Depression rates, especially among teenagers, are at ridiculously high levels today. We are surrounded by a society which is constantly giving us criteria, by which we can measure our worth. Academic success, our yearly income, our popularity, our physical attractiveness, the amount of friends we have on Facebook; there is no shortage of things which the world tells us can make us better than the person next to us. But it goes deeper than that. Society does not merely tell us that these things make us happy, it seems to insist that they give us worth and importance. The new paganism of this age is the cult of celebrity, with its pantheon of gods and goddesses of beauty, wealth and popularity who embody everything that we want to be – lucky in love, rich beyond our wildest dreams and admired by millions. They are held aloft as supreme examples of worthwhile people; people who have achieved something, who have made themselves matter. This principle doesn’t apply only on the highest levels of society either – we see the same thing happening in schoolyards: the popular and the un-popular, the cool and the uncool, the smart and the dumb. It seems that our entire culture is shot through with standards of social worth, by which some are praised and valued, and the rest ignored; the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Leaving aside the fact that those we idolise are often themselves miserably unhappy, there is a far deeper, far more sinister untruth hidden within this approach to human worth.
An inevitable side effect of idolising the successful, famous and beautiful is that those of us who are none of these, soon begin feel that we should be, even that we have to be, in order to be worthwhile and important. Many of the mental health issues that are epidemic among us, like anorexia, anxiety and depression, stem from the tendency we have to look up at the ‘haves’ that surround us (the beautiful, the successful and the popular) and devote our entire lives to being like them. The ultimate result is that we have an ever growing number of ‘have nots’ being pushed into the dark and dingy corners of our sphere of acceptance; people that we’d rather forget about. The terrible secret is that they must be pushed aside in order for there to be a clearly defined centre. There is no wealth without poverty, and no beauty without ugliness – there can be no ‘top’ to the social ladder unless there are people at the bottom.
So what is a Christian to make of all this? One of the oldest and most consistent themes in the entire Bible is God’s unique concern for the poor and dejected. In Moses’ Law, God extends His own, supernatural protection specifically to orphans, widows and foreigners (Ex 22:21-24). By Jesus’ time, it was not only the materially poor who elicited God’s concern, but the socially rejected. The tax collectors, the prostitutes, the demon possessed, the lepers – the people who were brushed to the edges to make way for people like the Pharisees. Jesus came to them, because they mattered to Him just as much as did the social elite. They were the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7), the sick in need of a physician (Matt 9:10-12). Throughout the Bible, God reveals that He has a special place in His heart for those whom the fallenness of the world has affected the most.
As God’s servants in the 21st century, I feel that we ought now to broaden the scope of this notion. We must of course keep the traditional categories of the poor and the orphaned, and it is still, as it has always been, our moral duty to provide material aid to all who need it. However, the unique social circumstances of our period have paved the way for a far subtler, but no less sinister category of the repressed: the socially awkward, the physically unattractive, the poor academic achiever, the victim of bullying, the child of the broken family. These are not people in need of money, shelter or clothing; their poverty is not felt in their wallets, but in their self-image. Their sense of self-worth is under unrelenting and hideously cruel assault. When they look in the mirror, they do not see the jewel of infinite value that God and all true Christians do; instead they see something so worthless, and so unlike their true, beautiful selves that they are driven to despair. It is nothing short of criminal that any human being should be left to feel as though they were worth anything less than what they truly are, which is more than any of us can possibly conceive; it is the price of Divine Blood.
Often, we do not recognise those afflicted in this way until it is too late. Our Enemy is cruel and he does not play fair – the social norms which prevent us from approaching the shy person at a social gathering, which prevent us from asking about those we have not seen in a while because of a potentially awkward conversation, these are often the very things which allow the Devil to convince people that they are unwanted and insignificant. To make matters worse, the suffering associated with low self-image is itself a stigma, and as such, people tend to keep it hidden away so that only they know how desperately unhappy they are. They weep silently in their locked bathrooms, they self-harm in the dead of night to drown out their mental anguish with physical pain, and sometimes, tragically, they end their own lives. God created us to enjoy life, to enjoy His presence and each other’s company; that anyone should become so miserable and so lonely that they would willingly attempt to reverse God’s creative act by unmaking themselves is perhaps as far from God’s plan as anyone can possibly go. Let us not kid ourselves – those who suffer from diseases of the mind which can lead to such tragic circumstances are no less dejected and no less helpless than the widows, foreigners and orphans spoken of in the Bible. And to a significant extent, it is our seemingly harmless labels of cool and uncool, success and failure, that facilitate such evils.
So what is to be done? I think a large part of the problem is that we make it so possible for people to forget their own worth. Not all depression can be cured with a kind word, but so long as our appreciation and love for our brothers and sisters remains hidden behind a veil of stoic apathy, there will always be those in whom the Enemy will find fertile ground for his hateful rhetoric. We must make it impossible for any in our number to question their value and worth. The love that exists between us must be so strong, so blinding in its brilliance that no-one among us could possibly doubt that they were anything but a beautiful, unfathomably precious gem, created in the image of God. They must know beyond all doubt that it does not matter what they look like, how many friends they have, or how weird some people think they are. To Christians, such standards are meaningless. If we ensure that people know this, then perhaps the Enemy’s cruel whispers will fall on deaf ears.