Depression is an illness, and we can try to treat it with medicine, with therapy, or with a combination of the two. Such approaches are all very useful, and I would never tell anyone suffering from depression not to take the pills prescribed to them or to see a properly qualified therapist. These things will only take us so far, though, because depression is as much a spiritual problem as it is a physical one. Depression principally affects the way we think and feel; and in consequence, it affects how we relate to others. We need more than pills; we need a source of spiritual medicine. I believe that I have found such a source in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.
I suffered from depression for more than fifteen years; and for most of that time, I did not hold out much hope that things for me and my family would improve. Depression ate away at my family life, my social life, my self-esteem, and my faith, leaving me with very little hope. But over the last year, I have come to realize that I can fight depression using the revelations of Swedenborg and as a result have begun to change. Swedenborg has given me the means to fight for my soul.
I have developed six simple statements that I use to fight off depression. I say these to myself constantly and use them to ward off the negative thoughts and sense of isolation that depression uses to trap me. These statements are entirely personal. If I am to change how I think and feel, they must be framed this way. But I hope that sharing them can help others fight for their souls as well.
1. I must face up to my problems and not hide from them.
For many years, I did not look at myself or examine what depression was doing to me. I would, in fact, refuse to do so, with the vain idea that if I ignored depression, then it might ignore me. But I now realize that I must do the exact opposite of this. I have to inspect my negative thoughts and ask myself what they are trying to get me to do. Just what are their motives and where do they come from? Are the thoughts trying to control me, dominate me, or coerce me into doing something that will harm me or others? If they are not helping me, then they are not what I want or need and I should reject them. These thoughts are not there for my own good but are simply there to further themselves at my expense.
Swedenborg showed me that I could not start to understand my situation unless I reflected upon myself. Once I did this, I began to notice things about myself that were hitherto secret or unknown. I became aware of myself in relation to what was around me.
Without reflection we know nothing, except that we are, and nothing else, not what we are. On the other hand, if we reflect upon ourself from [the viewpoint of] others, or allow others to reflect upon us, and to say what we are like, then for the first time we are able to know ourself. Otherwise we can never learn, but remain in our own illusions, and from them, reflect upon others. So one thinks truths are falsities, because one is judging from one’s illusions. For such as the starting-point is, such also is everything that follows. (Spiritual Experiences §734)
Without self-reflection, I would have continued with my illusions and misconceptions, using them as the basis for my relations with others. As a result of self-reflection, I have encouraged others to tell me how they see me and have begun to find that I can face the world as it really is.
I now see that I cannot ignore what depression is doing to me. It is only by looking at who I am that I can recognize its hold and then start to resist. I am no longer passive, and I now know that I must take responsibility; it is my fight.
2. I am neither my faults nor my virtues; I can choose my path.
The Lord does not condemn me. Like all of us, I am being prepared for heaven, and the only reason that I might not get there is because of my own actions. Swedenborg shows us that neither good nor evil comes from within but instead comes from outside of us; all that is good and true comes from heaven, and all that is false and evil comes from hell.
This is a tremendously liberating idea. It means that I do not have to accept depression, negative thoughts, or anxiety as things that are coming from within me. Even though I might have once believed them to be generated by me—that they are my thoughts—in truth, they are not. I now know that the negative thoughts that have dominated my headspace are not what I really am, so I can face these thoughts and call them out as the lies that they are. I see now that they are trying to control me and to harm me, but I don’t have to let them.
There are reflections of thought . . . for the most part having to do with one’s own affairs, or things that are to come . . . by which the longer one is held in them, the more one is infested by evil spirits. This is the cause of depressions with many. (Spiritual Experiences §§3624:2–3625)
3. Never forget that people love me and I love them.
When suffering from depression, I isolate myself and in turn feel completely alone. It is me against the world. But I am never really alone. The Lord is always with me; and the greater my need, the closer he is.
The Lord is present in us and with us throughout the whole world; and the reason for this is simply that the Lord is not in space. (Divine Love and Wisdom §10)
But I am also close to others who love me and whom I love. Depression brings with it self-pity and a refusal to accept responsibility. So what I do really does matter both to myself and to others. My choices matter, in terms of where I end up, but they also matter to those closest to me. Depression does not merely affect me, but it also impacts greatly on those I love. They bear the brunt of my anger and my moods. So, if I can change, I not only improve my own life but also improve the lives of those I love.
4. Depression is not me.
This is the single most important thing I have learned from Swedenborg. Depression is not who I am!
As mentioned above, Swedenborg tells us that all good and evil comes from outside of us. So just as I am neither my faults nor my virtues, I am not my depression. In fact, it is never my depression. What is pressing down on me is something from outside that is trying to affect the thoughts and feelings that I have.
Divine providence is in the smallest details of our thoughts and desires, which means that we cannot think or intend anything on our own. Everything we think and intend, and therefore everything we say and do, is the result of an inflow. If it is good, something is flowing in from heaven; if it is bad, something is flowing in from hell. (Divine Providence §287)
Depression does not come from within me, so it does not define me. Since I am separate from depression, it does not make me what I truly am. Understanding this idea puts depression on the outside and lets me think of myself as someone who can be free of it. I can be a caring and loving husband, father, and friend. I can take part in society and have a purpose in all that I do. I can be useful and free.
5. Depression is temporary; love is permanent.
Depression is a parasite. It seeks to feed off me, keeping me alive just so it can thrive at my expense. It leaves me debilitated, almost literally unable to move or to respond intelligently to others. But, when depression is not there, I am free to act, to care, and to love. This is how I really am; this is me.
Love is the opposite of depression: it is selfless. Unlike depression, love feeds me. Love is always there, and all I need to do is reach out for it. I try to remember that above the gray clouds, the sky is always blue.
The sky blue color is such as to contain good. (Spiritual Experiences Minor §4712)
Likewise, love is always there, if only I can see it.
6. Depression is weaker than me; I do not fear it.
As a parasite, depression needs me; it cannot live without me. Depression can only survive if I allow it to reside within me, but I do not have to let it do so.
Depression is negative and shallow, so it cannot offer us anything but despair. What I now know is that there is so much else beyond depression. There is always a blue sky; there is always love. I just have to remember it is there.
Love is our life. . . . We are wholly unaware that [love] is our very life—not just the general life of our whole body and of all our thoughts, but the life of their very least detail. (Divine Love and Wisdom §1)
These six statements are not a cure, and they will not necessarily make depression go away. But, for me at least, they provide a defense against it. Most of all, I know now what depression is, and it is much harder for me to be caught unawares. I know its shape and how it moves, and because of this, depression is diminished. I can see beyond it, and the sky is blue.
Peter King, PhD, is a reader in social thought at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.
Read more posts from the Spirituality in Practice series >