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“On No Night of This World”: A Quiet War with Depression

Really fighting depression this week. But I wrote a story for times like that, and I will share a piece of it with you.

Polycarp sobbed quietly as he rested on the mute stones, listening to the heavy paws and the wheezing breaths of the thing in the alley. Despair had come to visit him, as it had often done in the years since he came to Rome; each time, it was a little harder to send the beast away. Most often he heard the tread of its paws on nights such as this, after an encounter with the dead.

You are old, the creature whispered. You are old, Polycarp. And there are too many hurts to heal. You are not sufficient for this task.

“My master is sufficient,” Polycarp murmured, too tired even to feel revolted at the grime he felt against his lips as they moved.

But you are here, and he isn’t.

No. Polycarp braced his hands against the stones. I am his hands, his feet. I must stand up.

He swayed a moment, looking out at the tumbled bodies. In a moment of wild imagining, he pictured them placing their hands to the street, even as he was doing, and lifting themselves up. Not as slouching, unsteady dead, but as the living called back. Called back. Any spirit could be called back.

Go away, he told the behemoth. I have no need of you and no time to listen to you, nor to the Adversary who sends you. You are unwanted here, as unnecessary as these bodies, these empty shells that carry no life.

The creature Despair did not fall silent, but Polycarp kept it now at the edge of hearing. He needed to reflect on what had happened in this alley. How severely it had tired him, how vulnerable it had left him. He needed to pray, and think, without the pollution of Despair’s whispered enticements.

That is from What Our Eyes Have Witnessed:

And where a story won’t do, an illustration might. This illustration of a twenty-fifth century Muslim botanist holding in her hands a seed of the first alien vegetation to be discovered by humanity and contemplating the brevity of life…makes me feel strangely at peace, when I am waging my quiet little war with depression. The image is from Ansible: Season One:


I have said before that my writing isn’t a vocation; it is an act of survival. There is some truth to that.

I wrote this, a while ago, about that quiet war:

I am wrestling with bouts of depression lately, the worst that I’ve endured in many years. The same memories and lies and half-lies and half-truths, again and again, in the ears of my heart: You aren’t able to keep your daughter safe. You aren’t able to provide for all of your family’s financial needs. You are a failure. You are alone. You are unloved. You have no impact or point. You are worthless.

Mostly lies. These past three years have been hard, and I feel the fatigue of it. My wife is ill most of this year; we’ve been in and out of the hospital again for Inara; the financial struggles have been as hard as they’ve been unanticipated; not all my projects have been as successful as I would have liked, and that has taken its toll, too, in the emotional pressure-cooker of these past few years.

Externally, matters are a little better now. But inside, now that the adrenaline reaction is past, I feel shriveled up and not particularly useful to anyone. I find what helps most is regular sleep when I can get it, B complex vitamins, reading psalms, evenings watching scifi shows with my wife (though she may be in pain), the laughter of my children, and a lot of writing. In telling stories, I create my own heroes, flawed as they are, to emulate. Father Polycarp hears the heavy tread of the beast Despair on the grimy stones in the alley at his back, hears the winter-cold whisper of its voice, and yet gets to his feet again, each time. Rahel never gives up; she is relentless in protecting and providing for her disabled child. Zadok is willing to chance a run through a field of hundreds of hungry dead because the woman he loves needs that from him. Yirmiyahu, though everything—everything—is ripped from him, keeps his eyes on his mission.

The worst of it is the sharp edge of self-criticism at feeling depression. Depression, after all, might be expected after the tremendous upheavals I and my family have gone through, these past few years. But though it might be expected, it is not rational. The lies my subconscious whispers to me are not rational. So I am harsh with myself: You are depressed, so you are even more worthless.

That digs me in deeper.

Sad as I am at Robin Williams’ passing (may he find peace), it is a strange comfort to know that he wrestled with the dark hours of the night, too. If a man who made as many people laugh as he did, or who touched as many hearts, can wrestle with depression (and to the deep, deep extent that he clearly did), then maybe feeling depressed is not so damning, after all. If my own St. Polycarp in What Our Eyes Have Witnessed wrestled so deeply with depression and yet worked tirelessly to feed the living and redeem the restless dead, then perhaps it is possible to feel worthless sometimes AND YET lovingly provide for your family and yet do great things. Or at least good things.

One thing I know, at least. Whether or not that whisper in the dark hours is lying or truthful when it names me failure, I am all that my daughters have. So I will have to be enough. (And in the language of faith, I would add: Here God has bid me stand, and he evidently loves me and feels that I am enough.)

Writing helps. Even writing this post has helped.

To stay on my feet, I will write, as I always do. Feeling gray, I will go make some beauty. Feeling gray and faded, I will go make some colors.

From No Lasting Burial: “In a cruel world, a boy or a man must find beauty where he can, or hunt after it until he does. Or else the hard edges of life will gut him as a man guts a fish, and toss him wriggling to die in the sand.”

Stant Litore

Things are actually fairly good this season, objectively speaking, though I do bear the weariness of a long, long battle for my daughter’s health. Depression comes without reason and sometimes without obvious cause, and it is an unwelcome guest. When it visits, I throw open the windows and gaze out at unspeakable beauty and let in the howling winter wind and then write fiercely with cold, cramped hands, keeping myself warm with stories while old Despair gets too chilled and disgruntled and finally plods back out of the house the way it came in. Then I shut the windows up, wrap myself in a blanket, and stoke the coals in the fire to fresh flame. Shivering, I warm my hands.

Or I turn up some music and listen to the laughter of my children.

Despair is a shriveled little thing, a deceitful whisper. Its tread sounds heavy, but if you could truly turn and look at it, the old beast would appear as little more than a half-drowned, waterlogged rat, and no terrible behemoth after all.

But since I cannot see it so clearly, I tell stories. Despair’s whisper may be compelling, but not nearly as compelling as Polycarp’s strong compassion, or Yeshua’s insistence that God weeps with us in the desert for every empty belly and every broken heart, or Yeptha’s daughter throwing her arms wide beneath the stars when she reaches the roof of the world, or Rahel’s dauntless loyalty to her sons, or Koach’s ferocious desire to make beautiful things.

On no night of this world will Despair’s whisper ever be more compelling than those things.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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