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Michael Gerson, RIP

The deep suffering of the famed speechwriter and columnist
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I should say up front that I was not generally a fan of Michael Gerson's writing, though as a wordsmith (speechwriter and op-ed columnist), he was virtually without peer. It was the positions he sometimes took that angered me. The Evangelical believer never repented of his central role in making the case for the unjust Iraq War, he eventually affirmed same-sex marriage, against the clear teaching of the Bible, and though I sympathized to a limited degree with his disgust over Trump, after a while I found his rigid, high-handed moralism to be grating -- as if he could not bring himself to understand why fellow Christians could come to support Trump. On the other hand, people no doubt said the same about me, writing about the Catholic abuse scandal. There is something about having one's religious ideals betrayed that causes pain like nothing else. If he was mistaken to any degree about Trump and the Evangelicals, I think it came from a lover's broken heart. This is something I understand. I used to write with such ferocity about the corruption within the Catholic Church, not because I hated the Church, but because I had once loved it so intensely. There is no anger like that of a failed idealist.

That said, I was grieved, honestly, to learn of his death this week. We don't run in the same circles, so I hadn't even known he was sick. He succumbed to cancer at age 58. That poor man. May God bless and comfort those who loved him. His death diminishes us, but I suppose we should be thankful that he is no longer in pain, and can hope that he is dwelling in eternal glory now, with his Lord.

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I also did not know, until I read it in the Washington Post yesterday, that Gerson had suffered from depression. The Post published this remarkable sermon he gave about his struggle with depression. It's Gerson at his best. Excerpts:

Like nearly one in 10 Americans — and like many of you — I live with this insidious, chronic disease. Depression is a malfunction in the instrument we use to determine reality. The brain experiences a chemical imbalance and wraps a narrative around it. So the lack of serotonin, in the mind’s alchemy, becomes something like, “Everybody hates me.” Over time, despair can grow inside you like a tumor.

I would encourage anyone with this malady to keep a journal. At the bottom of my recent depression, I did a plus and minus, a pro and con, of me. Of being myself. The plus side, as you’d imagine, was short. The minus side included the most frightful cliches: “You are a burden to your friends.” “You have no future.” “No one would miss you.”

The scary thing is that these things felt completely true when I wrote them. At that moment, realism seemed to require hopelessness.

But then you reach your breaking point — and do not break. With patience and the right medicine, the fog in your brain begins to thin. If you are lucky, as I was, you encounter doctors and nurses who know parts of your mind better than you do. There are friends who run into the burning building of your life to rescue you, and acquaintances who become friends. You meet other patients, from entirely different backgrounds, who share your symptoms, creating a community of the wounded. And you learn of the valor they show in lonely rooms.

Over time, you begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of your sadness. The conscious mind takes hold of some shred of beauty or love. And then more shreds, until you begin to think maybe, just maybe, there is something better on the far side of despair.

I have no doubt that I will eventually repeat the cycle of depression. But now I have some self-knowledge that can’t be taken away. I know that — when I’m in my right mind — I choose hope.

That phrase — “in my right mind” — is harsh. No one would use it in a clinical setting. But it fits my experience exactly.

In my right mind — when I am rested and fed, medicated and caffeinated — I know that I was living within a dismal lie.

In my right mind, I know I have friends who will not forsake me.

In my right mind, I know that chemistry need not be destiny.

In my right mind, I know that weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

I think this medical condition works as a metaphor for the human condition.

All of us — whatever our natural serotonin level — look around us and see plenty of reason for doubt, anger and sadness. A child dies, a woman is abused, a schoolyard becomes a killing field, a typhoon sweeps away the innocent. If we knew or felt the whole of human suffering, we would drown in despair. By all objective evidence, we are arrogant animals, headed for the extinction that is the way of all things. We imagine that we are like gods, and still drop dead like flies on the windowsill.

The answer to the temptation of nihilism is not an argument — though philosophy can clear away a lot of intellectual foolishness. It is the experience of transcendence we cannot explain, or explain away. It is the fragments of love and meaning that arrive out of the blue — in beauty that leaves a lump in your throat, in the peace and ordered complexity of nature, in the shadow and shimmer of a cathedral, in the unexplained wonder of existence itself.

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I’d urge anyone with undiagnosed depression to seek out professional help. There is no way to will yourself out of this disease, any more than to will yourself out of tuberculosis.

There are, however, other forms of comfort. Those who hold to the wild hope of a living God can say certain things:

In our right minds — as our most sane and solid selves — we know that the appearance of a universe ruled by cruel chaos is a lie and that the cold void is actually a sheltering sky.

In our right minds, we know that life is not a farce but a pilgrimage — or maybe a farce and a pilgrimage, depending on the day.

In our right minds, we know that hope can grow within us — like a seed, like a child.

In our right minds, we know that transcendence sparks and crackles around us — in a blinding light, and a child’s voice, and fire, and tears, and a warmed heart, and a sculpture just down the hill — if we open ourselves to seeing it.

Read it all. Discovering that Gerson struggled with depression softened my heart towards him, and helped me to understand his anger better. It doesn't change my views on the things he wrote, which of course must stand apart from the writer, but it makes me regret the times I would screw my face up after reading something he had to say, and grumble through gritted teeth, "There goes Gerson again!" I had no idea what weights he was carrying. I have never dealt with clinical depression, but the past decade for me has been one of despair, at times intense and overwhelming, over the slow, steady break-up of my marriage. I have not spoken of the reasons for its collapse, other than to say that infidelity played no part in it, and that it had to do with the fallout of us moving to my hometown and being rejected by my family there. But there's a lot I won't say, because it's nobody's business. Those who mock me in this situation, if they only knew the full story, would be ashamed.

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The past ten years have taught me that nobody knows the burdens others carry, silently, even behind a façade of professional success. With the perspective of distance, I can see that no small amount of my own anger in my writing over the past decade came from the sense of total helplessness while the thing I cared for most in this world, and had hoped and prayed for for many years, was stripped from me, peeled away day by agonizing day, like being flayed. That my deep and abiding desire for Home was never going to be fulfilled, no matter what I did, and what sacrifices I made. The despair came in large part from knowing the limits of human power to make the evil thing consuming my wife and me and our marriage stop. The ultimate uncontrollability of the world. That, and having to keep up appearances, not least for the sake of our kids, but also because I had built a reputation as a conservative Christian commentator, and this kind of thing was not supposed to happen to people like me. I almost drowned in despair, and would have done were it not for my faith, and the love and care of my closest friends.

As you know, my wife ended our suffering -- and don't forget, she was suffering too! -- by filing for divorce earlier this year. That too is a deep wound that both of us will be carrying for the rest of our days, but at least it stops the hemorrhaging, and gives us both a chance to heal.

Gerson writes:

In our right minds, we know that transcendence sparks and crackles around us — in a blinding light, and a child’s voice, and fire, and tears, and a warmed heart, and a sculpture just down the hill — if we open ourselves to seeing it.

This is the pearl of great price that I carry away from this past agonizing decade. It's at the heart of the book I'm working on now: how we can train ourselves to see through the fog of confusion and pain to the transcendence sparking and crackling all around us. It is not an illusion! It's truly there, but for so many of us, it is veiled by mundanity at best, or by suffering and despair at worst. Gerson's path was far more arduous than mine, and so too might be the path you, reader, are on. Nevertheless, none of us gets through this life without suffering. With that suffering comes the temptation to think that Truth, that Beauty, that Goodness is all a lie, and that the source of all those things -- God -- is an illusion. But it's not true! Michael Gerson testified to that in his life and words, and though my gifts are small compared to his I try to do the same thing. But now Gerson, I believe, is illuminated by the experience of Paradise, and knows that his faith was not in vain. RIP.

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Dean Cooper
Dean Cooper
I remember the story of a Romanian Christian who suffered greatly under the communists. After many tortures they finally gave up on him and put him in an electric chair. An angle spoke to him not to be afraid, for he was not alone and he would not die. They tried multiple times, but couldn't kill him. They finally released him to go home but he was in such horrible condition that everyone expected him to die. He could only lay in misery and smell his putrid flesh rotting. After weeks of this the angle returned and scolded him. "Why are you lying there in your pain? Get up!" Like Jesus saying rise and walk, he did.

There is some pain that God in His reasons allows us to endure. There are other pains, that we languish in not knowing we can rise and walk.
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