experience, my thinking, my feelings, my interpretations, the conclusions I draw, and hence my subsequent words, perceptual constructs, and future experiences.

    At the time I read Ernest Becker’s words about depression resulting from cognitively arrested alternatives, I was learning the arts and skills of self-empathy and the joyous benefits of using of compassionate language with myself. I was learning how to distinguish between an observation and an evaluation, between the events and pictures you can record with a camera, and the reactions one might have to seeing or experiencing those pictures or events.

    For example, I was learning to differentiate between a dog, and my fear of dogs that I’ve had ever since I was attacked and seriously injured by an extremely viscous dog; between the words someone used and what I believed those words to be saying; between hearing a truth and hearing a criticism; between someone else’s experience and my own personal experience; between intention and impact.

    Ernest Becker’s words about the underlying source of depression being due to cognitively arrested alternatives gave me a whole new outlook on life, allowed me to re-perceive my world, to heal, to find relief, and to even grow and flourish. Now, instead of whimpering and cowering in the corner whenever I was experiencing something painful, I could move and try to escape if I could only notice it happening and remember that I was free to choose to do something about it.

    With persistent determined effort I eventually learned how to translate all the nasty, condemnatory things my inner critic always said to me about myself into only the things I was feeling and needing and suddenly I had a fresh outlook on life. Did all my problems disappear? No! But I suddenly found myself with energy, hope, optimism, ideas, alternatives, and choices that I previously couldn’t see, and so the many problems I faced didn’t seem quite so insurmountable. Oh! some of them were –and still are– very tough to navigate and endure. But I’m no longer cutting off my own legs and arms when I face these hardships.

    Again, I find myself wondering: Is anything I’m saying making sense to anyone else? Is it resonating for anyone at any level within?

    When I know what my REAL needs are, I find I can think of all kinds of options I’ve never before considered, and so I find greater freedom, more choice, and more creative ideas about ways to help myself cope with all the crap that’s going on in my life.

    I’m happy to be able to say that even though I once believed that nothing would ever bring me joy, hope, or relief again, I’ve been virtually free of depression for over 10 years now. And totally without medication. I do still get overwhelmed at times, and I get discouraged, exhausted, frustrated, and sometimes very sad. But I’m no longer suffering, no longer imprisoned nor incapacitated by chronic depression. I’m no longer a big part of my own problem. I can instead work more effectively at searching for solutions or at just simply coping.

    So how does one actually go about using these antidotes in a practical way? Let me now refer to the 4 example expressions given at the top of this web page.

    I learned that the words I frequently chose to use to describe my experiences were usually more indicative of my thinking than my actual experience. And I learned that if I wasn’t careful about choosing my words, I would unwittingly create a painful prison for myself. To use the above stated example, if I said “Jehovah has withdrawn his favor from me,” I would then be inclined to believe my own explanation and conclusions, and I would be more inclined to reject evidence that would challenge the truthfulness of that accepted belief.

    However, if I simply prefaced this particular statement with just two additional words, I could open the door to possibilities, rather than slam it shut. If I said, “I’m worried Jehovah has withdrawn his favor from me,” then I left the door of uncertainty open just enough that I could look for and entertain another possibility, that maybe Jehovah hasn’t withdrawn his favor from me, but instead just hasn’t answered me… YET.

    By learning to try to be more precise in my expressions, and by including an awareness of my feelings, and by learning about my real underlying needs, I shifted from the permanence of established fact to the possibility of future improvement. I shifted away from excluding any possibility of my beliefs being in error, and towards the possibility that maybe there was some correctable error in my conclusions. In other words, I hadn’t squashed my own hopes when I included the words, “I’m worried…” And by introducing those words “I’m worried…” I also liberated myself from unrealistic expectations and embraced a slightly more uncertain (hence, optimistic) potential outcome. Whereas, if I didn’t include those two words, I would have, by habit, created for myself a dismal self-fulfilling prophecy because I had unwittingly yet cognitively arrested all other alternatives and possibilities leaving myself quite hopeless and helpless. By choosing to include those two extra words, I released myself from the hopeless abyss of fatalism.

    I would like to point out that adding those two words “I’m worried…” is just one example of how I might choose to reword my expression. There are also many other healthy ways I could choose to re-express this idea.

    Learning to recognize the painful patterns and habits of my own inner dialogue that I had learned during my childhood, I was able to consciously work towards cognitively seeking alternatives to my previously bleak world view and to see that I had options, choices, and power where I had formerly been unwittingly convincing myself I had none.

    Example #2: Whereas I might have once said, “My life is no different than those in the world around me,” I found myself learning to think and say, “Sometimes I cannot easily see much difference between my life and the lives of those around me. At the same time, I can see some small differences, even if I’m not certain they make much significant difference in the end. I also know that 1) I am putting forth an effort to live differently, and 2) I am eager and willing to learn even more about how to live differently despite the fact that I keep coming up against some personally challenging obstacles.”

    For me, the antidote to cognitively arrested alternatives is to reframe my mental image by challenging myself to see it more clearly, more fully, and more accurately, and then to describe it to myself more precisely so that I can create for myself some sense of opportunity or choice.

    Example #3: Instead of saying, “There is no specific purpose to my individual experiences,” I learned how to say something more truthful and less critical, such as:

    “I haven’t yet been able to see any useful purpose to my experiences.”
    or
    “I wish I could see some purpose to my experiences.”
    or
    “It sure would help me to cope if I could better understand what purpose there is to my challenging and painful experiences.”

    Example #4: To reduce the amount of pain I felt surrounding the expression “I no longer respond emotionally to spiritual stimulation,” I might now choose to say:

    “I remember when I felt more alive, energetic, and refreshed after receiving spiritual stimulation. I miss those moments.”
    or
    “I am finding this apathy or numbness to spiritual stimulation very alarming and discouraging. I wish I knew what to do about it.”
    or
    “I cannot figure out why I’m not currently responding to spiritual stimulation the way I used to.”

    To try and summarize, I’ve learned that if I tell myself that things are permanent, hopeless, and unavoidable, I tend to believe it. If, on the other hand, I allow for the possibility that I might discover something new, or experience something different, I tend to more readily notice those things when they present themselves, and I tend to feel more buoyant while I struggle with the challenges.

    In short, we tend to find that which we are looking for.

    Would you agree? Does that idea match with your own experience?

    If I cognitively arrest myself, then I’ve imprisoned myself and learned to be helpless like the dogs that learned helplessness. But if I am careful about leaving the door of uncertainty ajar ever so slightly, I find I’m much more likely to feel free, even if it’s only the freedom to choose my attitude about my circumstances.

    If I pre-emptively rule out the possibility of any new information coming my way at some future time, I’m likely to miss or even ignore it when it finally comes my way. But if I at least accept that at best I only ever have incomplete information, then I can keep on the look-out for more information, and this is a blessed way to live and to stay open to the influence of God in my life.

    Best of all, I no longer live with the belief that I deserve to sit and suffer in silence. I no longer think of myself as an evil, unloveable, horrible little creep who needs to be controlled and constantly needs to be told what to think and do by some other person or group. In a way, I’ve cut the puppet strings and become a real boy for the first time in my life. It feels really wonderful now.

    Compassionately,
    and with the earnest hope that my expressions are of some small benefit to someone, somewhere in the world,
    -greg

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