By Alan Noble, Crosswalk.com
In 2019-2020, over 1 in 5 adults experienced a mental illness. 1 in 10 youth experienced depression that severely impaired their life. Nearly 1 in 20 adults in America have had serious suicidal thoughts. We are in a mental health crisis.
Experts have offered various explanations for this crisis. Some point to the COVID epidemic, which undoubtedly exacerbated already existing mental illnesses in tens of millions of Americas. Others point to the dangers of social media. Jonathan Haidt argues that liberal teenage girls have had a particularly difficult time.
While it is important for us as a society to try to get to the root causes of this crisis, to the individual sufferer, these debates don’t address the heart of the matter. For those suffering from a mental illness, diagnosed or undiagnosed, the one question that matters is why live with suffering? Or, put a little more politely, why get out of bed?
Hamlet’s Question – To Be or Not to Be?
Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying program (MAID) is set to include serious and incurable mental illnesses in 2024, which means that some people who feel that their mental suffering outweighs the goodness of life will choose to end that life and receive legal, medical assistance in doing so. The ethics of this program and the potential for abuses have delayed the start of the program, but unassisted suicide is already on the rise in the US. Hamlet’s question remains a fundamental question of life, To be or not to be?
Some may view Hamlet’s question as morbid. After all, life is beautiful and improving daily. But all of us will face a period of mental affliction at one point or another. Life inescapably involves suffering. And so, we must have an answer ready for why that suffering is worth enduring.
Why Endure Suffering?
Modern life, with its conveniences and progress, can shield us from much suffering. And it gives us the illusion that all suffering is avoidable given the right precautions. But as the global pandemic, natural disasters, and financial crises have taught us, that is a lie. Suffering is unavoidable. The only question is, why endure suffering? And if we do endure, how do we endure well?
Regardless of how we value our own life, it is a witness. The choice to get out of bed each morning is a testament to the goodness of being, to the givenness of our existence. When we choose to accept the suffering that inevitably comes and bear it, we communicate to others that life is good, even when it is hard. And other people need to hear that.
This is the burden and gift of life. It is a burden because you did not ask to be a witness for other people. You are your brother’s keeper even though you didn’t sign up to be. This is a task God has given you. And you glorify God when you love your neighbor by showing them that life is worth living despite suffering.
But it is also a gift. Because when you are in a place of deep suffering, when you doubt the goodness of your own life, usually the goodness of other lives remains plain to you. When you look at your life you may only see hopelessness and pain, but when you look at your loved ones and friends, you see goodness. It may be goodness you feel excluded from, but it remains goodness. And you desire them to know that goodness. To feel it deep in their bones. When you come to see your God-given duty to endure as a gift to your neighbor, as an opportunity to remind them of the goodness of their existence, then you are reminded that you have purpose.
A Sense of Purpose
One of the first things to go when you feel despair is a sense of purposefulness. But it turns out that living is its own purpose. It communicates and testifies to the goodness of creation. It communicates to people you know and love. So that even when you feel that you have nothing to offer your loved ones or the world, you do. Your choice to rise out of bed each day is a powerful witness to them. And it’s good, even while being hard and painful, it’s good.
We may not know why we are suffering, what the root causes are or what we can do as a society to correct these ills. But we can act. We can choose to get out of bed, to love our neighbor, and to honor God with our existence. Sometimes such actions will be tiny, like the decision to eat breakfast and take the dog for a walk. But insofar as such actions call us to die to ourselves and love others, they are tangible ways we each carry our cross. And it’s beautiful, because it’s grace.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Prostock-Studio
Alan Noble is an associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and an advisor for the AND Campaign. He is also the author of Disruptive Witness, You Are Not Your Own, and On Getting Out of Bed.
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