Peace and Depression: Accountability, Repentance and the Atonement
by Ray DeGraw
I am struck regularly by how many members fail to focus on Jesus’ life and realize that there are incredible lessons (particularly in the Gospels) about specific things we can do to become more like Him – things that can lessen the effects of our sins and actually help decrease the frequency of those sins – thus bringing internal peace and a measure of calmness to our lives in the here and now. I believe we sometimes buy into the apostate obsession with the afterlife – as though it’s OK to be miserable here, since we’ll be happy there. The problem is that we are told that the same spirit we develop here will rise with us there. (Alma 34:34) In other words, if we gain peace in this life, we will be at peace in the next life. That’s worth pondering.
Having said that, I need to point out that depression and issues relative to similar physiological difficulties that suppress our joy and impede our growth in this life can be an exception to that last statement. I hope NOBODY takes what I have said above as a reason to feel guilty over their struggles to conquer those types of difficulties. I realize completely that there are some things for some people for which enduring to the end is the only course. That’s why medical help should never be stigmatized in any way for depression or other physiological challenges. If proper medication provides a degree of peace for someone, taking that medication is an act of establishing accountability that will be rewarded.
I believe the whole doctrine of accountability is one of the most beautiful in Mormonism. It is SO much more expansive than most people realize. We tend to focus on the “punitive” aspects of accountability (“You are responsible for the effects of your actions when you are accountable.“), but we also should understand more fully the “merciful” aspects of that same principle. (“You are not responsible for the effects of your actions when you are not accountable.“)
We understand this concept as it relates to the “extremes” (children and the mentally handicapped on one end; fully accountable adults on the other end), but we often overlook it when dealing with the “emotionally handicapped” and the “abused” and any others whose thoughts and actions are influenced by things they didn’t choose – things often outside their full control. We are learning more and more about how to treat these things, but I believe there are still so many manifestations of these types of issues that we haven’t even identified completely that “Judge not” (others and often ourselves) becomes an even more vital command.
I am convinced to the core of my soul, that many people who struggle mightily with feelings of guilt and despair do so largely because they are wired to do so (either at birth or through trauma) – that they simply can’t help it. I believe strongly that those people are not “accountable” for their actions during those times of guilt and despair in quite the same way as others are without those episodes. I’m not saying that they are completely free from the responsibility to understand their condition and try to “repent” (simply meaning “change“), but I am saying that repentance in these cases often is more about learning coping mechanisms or taking medication than it is about the classic “exercise of will / faith” often associated with repentance.
If we understood more fully that repentance is a positive thing – a process of growth that includes almost anything that helps us become “righteous” (right / in harmony with God), I believe we could begin to tackle the natural guilt associated with depression and other issues in a much more productive and ennobling manner than we tend to do currently. At the very least, we would stop telling people who suffer from any number of physiological difficulties that they can be happy if they just pray harder and exercise more faith.
Sometimes, simply getting out of bed and facing a new day requires more faith and hope, a greater degree of accountability and a stronger belief in the Atonement than we who do not struggle can fathom.