By John Paul Dove
Learning gratitude through depression
Gratitude is something we probably grow up understanding on a very elementary level — like rote Thanksgiving Day prayers, “Lord, thank you for this day…thank you for bringing us together.”
We know how to return pleasantries to others: “Thank you for the sweater, Mamaw,” “Thank you for holding the door,” “Thanks to all my friends for the Birthday wishes! #blessed” or “I’m well, thank you. How are you?”
I suppose I am certainly no exception to this truth. My walk with God has been marked at times with routine gestures of gratitude — a way to check in and let God know I was still on the team. I think many of us fall into these ruts, not out of laziness or self-centeredness, but simply because we do not know how to go deeper. I could have easily stayed in that place indefinitely, had it not been for my old enemy — my personal demon — clinical depression.
For most of my adult life, I have struggled with bouts of prolonged depression, suicidality and hopelessness. Most well-meaning people will see depression and assume that it is simply the blues, a bad mood or worse — a cry for attention. “Hey, life isn’t that bad,” they’ll say. “Chin up. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
Unless you’ve experienced the physical pain, the brain fog, the inability to enjoy anything pleasurable and the overwhelming desire to check out, you’ll never fully grasp the scope of this mental illness. It is relentless.
Earlier this year I was in the grips of a particularly intense battle with depression. I had been seeing my counselors, therapists and doctors. I was prescribed medicines that eased the serotonin imbalance in my brain. That certainly helped take the edge off, but one counselor gave me a challenge that has radically changed my mindset. He spoke to me about the “discipline of gratitude.”
He said, “Every morning before your feet hit the floor, grab a notebook and write a list of all the things for which you are grateful.” I’ll be honest — this was a difficult task in the state I was in. My lists were fairly short most mornings:
- I don’t feel as bad as I did last week.
- The meds are working some.
- Even though I feel worthless, I know I’m forgiven.
- I’m still fighting.
Over the course of many weeks, though, the lists became longer and more detailed. I was writing two pages most mornings. Gratitude became less of a chore and more of a default mindset. My prayers grew deeper; I found comfort in God’s promises in Scripture. I focused less and less on the flaws within myself, and more on the goodness and faithfulness of God. I began writing letters (snail mail) to people who have had an influence in my life — thanking them for what they have meant to me. My relationships started to transform and blossom.
Depression causes us to dwell on the inner life entirely. When we stay there too long, we see and understand how wanting we are, how depraved — that is a lonely place to be, friends. Gratitude is a way God uses to bring us out of the depths and to show us that we aren’t alone. We are a vital part of His Kingdom — His plan. For that I am grateful.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
~ Psalm 130:1-2
John Paul Dove is a singer/songwriter from Meridian, MS, whose album, “My Son, the Brawler,” is a reflection on the gritty realities of rebellion, betrayal, love and restoration. Check out his music and follow him on social media @johnpauldovemusic.