To quit is the greatest sin. This belief has shaped my life, a quest to perfect the religion of "stick-to-it-iveness." My dad, a successful football coach whose teams were famous for resilience, was my high priest in this faith. He himself was merely applying America's creed of gumption: anyone, if he pulls himself up by his bootstraps, works hard enough, overcomes the odds, can become whatever he wants, even President.
I memorized the scriptures. Vince Lombardi's "Winners never quit and quitters never win"; "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." The poem, "Don't Quit": "So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit- / It's when things seem worst that you must not quit."
I held tenaciously to these tenets. For me, as for my nation, to "waffle" was to backslide, and to "stay the course" was to stay pious.
This American religion is aggressively "healthy-minded." This how William James describes faith in a God who has made a world that "is absolutely good" and who justly expects a positive attitude in return.
Until my mid-thirties, I pushed for a healthy mind. But then I found out that too much robustness is risky. Optimism nearly killed me. Despair, morbid as hell, proved merciful, and kept me alive.
I was thirty-five. Heavy depression hit. (Later diagnosed as bipolar disorder). My positive thinking crumbled, but a ghost of it lingered, haunting me with wispy imperatives: bear up, just smile, keep your head up, smell the roses, be thankful for what you have. These whisperings floated through the painful gap of what I thought I should be–happy-and what I was–barely able to get up and eat and go to work.
This rift between the "ought" and the "is" exacerbated the depression. I was sad, but sad that I was sad; I was manic, and manic over the mania. Nothing was good enough. Every day: a new failure.
I tried to hide my condition. I performed well-being; put a good face on it. But the hypocrisy exhausted me. It also alienated me from others, like my wife, who might have solaced me. If they didn't know I was hurt, how could they assuage?
Self-loathing infected me. I didn't deserve to live. I was tired of life. Suicide intoned its seductions, promising an escape, permanent, from the torment.
What saved me from killing myself was the death of hope.
One day, in preparing to teach William Blake—I'm an English professor—I came across the name of a famous mystic, Jacob Boehme, and recalled a spiritual current that challenges healthy-mindedness: negative theology.
A primary assumption of this tradition is that darker emotional states—doubt, confusion, alienation, despair—inspire a deeper and more durable experience of God than contentment does. When we are bereft of secure belief or psychological tranquility, we often give up hope. But in relinquishing this hope, in teetering near nihilism, we also give up our expectations, those frequently egocentric desires that we impose upon the world in attempt to control it, to make it familiar and safe. With these coordinates gone, we are lost, empty. But this void in our core, like an immense cistern, is now open to new influx, living waters.
A too-zealous quest for life crowds out true vitality. Killing the dream creates a space for what is actually alive. Lazarus understood blood only after having his capillaries freeze.
Negation is salvation. Pessimism fosters faith. These dicta compose the religion of the "sick soul," also described by James. To the melancholy believer, healthy-mindedness is shallow "because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life's significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth."
My encounter with this diseased religion did not heal my depression. It did, however, press upon me this possibility: always winning results in losing reality, and accepting loss leads to the strength to embrace what is, no matter how difficult.
Since my macabre epiphany—total darkness calls forth the strongest lights—I have tried to accept my depression for what it is, seeing it not as failure or weakness or curse, but as an integral part of me, like my lungs or larynx, an organ that has made me who I am, with all my flaws and my few virtues.
Having freed my illness from my unreasonable projections, I now realize that it has balanced its afflictions with gifts, such as my love of contemplation, my willingness to endure confusion, my sensitivity to the fluctuations of affection.
Sometimes winning is not everything. It's the worst thing. And the quitters who persevere in their failures: they win it all.