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6 Ways Depression Taught Me To Live

Derek Caldwell

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 8:15

Here I stand, obstructing the aisleway, strenuously debating on if I wanted bread. Never had choosing my groceries been such a fearful thing. Ten minutes ago, a doctor was telling me that all my problems were in my head. And now here I am, at Woodman’s Food Market in Kenosha, Wisconsin, under a firmament of fluorescent lights and soft Muzak.

Clinging to the hope that doctors would find a biological cause for my sudden and complete despondency, I had become suspicious of all food items and restricted my diet to only chicken and potatoes. Was the issue gluten? Pesticides? Fat? Sugar? Allergens? Heavy metals? I dropped weight quickly, and my stomach was always in pain. Oddly enough, I did not see the connection.

I’m getting that cheesy bread, I think to myself. When the doctor told me my problems were psychological instead of gastroenterological, I had a moment of clarity: I’m going to die. Depression was ruining my life, and at this lowest of low points, I was certain I was going and ready to go. Nothing had helped. So, what the heck? Eat the bread. It can’t get any worse. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I will—most likely—die.

I didn’t die after I ate all eight of the cheesy breads I bought that day. Not yet anyway. Instead, something very alien happened to me: I accepted death, enjoyed one of life’s pleasures, and, in so doing, stumbled upon a brief window of joy. The journey to recovery had begun.

What Depression Taught Me

Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood by looking backward, but it must be lived looking forward.”[1] True enough, but let’s not forget we must learn from the past, understand it, and make peace with it to live forward. Those who have made their way out of depression probably identify with the Preacher, the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes.[2] Ecclesiastes, David Gibson tells us,

…teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain—our death—and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end.


This poetic book has stumped interpreters for a long time. It sometimes feels like a square peg in the round hole of biblical writings. Some consider it a resurrection-less—that is to say, hopeless—book: what someone would write if they were unsure of the future. I disagree, though, because the Preacher makes what Kierkegaard wrote possible. The Preacher knew that death was in everyone’s future, but his treatment of the topic is not dour at all, but instead sober. Its hope—and there is great hope in Ecclesiastes—is steeped in its acceptance of reality.

I believe the same can be said about depression, which sobers us to the realities of life. While certain aspects of reality are clouded by depression, making them seem worse than they are, certain others are merely hyperbolized to the degree that you can finally understand the severity of the situation. Depression reminded me of my own inevitable death, that I won’t inhabit this space forever, and it helped me realize that I needed to cling to something other than fear about my own impermanence. It helped me make peace with my destiny—teaching me how to live backward.

Looking backward, then, here are 6 ways depression taught me to live.

1. The Fall is Real

Gibson writes that dying well means accepting that “death is the limit God has placed on creatures who want to be God.”[4] In the sorrowful aftermath of the Fall, Adam and Eve lost access to the Tree of Life, meaning that their bodies would go the way of all natural things: perish, spoil, fade. But the reason humankind lost access to the Tree of Life was so that they would not eat and thus live forever in a world of painful toil and bloodshed (Genesis 3:22).

Depression forces you to see a world devoid of hope, forgetting all good and remembering all bad. This is an imbalance, but you aren’t necessarily seeing untruths. History is the recorded memory of mankind thinking itself the arbiter of right and wrong, of life and death, like its ancestors Adam, Eve, and Cain. History is also the chronicle of decay: Every great and wonderful thing falls apart, its emergence from the abyss merely being the first day of its march back toward the sea of non-existence. This is not the world God wanted for us, but it is the world we have created.

2. Death is Coming

Life is a fragile thing. The largest, strongest oak tree can be felled by the smallest axe, just as the healthiest human can suddenly be ravaged by the smallest rogue virus. Disease, warfare, natural disaster, and random “acts of God” are all coming for us. I recently received good news from my doctor after a series of tests: I do not have cancer. Wonderful! But one day, the news will cease to be good. The clock is ticking, every day closer to the last click of the second hand.

3. This World is Not My Home

This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passing through.

My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.


Depression helped me to see that nothing will ever truly, fully satisfy in this world. Some people have everything and feel completely empty. Some people have nothing and feel incredibly full. Yet whatever the contentment, everyone is incomplete at the close of a day. I thought I was full at one time. I had journeyed with Jesus for a while. I knew the answers, said the prayers, wore the Jesus t-shirts. Yet, through a series of catastrophes, I fell, and fell, and fell. I learned that this world is not my home.

Depression can help us peer through facades of happiness and contentedness to see ourselves for what we are: bewildered, forlorn, starved for transcendence and something that lasts. There is, when we can finally admit it, an awful lot we are missing. As CS Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”[6] This world is inadequate, by design, to fulfill our longings.

4. Laughing is Cathartic. So is Crying.

We need both. Many depressed people try to white knuckle their way through pain or drown and numb it. But by refusing to cry, we unlearn laughter and ungrasp wisdom. The Preacher tells us, “It is better to go to the house of the mourning / than to go to the house of the feasting, / for this is the end of all mankind, / and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). The living will lay it to heart. Gibson writes that “only someone who knows how to weep will really know what it means to laugh.”[7] Laughter on the other side of depression is the sweetest laughter, for it is a protest of joy against absurdity, meaninglessness, and loss. It accepts the reality of death while denying its preeminence.

5. Suffering Creates Empathy, If You Let It

Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert, remarking on the sudden loss of his father and two brothers when he was a child, said that there is gain in loss. “You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being if it’s true that all humans suffer.”[8]

Recognizing that the world is not my home, then, is not an excuse to escape it. Rather, it is an invitation to enter it for perhaps the first time, to continue down the rough-hewn steps to the depths of the cave, understand those in the darkness, and walk with them to the light.

I once tried to jump a ramp on my bicycle without having a firm grasp on physics and acceleration. I was eleven years old. About an hour later I was in a hospital learning that my arm was broken in three and a half places. The doctor spoke softly to me some words that appeared utterly ridiculous at the time: “In order for your arm to heal properly, I’ll have to turn that half break into a full break.” I thought I had come to the hospital to be healed, not to be further broken. John Wesley said that the devil wishes people should only be “half-awakened, and then left to themselves to fall asleep again.”[9] It’s hard to sleep through a half-broken bone, though. The pain demands attention. I know now that not attending to the half-break would have led to a weaker, chronically-pained arm, but now—having fully broken the final cracked bone—that part of my arm is stronger than it ever was before. It can withstand more. It can hold more. Depression breaks a heart, but the Great Physician facilitates its regrowth, stronger than ever, making it able to beat for others.

6. I Can Truly Live Because I’ve Accepted Death

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5

Hope amidst depression is not a fairytale to be ashamed of but a hard-fought victory to be celebrated. Accepting this hope in Christ, made strong by the Holy Spirit, allows us to live joyfully in a world that seems intent on killing us. By accepting death in the assurance of resurrection, we receive life and the courage to love all. We become Christlike in that way.

This life is a preface to eternity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants,” by which he meant that only those who do the right thing when it’s the hard thing may in good conscience sing a song to God that He will delight in.[10] Bonhoeffer practically sang to his grave, remarking on his way to the gallows that “this is the end, for me the beginning of life.”[11] True living is recognizing that the beginning has not yet begun.

The Gift of Death

Yes, you read that right. Death is a gift. It is a terrible consequence of sin, sure, but in one sense it became a gift to me in my (ongoing) recovery from depression. The certainty and unpredictability of death released me to life.

Now, I should have already known that—or, at least, I did know it intellectually. The New Testament is clear that it is through dying that we live (Romans 6:4-8; Galatians 2:20). One can still cling to life on this plane. The redeemed still doubt and still tremble at the dread of non-existence. Death is still a haunting consequence even if it is also a merciful release.

Yet I was beginning to learn, and have since learned, the wisdom of Irenaeus of Lyon’s Ecclesiastian phrase, “The business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.”[12] It seems many things we do—from the busyness of binging television shows to the busyness of constant thrill-seeking—is to avoid the reality that death is coming. Death sours our joy. Yet realizing death awaits can be the impetus that helps us enjoy everything fully just as the Preacher commends to us at the top of this article. Every meal becomes a last meal, every kiss the kiss of bon voyage.

Preparing for death means realizing that all of reality is not about you. That the world does not need you and will not miss you or even remember you is a liberation. This seems to be the most countercultural viewpoint one might take today. We are trained to cling to every ounce of life so that we may make our mark and leave our legacy. And isn’t this the evolutionary imperative, to compel our genetic line forward? But all these legacies are like “a whisper spoken in the wind,” writes Gibson: “here one minute and carried away forever the next.”[13]

To say depression taught me these things is really to say that God turns the fires among us into refining fires removing the soul’s dross. It is still a painful hike, remembering the past like hobbling legs remember shrapnel. But sometimes the hike has unexpected pleasures, like the fatalistic consumption of cheesy bread that turns into a reminder that there is still joy in the midst of sorrow. If I’m honest, even with God’s power, sometimes this race is more like the plodding travels of a snail. But rest assured, Beloved, those of slow gain, we shall make it by God’s grace. For “by perseverance,” Spurgeon writes, even “the snail reached the ark.”[14]


I began researching the word ransom in the Old Testament for another project I was working on shortly after finishing the final edits on this article. This search led me to Elihu’s speech in Job 33. Elihu was the one friend of Job’s who got it. He is the one friend not rebuked by God for presumptive and misleading speech, and his words serve as a preface to God’s emergence in the text. Elihu is the hype man before God takes the stage.

As it turns out, Elihu spoke about my journey thousands of years before I lived and wrote about it. I’ve read Job many times before I opened it a few days ago, but it is as TS Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” in 1924:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.


Often when we struggle, we feel alone. But this moment has further convinced me that I was never alone in my struggle. I was walking through a valley, only to emerge on the other side and see His Word, Who had been with me on my Emmaus Road the whole time (Luke 24:13-35), waiting to be discovered once again.

Here now is Elihu.

Surely you [Job] have spoken in my hearing,

and I have heard these very words:

“I am pure, without transgression;

I am clean and have no iniquity.

But [God] finds reasons to oppose me;

He regards me as his enemy.

He puts my feet in stocks;

he stands watch over all my paths.”

But I tell you that you are wrong in this matter,

since God is greater than man.

Why do you take him to court

for not answering anything a person asks?

For God speaks time and again,

but a person may not notice it.

In a dream, a vision in the night,

when deep sleep comes over people

as they slumber on their beds,

he uncovers their ears

and terrifies them with warnings,

in order to turn a person from his actions

and suppress the pride of a person.

God spares his soul from the Pit,

his life from crossing the river of death.

A person may be disciplined on his bed with pain

and constant distress in his bones,

so that he detests bread,

and his soul despises his favorite food.

His flesh wastes away to nothing,

and his unseen bones stick out.

He draws near to the Pit,

and his life to the executioners.

If there is an angel on his side,

one mediator out of a thousand,

to tell a person what is right for him

and to be gracious to him and say,

“Spare him from going down to the Pit;

I have found a ransom,”

then his flesh will be healthier than in his youth,

and he will return to the days of his youthful vigor.

he will pray to God, and God will delight in him.

that person will see his face with a shout of joy,

and God will restore his righteousness to him.

He will look at men and say,

“I have sinned and perverted what was right;

yet I did not get what I deserved.

He redeemed my soul from going down to the Pit,

and I will continue to see the light.”

God certainly does all these things

two or three times to a person

in order to turn him back from the Pit,

so he may shine with the light of life.

Pay attention, Job, and listen to me.

Be quiet, and I will speak.

But if you have something to say, answer me;

speak, for I would like to justify you.

If not, then listen to me;

be quiet, and I will teach you wisdom.

Job 33:8-33 CSB

Thank you, Elihu, for your faithfulness to God. Thank you, God, for your faithfulness to me. To You alone be the glory.

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[1] This is a popular paraphrase of Kierkegaard’s statement, which reads in one translation: “Philosophy is perfectly right in saying life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that it must be lived forward.” See Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, The Essential Kierkegaard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 12.

[2] Traditionally identified as King Solomon.

[3] David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 12.

[4] Ibid., 109.

[5] AP Carter (author, attributed), “This World Is Not My Home,” on Hymnary.org, accessed May 16, 2022, https://hymnary.org/text/this_world_is_not_my_home_im_just_a.

[6] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 136-37.

[7] Gibson, 98.

[8] Cady Lang, “Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper Share a Touching Moment About Grief Together,” TIME, August 16, 2019, https://time.com/5653989/stephen-colbert-anderson-cooper-grief/.

[9] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 1, Third Edition (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 416.

[10] His best friend and confidant, Eberhard Bethge, wrote that this is one of Bonhoeffer’s statements that has been “handed down in oral tradition.” Eberhard Bethge, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews,” in John D. Godsey and Geffrey B. Kelly (eds.), Ethical Responsibility: Bonhoeffer’s Legacy to the Churches (New York and Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1981),71.

[11] Bonhoeffer spoke these words to Payne Best, a British Secret Intelligence Service agent and fellow prisoner on April 8, 1945, after leading a small worship service in which Bonhoeffer read and spoke on texts from his beloved Moravian Losungen devotional. Rather providentially, the texts for that morning wereIsaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 1:3. After a show trial early the next morning, Bonhoeffer was executed. See Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 377, and Timothy George, “Bonhoeffer’s Last Advent,” First Things, December 14, 2015, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/12/bonhoeffers-last-advent.

[12] Irenaeus, Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, XI.Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, XI. In Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (eds.), The Ance-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1885), 570.

[13] Gibson, 20.

[14] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Salt-Cellars (New York: AC Armstrong and Son, 1889), 89.

[15] See TS Eliot, “Little Gidding,” in Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Inc., 2014), 207-08, Kindle.