In the novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Gail Godwin creates a narrative of a priest who is prone to bouts of depression, who earns the nickname “Father Melancholy” from his parishoners. Throughout the book, Father Melancholy describes his depression as getting lost behind a Black Curtain, and he can’t find his way out. When encouraged by his wife to take antidepressants prescribed by his well-loved doctor, Father Melancholy says that he wants to get to the bottom of it, to “look the damn thing in the face… to help me see… well, I don’t know what,” so that he could emerge triumphant.
His emergences in the novel are always sudden. The passage that struck me most about his emergence was when he told his wife that “these mashed potatoes are creamy and delicious, the ham is tasty, and I have a new book from the library I’m looking forward to reading later.” And as a firsthand sufferer of bouts of depression, I can assure that these sudden emergences sometimes happen; you don’t realize how much better you feel until the moment hits you like a smack to the head that life is, indeed, a beautiful and blessed thing.
What strikes me most about Godwin’s novel, though, is that she never draws Father Melancholy’s bouts of depression to the story of Jonah and the whale. It seems so obvious: Father Melancholy gets lost behind his Black Curtain, much as Jonah was swallowed by the whale. They both spend a time in darkness, aching and wishing for light to come, and desperately praying. And suddenly, the whale vomits Jonah onto shore, just as one evening Father Melancholy realizes that his mashed potatoes are creamy and delicious, and that he is looking forward to reading his new book.
And what about our need for these dark moments, for these times in the belly of the proverbial whale, that we may eventually emerge on the shore to see the world in a different way? So much research has been done on diagnoses of “mental illness” – be it depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. – in those involved in the arts. Nancy Andreason, a physician-neuroscientist who has studied the correlation between creative persons and mental illness states an interesting perspective to our need for these dark moments: “Did mental illness facilitate [their] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship? Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties? Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?”
So is mental illness – depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mania, or even alcoholism and drug abuse – a precursor to creativity or simply something that comes with it? Do artists of any type spend their time in dark periods so that they may be spit upon the shore and gain a new perspective with a beginner’s mind? Is this why people of such creative genius are able to make amazing connections that many have never thought of before? Does mental illness allow creative persons to feel more deeply and bring those feelings to the rest of the world in new, beautiful, and amazing ways? Do our dark periods, as Jonah in the whale’s belly, ultimately become a gift to us so that we gain a new perspective?
Perhaps we all need to be as Jonah; take a dark period to really examine ourselves with no distractions, no light – just ourselves in an enclosed, quiet, and completely solitary environment. And once we realize the Lord’s call for us, may we be spit upon the shore and see the world with clearer eyes and a more open heart.