Tag Archives: depression

The melancholy undertones of Christmas

The films

In the run up to Christmas, much of the talk over the tv schedule has been about the sequel to The Snowman, entitled The Snowman And The Snowdog. The original is a classic. I am of the right age where I grew up watching The Snowman every single year; it was one of the markers that meant Christmas had arrived. Some families make a tradition of watching the Queen’s speech, but mine didn’t. It’s not that my parents are republicans, they’re not; it’s just ‘one of those things’.

Yet The Snowman, in spite of charming style, visual narrative and the famous theme song sung by Peter Audy (the Aled Jones version was a cover, released 3 years later), it is a story about the death of a grandfather figure. The relationship that develops between the boy and the snowman has many features of that between a grandfather and a grandson. I always recognised my own granddad in that cartoon, at least.

For all its joy and beauty, it ends in inevitable tragedy, with the boy having to come to terms with the death of this figure who was in his life for all but the briefest of moments and who came to mean so much to him.

At the same time, one of the most popular ‘Christmas’ films is Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Again, this is one of my favourite films of all time, but not because I think it is some simple, optimistic tale. The film has a huge reputation, yet I never saw it until I was in my early 20s. It seemed to be ingrained in some sort of collective consciousness, yet I don’t recall it ever being aired on television. Maybe it was on when my family & I were all playing Trivial Pursuit – another hallmark of it being Christmas.

It’s A Wonderful Life is the story of a man who is driven to suicide by events overtaking him. The alternative reality he encounters in a world without him is nightmarish and ghastly, making for some very uncomfortable viewing. I think particularly of Jimmy Stewart’s panic-stricken face in close up as the shock of the alternative world hits him. It’s not a cheery film at all, although I would regard it (along with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) as one of the best films to deal with the normality of mental health issues.

I don’t have space here to go into some of the darker passages of A Christmas Carol, an equally influential work of fiction in the modern mindset.

Pondering

So why is it that such tragic films are entwined with the modern notion of Christmas? I couldn’t hope to answer that fully, but I will venture a few thoughts.

I don’t think it’s going beyond the realm of reason to state that Christmas is seen by many as a time for being with, and celebrating family. Whether that be a “holy family” or one’s own (or both), when I hear people asked questions such as “What does Christmas mean to you?” then family is a noticeably recurring theme in the answers.

Yet Christmas is (incorrectly*) noticeable for being perceived as a time with a high suicide rate. That is not to downplay the suicides that do occur. For those, I would conjecture that part of the cause may be to do with those who either have no family or are estranged from them feeling isolated. It may even be that they are envious of those who they see being part of a family, which only exaggerates feelings of loneliness.

Conversely, for families who have lost members during the year, or who have in the past lost members around Christmas time, then there can be a gap in their togetherness, an empty seat at the Christmas dining table. How we react differs greatly from person to person and from family to family. One of these reactions is to hold on that little bit tighter to what we have. When we experience loss, or witness it in others close to us, then we may treasure a little bit more those who we love, embracing them a little more to keep them safe.

A prayer

Suicides are not the only cause of death. We think especially of the families in Newtown, Connecticut who are facing a Christmas devoid of their children, their lives ripped from them. In the cold winter months, those who are elderly, homeless and those who cannot afford to heat the homes they have are especially vulnerable.  Lord, please show us how we may show practical compassion for those who are in need and grant us the strength of resolution to aid those who are at the sharp end of winter. For those whose loss is keenly felt at this time of year, we ask that you will bring comfort to their family and friends. We may struggle to find the right words or find it hard to be physically present in a time of need, but we ask that you will facilitate the right person to say and do the right things at the right time.

If this has chimed with you, the phone number for the Samaritans is 08457 90 90 90 who are always willing to listen.

*When I investigated this, it turns out that the statistical evidence doesn’t support the popular opinion. Suicides in December are lower than the year average, with the peak occurring around late spring & early summer. Still, one suicide is one too many. Each is a tragedy to be mourned, leaving holes in the lives of many.

A suicide on the rails

I apologise for any typos or lack of coherent thought in this post. I am typing this in a short space of time as I try to gather my thoughts. Last night all the trains on the line I use to get home were heavily disrupted. The reason was because a person was hit by a train; in all likelihood, a suicide. This is a reasonably common occurrence on this line. I delayed leaving work and stayed a few hours late (having arrived a couple of hours early in the morning), but managed to get home in a reasonable time. As usual, I buried my head in a book on my commute. Only this time, what I was reading was resonating with my surroundings. The section of the book I got to was a long suicide note. I haven’t yet finished it, but I couldn’t help but overhear the chatter on the train.

There were phrases used like “inconsiderate behaviour” or “thoughtless act” and all I could think was this: which is more inconsiderate: to end one’s life or to not care as to the reasons and circumstances why someone might do it. I don’t know the person’s identity, so I don’t know if I ever knew them. But I have had friends attempt suicide before, some unsuccessful, some successful. Today there is most probably a family grieving and friends wondering what signs they missed, digging through their memories in search of a reason.

When we have no direct connection with another human being it becomes far easier to be judgemental (not that it’s particularly hard, otherwise) and to treat them as something other than a valued individual. This is something J. B. Priestley in his play, An Inspector Calls. There may 1, 2, a dozen or hundreds of people I pass by every day who may be in a very dark place yet managing to mask it, while inwardly crying out for someone to understand them, to accept them, to love them.

Round-up of interesting stuff.

It’s been a while since I did a roundup of interesting stuff to look at, so here are a few snippets that have caught my eye:

The Guardian’s religion correspondent, Riazat Butt is currently writing a series from Afghanistan entitled “Religion on the frontline” where she is spending time with troops in the desert.

Have recently come across Rogue Stardust, who has an excellent quality of writing. Here’s a particularly good post on depression.

The New York Times has a fund little feature on “name that scientist” – I scored a paltry 5/10 (and a couple of those were guesses)

Phil’s Treehouse ponders the question, who actually saw England become the world no. 1 in Test Cricket?

Meanwhile, something caught my eye, but not the reasons you might expect. The web’s friendliest atheist, Gurdur (who is also the wearer of the most awesome hat – seriously, have a look), has had a disagreement with someone on twitter. It just so happens that it was a bloke I went to school with some 20 years ago! And considering it was a small, private Christian school that has since shut down, having only turned out a few hundred students in its ~20 year history, I marvel at how small a world it can be sometimes!

The Independent has a roundup of the best acts from the Edinburgh Festival, in which WitTank get a favourable mention, although the paper have sadly overlooked the excellent Gentlemen of Leisure.

And to finish, something utterly silly which I hope will delight: an orang-utan on a bicycle! However, note how the article and the picture don’t quite line up with another in terms of the safety message.

Book Review: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

I read this as a follow-up to Lewis’ earlier work, The Problem of Pain for an alternative look at theodicy. My understanding of the history of these two books was that Problem was writing prior to Lewis’ wife dying and that Grief was written afterwards, after Lewis was unable to find comfort in his own words. I am also of the understanding that Grief was initially published under a pseudonym and Lewis only revealed himself as the author after a number of friends had recommended the book to him.

My own reasons for reading this now, as hinted at in my look at Problem, was that a close relative of mine died recently. This was a few weeks ago now, and we have had the funeral, ready to move on with our own lives now. A Grief Observed is a book that is often recommended as one to read during such a period of loss.

It has to be said that the book is extremely short (only 59 pages, fact). It is probably appropriate to state what the book is not, as much as what it is. It is not a detailed product of careful study or a complete thesis on the subject of dealing with grief. Lewis was merely trying to gather his thoughts into some semblance that would make sense. His extraordinary erudition and lucidity are what make it a great book. I found myself at many times reading in print thoughts that had been half-articulated in my own mind.

At such an extreme time of emotional stress, Lewis does what is only natural, and that is to question all that he believes in. Rather than throw all his beliefs out, he not only asks the questions but searches his soul for the answers. What results is one of the most honest of writings, where Lewis shows us a glimpse of his true soul. It is a level of honesty and openness that very few people ever dare to write publically, and one that I could only aspire to.

In spite of its brevity, it is an immensely rich book and incredibly thought-provoking. It is not a huge time-investment to read it, and the payoff is worth it. I would have no hesitation is recommending to anyone, whether in a time of grief or not.

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel is a fantastic work of literature, though not for the reasons you might expect. The start of the novel is nothing particularly special, though as the story progresses, there are vignettes which begin to appear giving insights of extraordinary self-awareness. The main theme that Plath explores is the isolation felt by someone going through depression and breakdown, which is very hard to express to those on the outside looking in. One of the ways in which she does this in the book is by having a variety of secondary characters who often seem to appear out of nowhere and then disappear quite quickly, only to reappear later on with little connection to their earlier cameos. Yet in these, there is the sense that the characters lack depth. This is quite a deliberate move by Plath, not an example of poor writing. When your world is insular and suffocating in an intangible bleakness, other people become two dimensional and plastic.

As the novel progresses, there are seeming gaps in the narrative where you suddenly find yourself in a whole new scene just seconds after having been somewhere else in an unresolved situation. This again is a way in which Plath sees the world, with yawning gaps in memory, something that is very common in people with depression. Once the reader has adapted to this writing style, the work is an utterly moving piece of literature. For the most part, I read this on the train over the course of a week, and at times had to dab the odd tear from my eye and try and disguise it from my fellow commuters.

* spoiler warning below*

As someone who has suffered from depression at times myself, there was much here to identify with, and it brought back some memories from a very dark time in my life. There is a point in the book where it all seems to have to a head and the deepest of fogs is taken to its logical conclusion. Knowing that Plath took her own life shortly after the publication of the book, it reads horribly like a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, perhaps in an effort to sanitise the book slightly, Plath pulls out at the last minute and gives her character a way out, with renewed hope, albeit with an uncertain ending. This does give the book an air of optimism that feels slightly out of place and I can’t help but wonder if it might have been better had the book ended in the coal cellar.

To anyone who has ever suffered with depression, this is an absolute must read, and also to those who have ever had to try to support and understand someone else who has.