On a bad day I once asked myself, “Why does God get to be God, and I get to be 5’8?” You do not need to be Socrates to ask about the meaning of life—you just need a bad day. That is the great thing about difficulties; they make us ask about the deep, important things: God and life. The risk is that if the answer is slow in coming, the question can become a crisis, or in psychological terms—depressing.
There are many causes for depression, from pathological to psychological. The Holocaust-surviving psychologist Victor Frankl essentially saw it as “a crisis of meaning”. When we can not find meaning in life, there is nowhere to go but down; there is nothing to do but to shutdown. Concentration camps are long gone, but the crisis of meaning persists and is perhaps growing. When US News reminded us in December that 27 million Americans prescribed antidepressants in 2005, and only a third of those found complete relief, you can not but help wonder if Frankl had a point. Either the perfect drug simply has not been invented yet or we need more than just pills to make life less blue. Interestingly enough, the report also said those who include cognitive therapy in their remedies seem to come out with better results. Cognitive brain therapy focuses on helping people to be realistic and avoid exaggerating the negative aspects of life. Think better about life and you will feel better about life. You probably don’t need to be a licensed cognitive therapist to at least give it a shot. You can think, “I didn’t get the job I wanted, I’m totally useless,” or be more realistic and say, “Well, it is true there were 500 people applying for this position, and I still have dozens of other qualities I can put to good use in life.”
Cognitive brain therapy is a great approach whether you are down about life or not. But in really tough times, when the life horizon is completely bleak and we begin to ask those difficult why God questions, the problem may not be just brainy, but deeply spiritual. Sooner or later it comes to “What’s the purpose of it all?” Here, we need more than bubbly optimism to find an answer. As with cognitive brain therapy, we could also use the help of a qualified guide. It’s not easy scheduling a time for a spiritual coach or counselor; but on the Christian calendar, the perfect time has come to us.
Lent is beginning and a man who has everything is about to spend 40 days in the desert. Jesus Christ was the perfect man with the perfect personality, perfect intelligence, and perfectly capable will. He could gather a mega church on a hill with a ten-minute speech and nearly make a Mother Theresa out of disreputables like Mary Magdalene. And yet, at the beginning of his ministry he camps alone in the most abandoned topography in the world—the desert. Whatever happened during those forty days of solitude, it is certain that he came out with more than enough soul to change the world forever in just 3 years time and end with a grand finale of sacrifice by being nailed to a dead tree. When we open the Gospel to the accounts of Christ’s 40 desert days and his suffering we find that the meaning of life goes infinitely beyond personal qualities, careers, and plans. Christ shows us that the best time to discover all that we really have is when we have nothing and feel stranded in a desert. Then, we see that we have—to put it modestly—God. The liturgical and spiritual season of Lent is full of answers to the questions of meaning.
At the same time, there’s also a little Jeopardy in life. The answers we are given determine the questions we will ask. Christ offers answers that help us to think of the best life questions to ask. “Why did God become man and sweat in a desert, when conditions were perfect in heaven? Why did he choose to suffer every type of human pain when he could have redeemed us in much easier ways?” For the Christian, life is full of not just the painful why questions, but also the beautiful ones that don’t leave us stumped and frustrated. So someone could ask why their son went wayward and lose hope. But a better question may be to wonder why God has enough hope to give that son a second chance. In his game show Alex Trebek did not let us choose the answers we would receive, but God does. We can choose to see the apparently absurd and end up in a crisis of meaning; or we can choose to see the absurdness of his love and begin to wonder, “Why has he done all that for my life?” Whether that is a cognitive brain thing, a spiritual approach, or both, it’s the best type of therapy for any bad day.
John Antonio, LC studies for the priesthood with the Legionaries of Christ in New York.
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