03 July 2009

Laugh and the World Laughs with You, But if You Cry, What Then?

I remember an episode of the Simpsons, many years ago now, in which Lisa was feeling quite sad. When Marge dropped her off at school then, she gave Lisa the same advice that her mother had once given to her as child: Smile, and put on a happy face! So Lisa bravely got out of the car, and went to face her day with a forced smile threatening to crack her careworn countenance. As Marge sat there in the car, watching her daughter go, she recalled the times when she herself had faked such a smile at odds with her actual emotions, and how yucky that had made her feel. Then she hopped out of the vehicle and ran to give Lisa a different word of motherly advice: Be yourself, and smile when you're ready. Marge loved her either way.

Theologically speaking, "being yourself" is no real remedy or solution. We are sinful and unclean, and being our sinful selves is at the heart of the problem! But putting on a happy face, faking a smile, and pretending to be chipper are not the answer, either. It is the Father's love for us in Christ Jesus, and His forgiveness of our sins, that rescues us from the deadly despair of unbelief. That gracious forgiveness and steadfast love grant the true peace and joy of faith, with which we do rejoice, give thanks and sing. But let us not confuse that rejoicing of the heart with particular personality traits. It is a false gospel when we admonish a melancholy heart to fake a smile.

I resonated with that episode of the Simpsons, and with Lisa's mood in it, because I am also somewhat disposed toward melancholy. There are seasons of the year, especially from November through February, when it is hard for me to feel chipper. I've learned to cope with that, more or less, but coping is not the same as being cheerful. Even aside from that seasonal depression, which follows the waning of the sunlight, there are other times when my mood is on a low ebb. It's an aspect of my personality that I don't particularly care for, and I don't offer that as an excuse; I know that it is also linked to my sinfulness. Nevertheless, the remedy is not to be found in forcing myself to be happy, if that were even possible. I know that what I need is the preaching of repentance, the forgiveness of my sins in the name of Jesus, and the fellowship of my family and friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Those good gifts of God pull me out of myself and out of my hole, and set me before my Father in heaven, safe and secure in Christ Jesus, my Savior. That almost always makes me feel better, too, but not necessarily carefree and easygoing; it doesn't necessarily translate into grins and giggles galore.

It was roughly around the same time as that episode of the Simpsons, when a coworker of mine, a Pentecostal, made a comment that totally floored me. This young woman came to work one day, visibly anxious and weary, but with her usual toothy smile plastered across her face. She remarked that she was at her wit's end, but then she also went on to say that she had to keep smiling, because, as she put it, if she let her smile slip it would mean that she had lost her faith and forfeited her salvation. It's been almost two decades ago that she said that to me, but I've never forgotten it. Sadly, I don't remember what I said in response, because at the time I was so flabbergasted I didn't really know what to say. I hope that I would do better now, given the chance. What concerns me, though, is how often Christians seem to proceed with the same sort of mindset with respect to one another.

Laugh and the world laughs with you. We all know the saying, and who's to wonder? It's fun and easy to be around people who are happy and cheerful. But as members of the body of Christ, we are called to bear each other's burdens in love, with patience and forgiveness. In fact, it is all the more important that, when we cry, we not be left to cry alone. I don't mean to suggest that there's never a time for quiet solitude. As a man, I retreat to my "cave" from time to time, and I often find that helpful to prayer and meditation on the Word of God. But when the melancholy blues wash over me, I know that what I need is not time to myself, but the communion of my fellow Christians. I need to hear the Word of God, and to receive the love of God in Christ. At such times, especially, it is not good for the man to be alone. Yet, it is the most difficult at such times to reach out to others for conversation and companionship. Depression and despair tend to collapse the person inward. So it becomes all the more important for the neighbor to take the initiative and reach out to the brother or sister who is sullen and sad. Tragically, with few exceptions, that doesn't seem to be the case.

I understand and sympathize. It is hard work and exhausting to befriend the person who is down and seemingly bent on frowning. It is all the more difficult when that person resists the efforts of neighbors to draw close and engage in conversation. I've been on both sides of that equation too many times to count. For all of that, I have also come to know this: On the one hand, a melancholy disposition does not mean that a person is faithless or unbelieving; no more so than a cheerful disposition equates with faith and faithfulness. On the other hand, the person who is struggling with sadness, for whatever reason, needs the mercy and compassion, the patience and long-suffering, the love and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ, as much or more than anyone else. And such a person may be less likely to seek out the Gospel or to avail himself of the means of grace than others might be. Therefore, rather than passing judgment on the person who is glum or down in the mouth, and rather than avoiding the melancholy soul, the Christian is moved by love to befriend and uplift such a person. Not to suppose that the goal is a smile, but simply to love with the love of Christ.

Sadness, or even a personality prone to melancholy, is not the same thing as depression; nor are any of these things coterminous with the despair of unbelief. The sourpuss may be every bit as pious and faithful as the interminably chipper and cheerful person. Sweet and sour alike live by the Gospel of forgiveness, or they do not live at all. For that very reason, we should resist the temptation to avoid the dour, but instead make a point of loving and caring for that person; even if it never results in a smile or a happy face. The laughing will never be lacking in company, and let us hope and pray their companions are Christians. But those who weep are too often left alone. It should not be so among those who belong to the Body of Christ. In fraility and weakness, let us love one another; for love is of God, whose power is made perfect in weakness.

For those who may suffer from the melancholy blues or clinical depression, I won't advise or admonish that you fake a smile or plaster on a happy face, but in my empathy for you I will recommend a new book by my dear friend and colleague, the Reverend Todd Peperkorn. It is entitled, I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression, and it is available free from LCMS World Relief and Human Care. Check it out.


Moria said...

This is a really interesting post and I'd look forward to talking with you about it more. I admit that I sometimes have trouble relating to feelings of melancholy or discontentment. I find that I usually have on a happy face, and not just because I'm trying to put one on. Sympathizing with the melancholy is an area that I need to work on, especially as a Christian called to bear the burdens of others.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I should clarify that, of course, not every smile is faked, and it wasn't my intention to cast any aspersions on those with cheerful dispositions. Laughter, like music, I think, often is helpful in driving away the assaults and temptations of the devil. And I both admire and appreciate those friends who are able to laugh easily and often. That is a gift and a blessing, not only to those folks, but also to the rest of us. I only wish to distinguish between personality traits and outward demeanors, on the one hand, and that faith of the heart which lays hold of the Gospel even in the midst of death and woe.

From my own experience, I know that it is difficult to extend a hand of fellowship to a person who is gloomy and grumpy. I also know that, when I am slipping into such moods myself, or have fallen into such a state, that is when I need the love of my neighbor the most. Yet, just then, I find it most difficult to seek out the company of family and friends, and I make it difficult for them to reach me.

Recognizing these things in myself and in my own experience, I have come to realize the need to be proactive in seeking out and loving my neighbor. Regrettably, there is still a gap between my realization and my actual doing. So, for that reason also, I am grateful for the Gospel, which is all that ever redeems me for life.

Rev. Adrian Piazza said...

Rev. Stuckwisch,
We live in a time in which seriousness is mistaken for grumpiness, sober thoughtfulness (melancholy) is thought to be an illness, and all tears are to be shed confessing sin on television. Our Lord encountered such tyrants of outward piety and answered them in Matthew 11:
“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds (some mss children).”

Yes, Depression can be an illness. Nevertheless, Americans like: Pastors happy and positive while seriously pious; Our Shrimp jumbo, and our Government efficient. Thank God, for redemption in Christ.

Julie said...

This quote from this post cannot be said to much: "But let us not confuse that rejoicing of the heart with particular personality traits. It is a false gospel when we admonish a melancholy heart to fake a smile."

Paul said...

Being called upon as a volunteer chaplain at midnight Sunday last to be with a family that had just lost a perfectly healthy 3 week old baby boy, brought to mind the need to be honest with our feelings, our anger and doubts about God's goodness even instead of saying tripe like "You need to hold on to the fact that he's with Jesus -- God took him away from us and He knows best, etc. etc." Psalm 130 came to mind. Only through the cross and tomb can we proclaim the resurrection.