I subscribe to The Christian Century, and was recently reading the February 4th issue. In it, there was an article titled, “What Love Can’t Fix.” The writer–Matt Gaventa–described his father’s descent into a spiral of clinical depression. A person who had been charismatic and loving one day was just gone. No joy, no life in him … he had just disappeared as the person he and his mom had known and loved. I subscribe to The Christian Century, and was recently reading the February 4th issue. In it, there was an article titled, “What Love Can’t Fix.” The writer–Matt Gaventa–described his father’s descent into a spiral of clinical depression. A person who had been charismatic and loving one day was just gone. No joy, no life in him … he had just disappeared as the person he and his mom had known and loved.
Gaventa says that he and his mom didn’t know how to talk to him, how to reach his father. So they just said that they loved him, over and over. As a fifteen-year-old, the writer said that he thought no one could really be sad if they were well-loved. Knowing St. Paul’s words, that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing, endures all things,” he thought that if they loved his father enough, he’d return to his old, charismatic self.
Unfortunately, Gaventa says that his love affair with love ended the day they found his father’s body slumped on the bathroom floor after an overdose of pills from the medicine cabinet. However, his life was rescued, and with treatment, he eventually got better. His father’s old self returned and life normalized and is still holding twenty years later.
This all brought back to me my earlier experience as a clinical psychologist–trying to “treat” at times seriously ill patients with various mental disorders. More recently as a priest and pastor, I have also seen mentally ill folks struggling with seemingly intractable mental dysfunction–from addictions to clinical depression and even psychoses–out of reach of “talking cures,” in need of pharmacological interventions as well as pastoral care.
In doing research for the book that I’m currently writing, draft titled The Fiction of our Lives, I’ve read a great deal in the area of cognitive neuroscience–a study of the brain and its neural network in processing experience and action in our daily lives. One of the books I’ve recently read is titled This is Your Brain on Joy by Earl Henslin. One of Henslin’s chapters is concerned with clinical depression and the areas of the brain most affected by this disorder. Those experiencing this mood disorder show symptoms such as a desire to be alone or socially isolated, lacking motivation for life tasks, experience feeling of hopelessness, lack sexual interest, and are easily irritated–among other symptoms. And significantly, through brain imaging studies of persons with serious depression, he and a collaborator have demonstrated neurons in the deep mid-brain area (the limbic system) to be “lit up,” generating excessive feelings of anxiety, irritability, and sadness.
What is significant across all serious thought disorders, however, is that not only are deep brain areas controlling memory and emotion compromised, but the neural connections between the controlling forebrain, where reason and control prevail, are not well integrated. That is, the brain’s rational “executive” center is ineffective in controlling and linking imagination and will with emotional centers deep within the brain’s mid-region.
So what does all this have to do with Gaventa’s article about his dad? He says “clinical depression interferes with the brain’s ability to have normal, rational responses. It creates a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it starts translating what actually happens in the world into what it wants you to think, which is that you are unloved, unlovable, and unworthy. … Having depression doesn’t mean you’re not loved. It just means you can’t hold that love in your heart. So trying to cure depression with love is like bailing out a boat with a sieve: well intended, but not that helpful.”
So what about St. Paul’s assertion that love is the thing that endures in the end? Gaventa concludes that Paul’s understanding of love is actually rather complex and nuanced. Paul does not really extol love’s power, but rather its persistence. He says “prophecy, tongues, and knowledge come to an end, but love … survives everything.” He writes:
So even when brain chemistry runs us down, love stays on its feet. Even when we can’t see the path before us, love gets through … when sin and death run out of steam, when guilt and shame have no more worlds to conquer, when all those dark nights converge onto the sunrise–on that day, love will still be standing, thanks to the God who loved us from the beginning. … To me, that’s the gospel: God’s love won’t fix everything, but it can outlast anything.
And in the end, this is the only way you and I can get though our lives, counting on that love of God which will see us through the end and beyond.