Each week, I receive 3-4 phone calls from folks who are not members of the church I serve looking for pastoral counseling. Generally, they begin with, “Pastor, I am depressed and was wondering if we could meet.” For many of these people, their income does not permit them to seek out a licensed counselor or psychologist. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not even an accredited family counselor. My reflections should not be heard as a definitive word from an expert, but I’ve talked to many people over the past 22 years of ordained ministry. Depression is a serious issue. All of us go through times of feeling down or unmotivated. Not to discount anyone’s experiences, it is a rather normal part of life and will generally pass. Long-term or chronic depression really requires professional help and may need the attention of medical and/or psychiatric professionals. However, for many of the folks with whom I meet, I wonder if they are accurately describing their situation. Are they really depressed?
This may be a bit off-color for some of our readers, but it is an excellent example of how we confuse our symptoms. Years ago, a friend of mine went to his family physician and told him that he was suffering from constipation. In actuality, his symptom was diarrhea. You can imagine how poorly he responded to his physician’s treatment plan. As his symptoms worsened, he called his physician and explained his plight. His physician asked him if he was sure that his original condition was constipation. On discovering the truth, he asked my friend, “Why didn’t you just tell me that you were suffering from diarrhea?” My friend responded, “I don’t like that word. Constipation didn’t sound so embarrassing.”
Like any good physician, asking the right questions and getting honest answers helps diagnose the problem and determine the appropriate treatment. Here are some questions I ask folks who will too often grow impatient with my line of inquiry.
What are you planning to do tomorrow? Depressed people rarely have goals. Apathetic people will have goals, important goals. That doesn’t mean they are meeting their goals. In many cases, they may sense that their goals are unattainable, unwanted by others or that their confidence in their own abilities to reach those goals has taken a beating. These feelings will often lead to a loss of hope and excitement about the future. In the worst cases, they can lead to existential questions about worth, value, a perceived sense of inability to contribute to their family, job or community. This can lead to depression, but it is not depression, it’s apathy. So, where are you? What are you planning to do tomorrow…next week…next year?
Do you trust your family, your boss, your co-workers, your customers? Trust is a powerful tool in helping us to live a stable, and consequently, a productive life. If we don’t have a sense of trust in our lives, it can lead to apathy. When we don’t trust ourselves, our plans or our co-workers, our subconscious mind will actually set into motion certain responses to protect our emotions. The emotion of apathy is one of those defensive mechanisms. If you don’t think what you are going to do will work or that no one will support you, you simply stop caring. That way, if, or when, you or your plan fails, you won’t suffer as severely emotionally.
In many cases, what most of us are experiencing isn’t depression, it’s apathy. Feeling apathetic is a good sign. It literally means “away from the spirit.” You can still get close to the spirit again. You still have some fight left in you. Begin to move against your emotion of apathy and back to the spirit. Break down your plans into smaller steps and push forward. As you experience some success, your subconscious mind will begin to trust you again. Overcoming apathy isn’t about looking in the mirror and giving yourself a pep talk, it’s about doing something. Change your plan, seek out the advice of friends, learn a new skill, ask God to guide your steps. Incidentally, everything here holds true for both individuals and groups…especially congregations.