It is one of the most sobering things I ever heard when I was in a class on social psychology as a student at Mississippi State University. People who experience mild to moderate depression are usually some of the most realistic people.1 A person who is mildly depressed does not have the egocentric bias that people who are more optimistic about themselves have, as they are more reliable and accurate in various assessments and possibilities. While severe forms of depression are themselves massively distorting with catastrophizing consequences, mild cases of depression typically lack the excesses of clinical depression while also avoiding the positive illusions.
However, with this sense of realism comes another costs: living in a society dominated by optimists. American society has been founded based upon the pursuit of happiness and so, for various reasons, it has been baked into the culture that happiness is actually the default of what it means to be human. As a result, the mildly depression and severely depressed are treated as being the same, depressed, without a real ability to differentiate between the two.
Speaking as a person who most of my life may be considered mildly depressed in a society that attempts to retain its optimism, it has led to many consequences that have then lead to falling into deeper depression based. The biggest difference is the way people who are more optimistic expect a person who is realistic to be in order to be a well-adjusted person. Latent within the culture of optimism is that positive views of oneself make oneself successful. That in order to be successful you must believe you are successful. That in order to receive love, you must love yourself. In short, there is a kernel of a form of a prosperity gospel, you are not something until you believe it to be true.
There is something very real and often helpful about such positive illusions, as positive views of oneself diminish our sense of the risk that accompany various actions have. This simultaneously allows someone to reach greater heights, but at the same time, also puts people in more vulnerable situations that they may not realize at the time. The more intense the positive self-esteem it, the greater the risks and the greater the vulnerability that such people take and are susceptible to. At the extremes of positive illusions, such people win big and they lose big. At the more moderate forms of positive illusions, such people are able to better themselves without taking unreasonable risks upon themselves.
For the potential positives of the positive self-esteem, there is one distinct problem with it: the higher the degree of positive illusion, the greater the hindrance to a person’s ability to learn. At the core of learning is the recognition that one does not know and therefore an openness to receiving and processing information that one does not yet have. However, people with very high views of themselves are often deficient learners. They don’t learn very well from their mistakes. They tend to process the events of their life and other information at their disposal at a superficial level, without deep reflection and consideration. Instead, the have a marked tendency to forget all their losses and keep pursuing the risky goals they have in mind. They can keep repeating the mistakes of the past because they believe.
To be clear, this isn’t as much of a problem for people who have mildly positive views of themselves. People with mildly positive views of themselves are more able to take feedback that contradicts their positive views and then enter into a temporary period of disequilibrium where they lose a bit of confidence and can learn afresh.
However, it is here with the realism of the mildly “depressed” really begins to shine. As the least susceptible to illusions and always feeling gnawing need to grow and learn from the lack of self-satisfaction, the mildly depressed are more apt to engage in a continuous life of learning. They see the world a bit more for what it is and they can explore the significance of all that more deeply. People who are mildly depressed, or at least in my case, live in world of persistent disequilibrium, where nothing is quite settled but life isn’t usually a catastrophe either.
However, as a result, a sense of the personal well-being for the mildly depressed is more connected to their sense of present circumstances. In virtue of being more realistic, they assessment of their place in life is more based upon how life is operating. For them, the emotional buffers are found more in how their life is presently being lived rather than some ingrained sense of their self. This means that the mildly depressed are more susceptible to stress when life circumstances change. Whereas the more optimistic are not phased as much by difficulties, the mildly depressed becomes more deeply hit by negative life circumstances. However, at the same time, the mildly depressed show a greater sense of gratitude and joy with the blessings of life. They neither take life for granted nor do they ignore the problems, but they are more apt to take in the fullness of life, whereas the more optimistic and the more severely depressed are often unable to adequately respond to the negative and positives of life, respectively. The mildly depressed are may able to respond and learn from the full range of life experiences, both positive and negative;
It can be difficult living in a world of optimism, however, as the more advice of the more optimistic, whether they realize it or not, is rooted in the “believe it to see it” mentality. However, so deeply ingrained in the mentality of the mildly depressed is the reality based principle of “see it to believe it” that trying to believe it before seeing it just rubs against something deep laid within them.
If I were to identify one of the disciples with the mildly depressed persona (although we should be careful of applying more psycho-therapeutic categories to ancient persons), it would be Thomas. Often dismissively referred to as Doubting Thomas, the role of Thomas in the Gospel of John is really more so to provide a dose of realism into the narrative. It is Thomas in John 11.7-16 who rather realistically, yet also with a tone of mild depression, utters that following Jesus into Judea will lead to their death (being realistic doesn’t always mean one has the right conclusions). It is also Thomas who is the most inquisitive during Jesus’ farewell speech, seeking to understand how they can know the way to where Jesus is going if they don’t know where he is leaving, to which Jesus in response gives the most emphatic statement of his own identity and authority (John 14.5-7). It is Thomas who, after seeing the wounds of the resurrected Christ, who gives the most emphatic confession of Jesus as the climax of the Gospel “My Lord and My God” (John 20.28). In other words, Thomas is willing to bear his cross and has relatively realistic assessment of the situation (again being realistic doesn’t always mean that one is right but that one is able to learn) that becomes the opportunity for him to then learn often surprising truths, ending with the deepest, most emotional statement about Jesus at the end of the Gospel.
Unfortunately, the derisive view of Thomas as doubting and as a skeptic reflects the pervasive bias of the more optimistic society in the way the the Gospel of John does not portray Thomas. Thomas has a high place of importance in the narrative of John. The inclusion Jesus’ statement about “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come ot believe” in John 20.28 isn’t there to deride Thomas for a lack of faith as much as it commending those who upon hearing the Gospel of John come to faith, who would come to believe through the testimonies in the Gospel, including the testimony of Thomas, in lieu of direct sensation.
When it comes to matters of Christian faith, there is often the sharp predilection to take a “believing is seeing” approach. This isn’t a wrong approach to the Christian life by itself, as Jesus does commend it at the end of the Gospel of John. However, it can become easy to confuse statements such as “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5.7) and “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1) that are about how one lives in the midst of faith with describing the way we come to and deepen faith. In other words, the New Testament does not rule out “seeing is believing” as a way of coming to and growing in faith, but that as one believes, however one comes to believe, this faith directs the nature of one’s life that is not be dictated by one’s immediate perceptions. The “mildly depressed” and others who see to believe are capable of recognizing and understanding truths without them being constantly affirmed once they believe them, but that they may need a truth to be confirm in some manner before it becomes internalized within them.
Speaking in a world often run by more optimistic people, including many of my fellow believers, who often have trouble with those who take a more realistic, less risk-taking approach to life, I invite you to recognize the value and even the gift that the “mildly depressed” present to you as people who can see what the optimistic often overlook, as people who can learn what you might not have learned. In the church, it is often hard being someone like me, as our mentality is often more appreciated in other fields of life the sciences where the value of a realistic attitude can become more readily apparent when reliability and success are more at a premium. Nevertheless, I continue to struggle to help people in the Church to see that the Thomases play a critical role in the confession of the Church and that the more optimistic are often more dependent on those Thomases to give definition and confession to what they feel but not always understand in a way that spans more than they often realize while also helping people know how to reign in the excess of the “believe in seeing.”