We don’t often talk about the courage required to face ordinary life. Such common human challenges as sorrow, despair, anxiety, and mental illness may cause us to experience life more as a burden than a gift. For many, this struggle is a constant one.
In his new book, On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden & Gift of Living, author and professor Alan Noble considers the challenges that face each one of us every morning. He concludes that the simple decision to engage with the world each day constitutes a declaration of the goodness of God.
We held an Online Conversation with Alan on Friday, April 14 to explore the burden of everyday life in light of the faithfulness of God.
Online Conversation | Alan Noble | April 14, 2023
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Molly. And let me just add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Alan Noble on “The Burden of Living and the Goodness of God.” I’d also like to add my thanks to our sponsors, David Campaign and Byron Carlock, who are supporting today’s Online Conversation. We really appreciate your generosity and support.
And we’re delighted that nearly 1,500 of you have joined us for today’s discussion. And just appreciate the honor of your time and attention. I’d like to send a special shout out to our 147 first-time registrants joining us today, as well as our international guests, joining us from at least 29 different countries that we know of. So welcome from across the time zones and all over the world. And if you are one of those first-time attendees or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space for leaders to engage life’s biggest questions in the context of faith and ultimately come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s discussion will be a small taste of that for you today.
In an age of competitive and curated social media feeds, filters, and image management, it can be easy to assume that those around us are all very busy leading exciting, enviable, successful lives, perhaps not entirely without difficulty or challenge, but ones where challenges channel into growth, obstacles are stepping stones, and setbacks are temporary.
But the reality is that all of us will suffer in this life, and between the state of the world and the state of our own minds many of us face not only the acute pain of loss, bereavement, or injustice, but also carry burdens that are both huge and hidden, crippling to the sufferer and confusing to those closest to them. In fact, the National Institute of Health found that—just very recently—nearly 10 percent of Americans had experienced a major depressive episode just within the last year. And over 30 percent will experience clinical anxiety at some point during their life. Far more people will struggle to care for, love well, and live with those who are suffering. As our guest today has written, life is far more difficult than we let on.
So what does it mean to affirm the goodness of God amidst the burden of suffering? How do we walk in faith when we dread getting out of bed? Our guest today has written compellingly of the ways in which doing the next right thing, even in the midst of despair or depression, is itself a witness to the goodness of God and a means of grace. And he explores the way in which our call to faithfulness is not a solo journey, but that it’s by carrying and being carried by others that the pilgrim can make it home.
Our guest today, Alan Noble, is an associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He’s also the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Christ and Pop Culture, and a writer whose works have appeared in The Atlantic, Vox, BuzzFeed, First Things, Christianity Today, and the Gospel Coalition, among many other publications. He’s also a co-founder of the evangelical political organization Public Faith and a member of the leadership council of the AND Campaign, as well as an author whose works include Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, and his latest work, which will be officially released within the next week, On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden and Gift of Living, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.
Alan Noble: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Cherie Harder: Well, we’re really looking forward to talking with you. As we start off, I wanted to ask you about the subtitle of your book, “The Burden and Gift of Living.” And it kind of speaks to an idea that you have developed in some of your earlier works, which is, it seems like increasingly more of us describe our days as something we get through. We just try to get to the end of them, as if life itself has become a sort of burden. And it was an idea you explored in your last book. But in this book you give indications that you yourself have struggled with that kind of dis-ease or burden, and you adopt a different approach to some of the questions you raised earlier. So as we start, I just wanted to ask what led you to write this particular book?
Alan Noble: Yes, thank you. That’s a great question. So I have my own personal struggles, which I won’t get into, but they certainly were in the back of my mind while I was writing this. But I was also witnessing—at the time I was editing You Are Not Your Own—witnessing a lot of people struggling with mental health issues, whether it was my students or just people in the general population. It was right during COVID that I was editing You Are Not Your Own, finishing up the final edits, and I wrote a piece—I had written a piece—an essay, that this book is based on called “On Living” that explored the question why live? And it resonated with a lot of people. In fact, I had published it and for months later I was still getting emails from people saying that it had helped them. And when you’re writing a book—when you’re editing a book, I should say—you’re pretty sick of it. You were no longer convinced that it’s any good. And so while I was editing one book, I was getting emails about an essay saying, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written. This is really helpful. This is really helping me during this time of need.” And so I said, “Maybe I should just write that book instead.” And so I did.
And as you say, it addresses some of the same questions that I’ve addressed in my previous books, but it doesn’t ask any of the sociological questions or provide any sociological answers really. I want to set those aside and instead of exploring why we have a mental health crisis—which is a great question, and I’ve touched on it in previous books—I wanted to just consider, well, given the fact that we do have a mental health crisis, how do you get out of bed?
Cherie Harder: Yeah, you know, one of the points that you make kind of over and over in the book is just the pervasiveness of invisible suffering. I think at one point you say, “Get to know a person really well and you will almost without fail get to know a person who routinely struggles to get out of [bed] in the morning.” And so I may kind of dip my toe into the sociological aspects that you just mentioned. But, you know, one of the things it seems like is happening is at the very time when some of the visible, concrete, very understandable forms of suffering are in some ways being alleviated—as one example, 150 years ago, it was very common for parents to have one or more of their children die, whether as babies from illness, whatever it is. It still, of course, happens, but happily, mercifully, it’s less common for that to occur. At the same time, the amount of both reported, as well as sort of evidenced, depression and anxiety seems to be going through the roof. You know, I saw a study recently saying that among teenagers between essentially 2015 and 2021, there’s been an 150 percent increase in depression for teens. And why does suffering seem to be so much more pervasive now than perhaps it seemed 100 or so years ago?
Alan Noble: That’s a great question. So I’m going to give the answer that I give in my second book, You Are Not Your Own. I think that we live in a time where the basic assumption about what it means to be human is that we are our own and belong to ourselves. And the problem with that is that it’s a burden that none of us can really bear. It overwhelms us. It’s too much. We end up having to create an identity, a purpose, values, meaning, and a sense of belonging all on our own shoulders. And we have to carry this. And I think young people feel this acutely, particularly because of social media. We live in a highly competitive society. So if you believe that you have to create an interesting and exciting and enviable existence, and you go online, you’re going to discover that there are more interesting, more beautiful, more exciting people all over the place and you really don’t have a chance. You really can’t compete. So while it’s true that we’ve been freed from some of the real material sufferings that previous generations faced, that has freed us up to have other, more internal suffering. And that’s what I think we’re experiencing.
Cherie Harder: Part of the way that we often try to deal with that kind of internal suffering that you have mentioned is through what you call technique. You know, you do a certain thing and you use a rational method to kind of get a certain outcome. And in many ways, that makes sense. We will probably be doing better if we eat healthy food and get enough sleep and occasionally work out and see our friends than if we don’t. [You] also mention that there’s not only limits to what technique can do, but in many ways placing hope in technique can actually exacerbate suffering. How so?
Alan Noble: Yeah. So technique, as you point out, is defined by one of my favorite thinkers, Jacques Ellul. I judge thinkers by their names and his name sounds great. Jacques Ellul.
Cherie Harder: It does sound pretty cool.
Alan Noble: And so he says technique is “rational methods for maximizing efficiency.” So any time we do this, as you mentioned, things like exercise programs or dieting or sleeping a certain number of hours or taking walks and getting certain amount of sunlight so that we can maximize our productivity—all of these are examples of techniques. And a technique is not in and of itself problematic. But what a society governed by technique can do is it can train us to think that whatever problems we are experiencing can be solved if we just find the right method. It’s the right self-help book, the right guru or life coach or YouTube guru or whatever it might be. But there’s some answer to the question. You just have to find it. But that’s not how the real world works. And so what can happen to you is you feel like, if I have a problem, it’s my fault because I didn’t find the right program or I didn’t do the diet properly or I didn’t take the right supplements or whatever it might be. And so there’s this turn inward, this blame inwardly, when you experience results of, really, the fall, just living in a fallen world, living in a world where there is corruption and decay and sorrow and mourning. So technique is not in and of itself wrong. As you say, it’s good to exercise. But when we put our hope in technique, which society asks us to do, we’re inevitably going to be let down. And then we turn that let-down into self-accusations.
Cherie Harder: One of the things that kind of struck me in reading your book is how we are so naturally attuned to tuning inwards. And you make essentially a sustained case for turning outwards—both vertically and horizontally. And one of the things that struck me is, while our suffering often seems isolating, even at the bottom of our isolation, what we choose to do—whether or not we want it to—actually does have a communal impact. And you wrote about, I think you said, “We almost never take the witness of our actions seriously enough. My every decision communicates to people around me something about the nature of God, the goodness of his creation and his laws.” I wanted to ask you about that, in that, you know, going back to sociology for a second, we do know that when people make choices, when they choose self-harm, there actually is a contagion effect that people around them are more likely to do the same thing, whether it’s almost a permission slip or simply a modeling, that there is kind of that impact. And would love to hear you kind of talk a little bit about what it means to bear witness to the goodness of God when one is in the midst of being burdened by struggles that perhaps others don’t see or understand.
Alan Noble: Yeah. And this is one of the criticisms of the book or one of the challenges of the book. You know, in the subtitle, it does say “the burden and the gift of living.” And there is a burden to life. You are your brother’s keeper. You didn’t ask to be. I didn’t ask to be. But people watch me. People watch me—people in my family, my friends, my students, my colleagues, strangers on the street. People around me are watching me all the time, and they’re watching to see how I respond to this world. I didn’t sign up for this, but there it is. And someone could read the book and say, “Well, Alan, you’re putting an additional burden on people who already feel tremendously burdened. You’re guilting them into thinking about other people when they can barely get out of bed or maybe they can’t get out of bed.”
And my response to that would be—I’d have several responses—but one of the responses that I’d focus on now is that, actually, although it is a burden, it is a challenge to think about how your actions affect others, it’s also something that is exciting. When you are in a period of great depression, for example, one of the first things to go is a sense of purpose. You feel like your life is meaningless, that you don’t offer anything, that you can’t contribute anything. And one of the things I want to remind people of is that actually you can. You, just by choosing to go through the basic motions of life, you are affirming to other people that this life is good. And just putting your feet on the ground and getting up despite the suffering you might be experiencing communicates to other people that this life is worth living even when you are suffering. And that’s a powerful witness. There are children, there are adults, there are family members, friends, watching you, looking to see how you are going to respond to suffering. And when you respond affirming life, that gives them hope.
And so one of the things I remind people in the book is that you might doubt your own life’s purpose and meaning, but very often, even in those moments, you can see the meaningfulness of other people’s lives. So if you recognize that your daughter’s life is meaningful, that your spouse’s life is meaningful, that your friend’s life is meaningful, help affirm the meaning of their life by affirming the meaning of your life, by getting out of bed and going through and doing the next thing that you need to do.
Cherie Harder: You know, as you’re talking about this, I can’t help but think about the fact that loneliness is itself a form of suffering and it almost always attends and exacerbates any other form of suffering we face. And, of course, reported loneliness is significantly on the rise and perhaps especially among young people. And I can see someone thinking, you know, in regards to kind of what you just said, well, part of the problem is they don’t feel connected to others to begin with. They don’t feel like other people are watching or care or that they’re somehow connected. What do you say to the those who feel very much like they are suffering alone and their suffering is added to that loneliness?
Alan Noble: Yeah. So first of all, I would say I understand. I recently had essentially all of my close friends move away for various reasons, and that’s a tremendously difficult thing to go through because even when you can communicate with someone through text or the phone, there’s something about being embodied with somebody else and bearing each other’s burdens that way that is irreplaceable. And so it’s hard. And I do think—I recently wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition about this—I do think that the contemporary world makes it very difficult for us to have friends. And as I’ve entered middle age, I’ve realized that I have to be just as intentional as I was when I was younger about finding a spouse. I have to be that intentional about finding and keeping friends, because the hectic nature, the competitive nature, of the modern world just militates against close friendships. We’re just taught to move as much as we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, for jobs and these sorts of things. And that makes it— you know, it’s just not conducive to deep friendships.
But I was recently talking with Curt Thompson, who’s written the book The Soul of Shame, and he’s another IVP author. And he was telling me— he pointed out to me— I asked him a similar question and I think he gave a great answer because he said, “You know, when Jesus went around calling disciples, some of them said no. And he kept asking.” And that’s what we have to do with friendship. Friendship is hard in the modern world. People are afraid to be vulnerable because to be vulnerable is to potentially lose your competitive edge. And so what we have to do is be like Jesus going from person to person, seeking out people who seem to be the kinds of people who could be friends and intentionally ask them, “Will you be in a deep friendship with me?” And it’s going to be awkward and uncomfortable for some of us like me who are introverts. But if we’re not intentional, we are going to be alone.
Cherie Harder: What you’ve just prescribed makes me think about the fact that I’m struck throughout your book how you consistently advocate not analysis or reasoning with oneself—it’s almost always concrete, practical, modest action. Yeah. It seems like over and over you simply say, “Just do the next right thing.” And a lot of us are in our head a lot and really kind of conceive of much of our spiritual life, too, as being sort of in our heads. So would love to hear you talk about why you advocate action, even simple, modest action, over analysis or even reflection or contemplation.
Alan Noble: Yeah, I mean, those sorts of things have their place, reflection and contemplation. But if you find yourself in a period of deep depression or anxiety, then staying in your head more is often not what you need to do. Depression and anxiety can pull you inward to yourself and to your fears and to your sadness. And what we need, one of the things that we need, is an opening up and a moving toward others in action. And part of that moving toward, by the way—I’ll just say because it’s a reminder that many of us need—can be a moving toward professional help, especially if you’re feeling acute and sustained suffering, mental suffering. I strongly encourage psychology, psychiatry, seeing a good therapist. That can be one of the next right things that we do. But we need to move. We need to move.
And during those periods, one of the things that can happen is that it feels like any kind of big project is impossible and overwhelming. You know, planning meals for the week sounds impossible. Finishing a project at work feels impossible. Caring for other people in some meaningful sustained way might feel impossible. And so when you find yourself in that position, it seems to me that just focusing on doing the next thing is what we need to do. So maybe you can’t plan meals for the week, but you can ask yourself, what can I eat for breakfast? I’m going to do that. And maybe imagining helping a friend move or helping a friend with some big life crisis seems overwhelming. But picking up the phone and calling them might seem like a concrete step that you can do, that is manageable. And so I think breaking things down to minute, simple, basic steps: I’m going to walk the dog. I’m going to feed the kids. Or walk the kids and feed the dog. Or whatever it might be. But just concrete, simple things—”that’s what I’m going to do”—makes life manageable in those periods when life feels unsustainable.
So I think that’s— it’s advice I often give my students who are overwhelmed with big life choices: Who should I marry? What kind of career should I get into? What kind of major should I have? How do I interact with my parents? Who should my friends be? All these sort of big life questions. How do I understand my faith? And very often that can lead them to just freeze up. And so one way to break out of that frozen state is by just chipping away little by little.
Cherie Harder: I have heard that there is a real resurgence of interest in the Stoics among college students. And I wanted to ask you how your approach is different from the Stoics. What is explicitly Christian about the one-step-in-front-of-the-other? How does that distinguish itself from a kind of an up-by-your-bootstraps Stoical approach?
Alan Noble: Yeah, no, that’s a great question. So, yeah, it can sound very Stoic: “Just do the next right thing.” But for the Stoics, it’s just do the next right thing for the sake of doing the next right thing. There’s no metaphysical or ontological basis for doing these sorts of things. And what I want to say is that we do the next right thing for the glory of God, and that gives us hope. So for example, if you tell someone, “It’s really important to get sunlight, get exercise, eat meals, and be with other people so that your mental health is better.” That’s true. All of those things are true, but that’s fundamentally taking good things and turning them into techniques. And what I want to say is, well, we do those things because they’re glorifying to God. And they are going to have those effects; they are going to help you mentally. But we do them because it’s honoring to God to eat good food that glorifies him, to walk in the sun that he created and sustains and preserves, to be with other people that he’s made in his image. And so the major distinction that I would make is that we’re doing these things to the glory of God rather than for their own sake or for the benefit that they bring us.
Cherie Harder: In addition to the people, the many people, who are suffering from either depression or anxiety, there’s also their loved ones who just may not understand why is it so hard? Why is this person that I adore and feel like they have so much to live for, why are they staying in bed? What do you say to the loved ones and friends of those suffering, especially when the cause of their despair may seem hard to understand?
Alan Noble: Yeah, that’s one of the most difficult things. Like, when you can see somebody who’s broken a leg, for example. You could see the broken leg. The bone is protruding or something. Not to get too graphic, but, you know, you could say like, “Okay, there it is.” Right? There’s a thing, and it’s clear that this person is suffering. And I can understand. I don’t know their pain intimately because I am not currently experiencing that. Even if I’ve broken a leg in the past, I’m not currently experiencing it, so there’s a disconnect. However, I can totally see why you would be suffering in this way. That makes complete sense.
But with mental suffering, you don’t have really any access to it. The sufferer can describe it or they can try to describe it, but it’s not the same as being there and experiencing it yourself. It’s not even close to it. And when they communicate it, sometimes it feels just self-evident that they’re wrong: “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t be that depressed. Your life is actually beautiful. You’ve got a wonderful family or friends or a great career or— It doesn’t— No, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong. So why are you suffering?”
In addition, you know, when— I tell this story in the book, but I had herniated discs in my neck. And when that happened, I had a three-year-old and a newborn and I had to wear a neck brace for three months. And the doctor said, “Okay, Alan, you can’t lift more than 10 pounds. And my son, he was a big kid when he was born. So both of my kids, I couldn’t pick up for three months. And on the one hand, that was really difficult for my spouse. My wife was frustrated by that. But she knew that for our family to function well, I had to get well. And for our family to function well, I had to not take care of my kids in a certain kind of way. I couldn’t pick them up. There was a weight limit. And there was something reassuring about that for both of us. But with mental illness, very often you don’t know how much agency you have. You don’t know where your depression or anxiety ends and your agency begins, or even if there is such lines. And that can make it difficult, I think, for a spouse to sympathize because they know that it’s possible that you could try harder, that you could do more to get healthy or to act in healthy ways. And that creates a real stress.
Cherie Harder: In just a minute, we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. But before we do, I wanted to ask you the question that you pose repeatedly in your book, as this being the central question of the book, which is why get out of bed? I mean, ultimately it’s the question “why live?” And I’m sure there are people watching who have struggled with depression and have wrestled with that question themselves. And so I guess turnabout is fair play. I want to ask the question that you pose, which is why get out of bed?
Alan Noble: Yeah, I think the answer to that, one of the answers to that, one of the main answers that I give in the book, is the one we discussed earlier, which is that we bear witness. We didn’t ask for this, but it’s true that when we choose to bear our sufferings and carry on, to get out of bed, to make breakfast, to take care of these basic things and go through life, we communicate to other people that this life is beautiful, that it’s good, that even though we suffer, it is still fundamentally good. And that is going to give other people hope when they are in periods of great suffering and they ask that same question. They’re going to be able to look at you and look back on your experience and think, Okay, it’s possible and good for me to endure this suffering and carry on even though it hurts, even though it’s hard, even though I’m depressed or anxious or whatever it might be. And so I think one of the reasons that we do that is that by persevering, we declare the goodness of life to other people, and that encourages them to continue to persevere and recognize the goodness of the life that God has given them. That’s the fundamental truth. God has given them. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers now. And just as a reminder, if you’re joining us for the first time, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A feature, but you can also “like” a question. And that gives us a better sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So a question from Michael Lundy, who writes, “Saint Paul said, ‘For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ, we share abundantly in comfort, too.’ Why has this ‘feature’ of the Christian life been so neglected in our culture? How can we reconnect suffering and comfort?”
Alan Noble: Hmm. That’s good. Yeah, well, I mean, the comfort part we’re much more comfortable with—that [pun] was not intentional—but it feels safer than the suffering part, particularly as American Christians. American Christians feel—very often evangelicals—feel a pressure to be happy, to be content, to be joyful. And there’s a sense in which if you go to church and you are not smiling and clapping and happy, then there’s something wrong with your faith. You don’t have enough faith. You’re not honest enough. Which is fascinating from a historical perspective because that’s just not been the history of the church. The history of the church has been a history of suffering. And we see that with Paul, for example, in that quote. So I think that’s part of the reason is that we have gotten this false view that to suffer is to have too little faith. And so we need to push back on that.
And we push back on that, I think, by being vulnerable with each other, by creating confessional communities. Curt Thompson calls them confessional communities. These spaces of people who intentionally share their burdens and bear each other’s burdens. And in my experience, if you have a community that’s not confessional, where there’s not this sharing going on, then you probably need to be the one who takes that first step of vulnerability. Because once somebody crosses that bridge, then others are going to join them.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Neil Hilderman, and Neil asks, “How can we as Christians engage our culture in helping them recognize—speaking the truth in love—that the roots of the mental health crisis are in the bad philosophies we’ve allowed to be adopted. Our leaders will talk about the problem, but never touch the root.”
Alan Noble: Yeah, that’s so— This sounds like a sales pitch, but I quite intentionally, with my second book, tried to make this appeal. I tried to give an account of the modern condition, including modern anxiety and depression and mental illness, that hopefully winsomely and compellingly invited people to consider, to read, the crisis in a philosophical lens or an anthropological lens, actually, to see those root causes. Because I think that’s exactly right. I think that we tend to take these problems and cast them in certain ways that are inadequate, that are superficial.
Now, that said, I do want to note that the current mental health crisis is not what we would call monocausal. There are lots of different causes coming into it. And so while I do think, when you take our society broadly, I do think that there are some deep philosophical commitments that are driving this crisis, in any particular case of suffering—personal trauma, abuse, neglect, physiological things, biological causes—there are all kinds of causes. So what I don’t want to do is make it seem like, well, if we just address the philosophical, then that’s the root and then the problem goes away. Now there are lots of things that are going on, but what I would want to do is, rather than saying we need to address the philosophical instead of the material causes of this crisis, I want to say there are multiple things going on and we’re not really talking about the philosophical, this idea that we belong to ourselves and that burden is too much for us. So let’s add that on top of these other things.
Cherie Harder: So Luke Lawrence asks, “As you wrote this book, how did you balance between acknowledging your personal mental afflictions and keeping the book from becoming a self-help autobiography?”
Alan Noble: Yeah. So that was a big debate. There’s a version of this book that I could have written that would be just a memoir. But the thesis of the book is that human suffering is a basic experience. And so it seemed to me that if I focused on myself, then I would be undermining that thesis. I would be really talking about myself too much. And so I balanced it by acknowledging fairly early in the book that I could give my credentials, my mental health suffering credentials, but I’m not going to, and you’re just going to have to trust me that I know from my own experience what it’s like.
And the other thing that I did was, when I give stories, I’m not going to tell you what stories are my stories and what stories are not my stories. I try to describe them in very generalist ways because, frankly, it’s not the reader’s business what the stories, whose stories they are. The fact is that the stories are human stories and those human stories hopefully resonate. And so that’s what I did. I’m glad you picked up on that because that is intentionally what I did is try not to make this about me because I didn’t want it to be about me.
Cherie Harder: So Sabrina Porteous asked, “How can you just focus on doing the next right thing when others around you, like your spouse or kids, are counting on you to have a plan beyond your next action?”
Alan Noble: Gosh, that’s a great question. I think this is good— This is a really good question. One of the reasons why it’s a good question is it gets to the fact that to live with mental affliction is to live in tension. The world is always going to demand more of you. And some of those demands are reasonable demands. Plan meals for a week. That’s not an unreasonable demand. But as I said earlier, it’s not always clear how much agency you have when you are going through a mental affliction or you have a mental disorder. It’s not always clear how much freedom you have to act and to choose and to do rightly and how much you are constrained by your suffering. And so sometimes we have to just do the next thing and we have to communicate to people around us, “I’m sorry, honey. What I can do is this. And I’m going to do this, and this is a battle, and I need you to understand it’s a battle, and it’s the best I can do right now. And I’m going to try to do more.” And hopefully our spouse and children and our loved ones can understand that and sympathize and give us grace.
And then our task is, that’s the help that we ask of them. And we need to be able to ask that of them. We need to be able to communicate and say, “Daddy can only do this much right now.” “Mommy can only do this much right now. I’m sorry.” But we also have to not let ourselves off the hook because that can become a crutch where we just say, “I am abdicating my responsibilities because life is too hard.” And we don’t want to do that either. So when I say do the next right thing, if we can plan ahead, maybe we can’t plan a week’s worth of meals, but maybe we could do three days. Right? And that same principle applies to lots of other things in life. Maybe there is a little bit more that we can do, and we need to be pushing ourselves, not guilting ourselves, but pushing ourselves, to be more and more involved in the lives of our loved ones.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Victoria Martineau, who asks, “What advice would you give to people whose loved ones suffering from severe depression completely isolate themselves from all contact? How can they reach out effectively and ‘be there’ for their loved ones without inadvertently burdening them with a sense of obligation to pick up the phone or answer the text or email, etc?”
Alan Noble: Yeah. So this is a question— You know, I wrote this book as a non-expert, right? I mean, I’m a human, and that’s my expertise. I’m not a medical health professional or a mental health professional, so I can only offer some advice from my personal experience. And what I would say is that if that’s something that you’re experiencing, you should— I would contact a mental health professional and get their expert opinion because I’m not entirely sure the best strategy. But what I can say from my own experience, what I would recommend is that, you know, they might experience it as a burden that you keep calling, that you keep trying. But later, after they go through what they’re going through—and there is another side to this, they will get through this—they might thank you for being persistent, for reaching out and asking for help because even if reaching out just looks like checking in and making sure, “Are you okay? Is there something you need? Are you getting professional help? Do you need help to get to appointments? Do you need financial support to get therapy? What is it that you need?” Not pestering in the sense of trying to fix things for them, but just reminding them, “I’m here. I love you. I’m praying for you. I want you to advocate for yourself. Please get help because you matter to us.” And so that’s what I would say.
Cherie Harder: So we have a question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “Teenagers are famous for not wanting to get out of bed in the morning or afternoon. How can we sympathize with their struggle without accommodating laziness?”
Alan Noble: Yeah. So, I mean, part of the challenge is figuring out what’s motivating them, right? Is their trepidation of getting out of bed, is it driven by social anxiety? Is it driven by depression? Is it driven by generalized anxiety? Or is it just that they are staying up too late scrolling on TikTok and they need to get to bed earlier? I think that we need to instill in young people healthy sleep habits and help them understand that getting enough sleep and proper sleep and regular sleep at regular times is key to their growth as a human being, to their mental health, to their physical health, to their spiritual health. And then, if we have instilled these habits of sleep in our kids and they still are struggling to get out of bed, it may be because there is some depression going on rather than just laziness.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Selina Durgan. And Selina asks, “What does character formation look like with depression? I’ve been brought up to see trials as opportunities for sanctification, but mental illness can move the floor of behavior so much lower than it was before. Sometimes I can’t pray at all when depressed. What do you think sanctification looks like for someone in this state?”
Alan Noble: A severe mental illness can remind us of our radical dependency upon God. The truth is, we’re all radically dependent upon God. It’s just that some of us get to pretend that we’re not for a little while. And in a period of mental distress, you are thrown back on yourself and upon God. And even when you can’t pray, there’s this awareness that you are only existing by God’s grace, and you can only move by God’s grace, and you’re only going to be healed by God’s grace. That’s a difficult place to be, and that’s why I focus on doing the next right thing. And I think that is an act of worship. I think choosing to do the next right thing, taking a step towards the block is a way I phrase it in the book—taking that from T.S. Eliot—is a spiritual act of worship. You know, Paul talks about offering our bodies as living sacrifices. Well, when you’re really depressed, it’s a sacrifice with your body to get out of bed and to make breakfast and to show up at work and to do the next thing. So that is sanctification. So I guess what I would say is doing the next right thing is an act of worship that sanctifies you. And that doesn’t mean that your depression is going to go away, especially not right away, but it does mean that you’re honoring God with your body, and that’s pleasing to him. And so you can rest in that knowledge.
Cherie Harder: We’ve had a few questions about Stoicism, so I’ll bundle two of them. One is from Andrew John Dellito, who asked, “Can you expand on the increase in Stoicism a little? Why have the Stoics become newly popular? What’s a tentative Stoicism that’s attracting people today? And do you think this is a fad or is it more lasting?” And somewhat similarly, John Chapman asks, “How does the Christian relationship with suffering differ from a Stoic relationship with suffering?”
Alan Noble: Yeah. So, I think what’s motivating the rise in it is a collapse in traditional values. A lot of people feel lost and confused, particularly, I think, young men feel like there’s not clear order to their lives and the Stoics offer some kind of moral system to give order and a sense of courage and direction to people’s lives. And those things are admirable in many ways. The Stoic sense of suffering is that there is not meaning behind our suffering, as I understand it, but we choose to exist anyways, despite the meaninglessness of our suffering. And the Christian understanding of suffering is that it does have a meaning, that our suffering is part of God’s larger vision of existence and that he’s redeeming all things and that there is an end towards which we are moving, which is our redemption and our eventual glorification.
Cherie Harder: So we’ll take one more question. This one comes from Brett Lynch. And Brett asks, “It seems the fundamental ‘why’ you are presenting is for the benefit of the people around us. How great a role should our suffering play in community formation today? Specifically within churches, is there a tension to manage between emphasis on the experience of individual suffering and high forms of communal worship focused on coming together around liturgy and sacrament?”
Alan Noble: Hmm. I mean, I think those things need to go hand in hand. I think we need to have community worship and community practices. But part of that community needs to be the sharing of suffering. We have this built into our communities with the practice of prayer requests. Even the most low-church evangelical denomination that you can imagine has this practice of sharing prayer requests so that we share burdens. But I think our individual suffering can be a way of communicating to other people. This is certainly a— Let me finish that thought: communicating to other people the goodness of God’s love for us and the importance of persevering. This has certainly been the case in my life. When I have had people in the church who I am communally worshiping with and sharing in small groups with, and they have opened up about their personal struggles and I have watched how they persevere, that has given me hope and that has helped me when I go through troubles and I have mental afflictions. And that’s been a great source of inspiration. So, in my mind, these things go hand in hand. When we worship together, we share in the liturgy together and then we share in our sufferings. This is all ways of the body of Christ worshiping and being one.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thanks, Alan. It’s been great to talk with you. And in just a moment I’m going to give Alan the last word. But before we do that, a few things just to share with you. First, immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. I say this every time, but we just really appreciate having your input and feedback. We read every one of these and we try to incorporate your suggestions to make these Online Conversations ever more valuable. As a small token of appreciation, as well as incentive to fill out that Online Feedback form, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum download or reading download of your choice, and there’s several that we would recommend that really do relate to some of what we’ve talked about today, including “The Long Loneliness” by Dorothy Day, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur”, “Wrestling with God” by Simone Weil, and many others. So we hope that you will avail yourself of that invitation.
In addition, tomorrow, right around noon, we’ll be sending around an email with both a link to today’s video, as well as additional reading recommendations and resources. We’d love for you to share this conversation with others. Start a conversation and get to know other people. And we hope that this discussion will be an incentive to do that.
In addition, we wanted to invite each of you who are here today to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help advance the Trinity Forum mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought. We’d love for you to join us in that mission. There’s also a number of benefits associated with being a member of the Trinity Forum, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” curated list of reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for doing so, with joining, or your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Alan’s book On Getting Out of Bed. So hope that you will join us for that.
In addition, we want to mention that our next scheduled Online Conversation is on May 12th with Curt Thompson, who Alan has mentioned a few times, and Curtis Chang. And so would love for you to join us for that. And this coming Tuesday, we’ll also be releasing our newest Trinity Forum Conversations podcast on “Faith in Polarized Times,” featuring Mark Labberton and Claude Alexander and Walter Kim. This is actually the final episode in our part on faithful leadership and want to just direct your attention to that coming out on Tuesday.
Finally, as promised, Alan, the last word is yours.
Alan Noble: At one point or another, you are going to need an answer to life’s fundamental question, which is: why get out of bed? Or put more bluntly: why live? The best answer there can be is that you are created and are sustained moment by moment by a God who knows you perfectly and perfectly loves you. And each time you choose to rise out of bed, you are proclaiming with your life and at the risk of great suffering that God’s act of creation really was good. Now there may come times when you are required by your suffering to radically depend upon others to carry you out of bed. My advice is to embrace those moments, knowing that you will carry your neighbor in return when the time comes. Thank you.
Cherie Harder: Alan, thank you. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.