When people think of Jean Vanier, certain impressions come to mind: member of one of Canada’s most respected families, author, seasoned spiritual guide, founder of the L’Arche communities, which exist to serve mentally dysfunctional adults.
Vanier as psychologist may not immediately register. Yet psychological insight is what he demonstrates in this small, insightful volume on depression. Years ago, Vanier earned a doctorate and taught philosophy at the University of Toronto. He then moved to France, attempting to determine God’s purpose for his life. Eventually he settled in a small town north of Paris, where, during the early ’60s, he established the first L’Arche with occupants from a local mental institution. Today, more than 100 L’Arche communities operate in 30 countries around the world.
For the last four decades, Vanier has learned a lot about himself and others from the immediate experience of sharing life with depressed people. Seeing Beyond Depression is a helpful resource for those who suffer from depression themselves or who struggle with someone who does. He avoids technical language and complex explanations and helps the reader better understand the meaning of this illness.
"Depression has its origins in the wounds of our childhood that we have never wanted to own or to name," he writes. "We have pushed them away into the hidden recesses of our minds, the unconscious self, wanting to forget or even deny them." But these wounds can re-emerge into our consciousness, paralyzing us with feelings of sadness, guilt, and confusion.
Every child experiences some pain, even with the most loving, caring parents. A world of darkness exists in each one, with greater or lesser intensity depending on the sensitivity of the child and the pain he or she has experienced. Depression is the result of all these hidden sadnesses, darkness, and feelings of guilt that have been buried deeply in the heart. All these hidden and repressed feelings resurface in times of depression, without the now-grown-up adult being able to understand where they come from.
All human growth is about learning to let the light penetrate more deeply into the shadow areas of our being; it is allowing trust and love to conquer fear, prejudice, and hate; it is finding the inner strength to live and accept our past just as it is, with its wounds, without escaping into a world of illusions and dreams.
There comes a moment when we may have to look more closely at the powers of darkness hidden within us. If we are to find healing and inner peace we have to face up to the real questions, to put names to them. We should be accompanied by someone who is qualified. Otherwise, we won’t have the strength to look at our shadow areas and cope with them. We will be able to bring into the open early, painful experiences that we have never before looked at and then begin to deal with them.
When we look at our past more truthfully, we demystify it. A new freedom results. We discover more deeply the small, innocent, trusting child within us; the mystery hidden within our being that we have been trying to run away from; and we are liberated to discover new life. Depression, then, will no longer have its power over us.
What makes Seeing Beyond Depression profitable and inspiring is that its author has lived long and intently with what he describes so that his assessments are lucid and his prescriptions credible.
Wayne A. Holst is a writer and instructor in religion and culture at the University of Calgary.