Early in my career as a psychologist, I worked with a client who suffered from depression. Knowing that depression is primarily fueled by inaccurate, negative thoughts, I set out to help him change his thinking. Each week he would come in with a very pessimistic view of life. I’d tell him to try to focus on the positive. One particular time, he responded by providing a long list of negatives in the world, including widespread poverty, school shootings, dread health crises, pollution, domestic violence, hatred, ethnic genocide, social inequality, etc. He said, “How can I focus on the positive when there is so much negative all around us?” His answer gave me pause. I didn’t know how to respond. Was he actually correct? Were my attempts to get him to “think positive” simply a naïve overlooking of all the drama, death, and injustice that seem to plague the world every day?
I’ll admit that I did not have a good answer for that client. I’ve often reflected on the role of happiness and positivity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The plan of salvation, that grand blueprint that shapes our mortal experience, is also referred to as the great plan of happiness (see Alma 42:8). Lehi taught his son Jacob that “men are that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). If life is supposed to be happy then why is there so much sadness? Why is depression so prevalent in a world where joy is the design of our existence?
Opposition Is Critical for Growth
Jacob grew up in a pretty crummy environment. He never knew the riches and comforts of Jerusalem having been born after his family’s departure. For all of his life, he was witness to his older brothers’ feuds. Ultimately, he and his family were forced to flee their Promised Land settlement with Nephi and his family for their own safety. When Jacob was yet young, his father taught him about the role of opposition, stating that it is necessary for our happiness (see 2 Nephi 2:11). We were sent to earth to grow and become like our Father in Heaven. This happens, in part, through difficulty and stress. I’ve often thought there is a reason why trials are referred to as the “furnace of affliction” and not the “feather duster of affliction.” You’ll never purify a chunk of metal by lightly dusting it with goose down. It needs to be beaten, forged, and torched in order to be cleansed. Affliction is unpleasant. It is challenging. It can be depressing at times. Yet it is the very means by which we rid ourselves of mortal impurities and develop the strength of character necessary to return to our heavenly home.
A loving Father in Heaven gives us weakness in order to help us choose His Son and His atoning power. “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). Note the pattern: As we come to God, He will show us our weakness. He gives us weakness to encourage humility. If we are humble and have faith in Jesus Christ, our weakness can be transformed into strength. But the weakness comes first. It is through such weakness and opposition that we develop greater celestial traits. And sometimes, that opposition is depression or other mental illness.
We Must Taste the Bitter to Know the Sweet
We have a nice home that is sufficient for our needs but nothing extravagant. One of my sons served a mission in Brazil. I have a distinct memory of him returning home and walking into our house. He had lived in that house for many years prior to his mission, but it was his first time seeing it in two years. With wide eyes and jaw slightly dropped, he said, “Forty Brazilians could live on this property.” I remember having a similar experience after returning from my mission as well. Prior to his experience in Brazil, I’m sure my son thought his home was simply average. After having lived among those who had so little, teaching the gospel in huts that were literally held together with nails and bottle caps, his perspective changed. His appreciation for things improved, but only after he had experienced difficulty and suffering.
Eve had a similar experience. After being cast out of the lovely Garden of Eden, she toiled alongside Adam. She bore children under difficult conditions. It probably would have been easy to say, “Man, what were we thinking? Why did we eat that fruit? We could have been in the Garden now, enjoying the presence of God and not having to worry about where our next meal is going to come from.” Yet Eve, a remarkable and wise woman, saw the virtue in her suffering: “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11). Passing through the sorrow is what created the understanding and potential for happiness. In His wisdom, our Father in Heaven does not shield us from gloom and sadness. He knows that it is through such experiences that we will develop a greater appreciation for holiness and happiness. In His mercy, he also provides relief from debilitating feelings of depression. Although the trials may continue, the Comforter can help us achieve hope and assist in carrying our burdens. While we will all be called to walk the road of sorrow at some point, we are never asked to do it alone.
Trials Create Empathy
After graduating with my doctorate in psychology, I had a brief period of unemployment while trying to find my first job. I had applied at many different agencies—some outside of my developing skill set—as I was eager to find work and continue to support my young family. I got an interview at a substance abuse treatment center. As I sat with the clinical director, she asked me if I had ever used drugs or alcohol. With ignorant exuberance, I replied, “No, ma’am!” She then looked at me over her glasses and said, “How will you be able to understand what these people are going through if you’ve never been through it yourself?” I later came to discover that some of the best substance abuse professionals are those who are in ongoing but stable recovery from their own habits of drug dependence. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
I don’t believe that one needs to have abused drugs to be a good substance abuse counselor, but I do believe that experience is the best teacher around. Do you ever wonder why the Savior was born like the rest of us and lived a humble life? Do you wonder why His Atonement included not only suffering for our sins but experiencing our physical and emotional infirmities as well? (see Alma 7:11-12) Because of His mortal experiences, Jesus Christ has become the ultimate confidant. He knows your sorrows because He carried your sorrows. He knows your grief because He was afflicted with the same. The Savior is able to perfectly empathize with any experience you will ever have. He will be able to comfort you through His Spirit. He will show you the way out of your trials because He has walked the very road you are on. I truly cannot think of anything more comforting than to know that my magnificent Elder Brother is there for me, all the time, ready to help.
As you experience sadness and grief, you will have the opportunity to become more like the Savior. I believe that many of our trials are placed in our path so we can help others at a later point. As you grieve with depression, you’ll wonder why this is happening to you. When you resolve your sadness, you’ll be thankful to be done with it. Then when you meet that person who is going through something similar—whom you are well suited to help because of your prior experience—you will realize exactly why you were called to pass through your trial in the first place. Our difficulties provide the means for us to understand and empathize with our brothers and sisters. In very small measure, we become like the Savior as we help them through their grief. No experience is wasted if we will rely upon the Lord, who will “consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (2 Nephi 2:2).
If you find yourself depressed, sad, grieving, or otherwise distraught, try not to despair. These experiences will prepare you for greater things to come. The world may be full of sorrow, but if we can trust in the Lord and do all we can to keep His commandments. Strength comes to those who honor their covenants. All trials eventually end and can be used for our growth. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).