This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Whenever today’s Gospel reading comes up it takes me back to 1991. This was the year my beloved father died and my daughter was born. We had taken the decision that I would be a full time Mum some years earlier with the birth of my first child, so making ends meet was difficult, since my husband was in the process of building up his own business, with every spare cent being reinvested back into the business and Australia still suffering a loss of confidence following the 1987 share market crash. But after Elinor’s birth, life was further complicated by my developing post-natal depression.
The winter of 1991 was probably a perfectly ordinary winter, as winter’s go, but inside my head, the landscape was bleak and, at times, terrifying. It seemed to rain constantly so that I spent much of the time cooped up indoors with a two year old and an infant, and no support family within two thousand kilometres. Odd things happened, like the Water Corporation invading the park behind our house to fix a sewerage problem, and the whole neighbourhood being filled with noxious odours for days on end, adding to my general feeling of malaise. Then I had a great fear that I was going to develop a mental condition that was present in my extended family. And of course I was grieving for my Father who had wasted away over five years until every breath was a struggle.
But God uses these moments of interior misery to bring us back to him. The children and I had joined the local playgroup which was run by some of the young mums from the Neo-Catechumenate group. On one particular day, when our bank account was down to about $3 and I was wondering how we were going to manage until payday, the ‘Neocats’ invited me round for some Italian macchinetta-brewed coffee as well as prayer round their kitchen table. By chance, their Bible reading for the day was this:
‘That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing! Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are? Can any of you, for all his worrying, add one single cubit to his span of life? And why worry about clothing? Think of the flowers growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these.
Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, will he not much more look after you, you men of little faith?
So do not worry, do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?” It is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow, will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble if its own.’ (Matthew 6: 25-34)
Sometimes you just know God is trying to tell you something. I went home and thought about it. Depression is different from other medical conditions, in that there is a certain amount of control one can have over it merely through the choices one makes. No, really. (I can hear people disagreeing with me.) I have met people who seem almost to identify with their depression to the point where they describe it as being part of their genetic makeup, and love-love-love telling you about how they and all the members of their family are living on anti-depressants due to congenital deficiencies in their parietal lobe. Fiddlesticks to that, I say.
The reason I have my doubts is that we are humans who are free agents, and free agents can choose at each moment how they are going to behave. We might not always be able to control how we think, but we can control how we behave. I can remember thinking while I was depressed, that I was ever so bored with my brain which seemed to want to go round and round in an endless monologue over the same subject matter. The trick seemed to be actually to do something which would change the subject. What helped me escape from my depression was meditating on the above reading, telling God that I needed a hand and then going outside myself to think about other people who were in situations far worse than my relatively mundane and self-centred situation. At one point, I remember seeing a picture in a newspaper about a young boy from Vietnam whose face had been terribly disfigured through burns, but who was coming to Australia for plastic surgery. These things made me realise I needed to get out of my own head and start doing something positive, even if emotionally I didn’t feel in the mood. I decided the cure for feeling miserable and broke was to start helping other people who were even more down-and-out than I was. I looked up the nearest St Vincent de Paul Conference and went to their next meeting. Soon I was in training with a senior member, learning how to discern whether someone required a food voucher or other assistance. I had always been a Mass-goer, but now prayer and scripture reading became more of a daily feature of my life. And the more I concentrated on helping others, the smaller my own problems seemed. In addition to this, over time, God helped us to prosper our business and manage on our budget. I look back on this period as my first great re-conversion to the Faith.
This didn’t just happen once in my life – over the course of decades, there have been several occasions where things have gone pear-shaped and I have been tempted to slip into depression and self-centredness. And every time, God has reached in and shown me the way forward – because Jesus Christ our Saviour is the Light of the World, He cares about our individual situations, He wants us to come into a right relationship with Him, and He wants us to be filled with an unshakeable joy in the midst of life’s trials.
Lent is about to begin on Ash Wednesday. This is a perfect time to pre-empt Satan’s plans for our misery by deepening our prayer life, coming close to God and asking Him to place in our path those people whom he wants us to help and encourage.