For years, I’ve suffered failure and disappointment again and again. Now, my doctor sent me to a psychiatrist who gave me a diagnosis of clinical depression. I’m taking medication, which helps, and some CBT therapy twice a week. Also exercise. But I can’t get over this feeling that life has not treated me fairly. Why would a kind and caring G‑d create me with depression?


Depression is the pits. There’s nothing good about depression. Passion can be turned to good, jealousy can drive a person forward, even anger can be redeemed as righteous indignation. But depression? What can be good about going nowhere?

When a person is happy, he’s healthy. True happiness is when every faculty, every sense, every neuron and every muscle is in tune and functioning harmoniously. When happy, a person can fulfill his purpose in life, all of him, all of his purpose. Which is why depression is so despicable. Because depression is a surrender of purpose, of meaning.

Yet it’s indisputable that there are people whose upbringing and life story give them every reason to be happy and carefree, and yet suffer horrible depression from the earliest years. They can fight it, and there are plenty of strategies that can hold depression at bay—like good friends, good doctors and lots of willpower. But there’s no doubt there’s something there inside these people that make them far more prone than others to this illness. So your question is a valid one: Why would an omniscient Creator place some fault inside His creatures that fights against the very purpose for which they were created?

The Human Golem

One of the great psychologists of all time was Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, often known as the Maharal of Prague. Although best known for having created a golem, a yet greater achievement was explaining how to not be one ourselves. “Seven are the qualities of a golem,” states the Mishnah, “and seven of a sage.” It then proceeds to enumerate behaviors that distinguish one from the other, such as not speaking before one who knows more than you, etc. But what is a golem? The word literally means a hunk of clay or otherwise shapeless substance. The Maharal applies it to an unfinished person—one with all the right aptitudes notA golem is someone with all the right things in all the wrong places. yet in the right places. Like a construction site after the raw materials are delivered but before the builders have arrived, he is truly promising, but a little work has first to be done.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe, best known for his collection of sermons and responsa to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, “Esh Kodesh” (“A Holy Fire”), directed an orphanage and a yeshiva in Warsaw before perishing in the holocaust. He developed an empathetic strategy of education, which he described in his books and letters.

Every quality of a child, Rabbi Shapira wrote, has a place—only that it is up to the educator to find that place and channel the child in that direction. For example, a child who is easily angered is filled with fire. That fire can be directed towards a fiery prayer, or a fire of enthusiasm. A child who runs after every delight can be directed to find delight in the words of Torah and in good deeds to others. Every human trait, once harnessed, can produce a wealth of good.

What’s So Great About Depression?

Now let’s apply that to depression—a natural human emotion, but an ugly and debilitating one. Of all human emotions, there is none more destructive—save, perhaps, anger. Depression is the state of a human psyche decomposing, losing all its form and potential. “Depression is not a sin,” the early chassidim used to say, “but it can take you to places lower than any sin can take you.”

That is why, every mitzvah must be done with joy, every prayer with song and every word of Torah studied with enthusiasm—not just because without that joyful enthusiasm, you are simply not there within that mitzvah, but because without joy, the Jew lives in a precarious state. “Because you didn’t serve G‑d your G‑d with joy and a good heart…and so you will serve your enemies.” Meaning: When a Jew acts as a Jew but with a heavy heart, he is fair game for the enemy within—the urges and passions of his animal soul.

Yet, as we said, if our Creator put it within us, there must be a place for it. A place where it provides a valuable function and contributes to healthy living. If it’s hurting you, it must be that it’s just not in that right place.

Solomon the wise said, “From every sadness there will be an advantage.” Meaning that the sadness itself has no advantage, but an advantage comes out of it, when it’s over and done with. But is there any advantage that comes out of depression?

Yes, one thing: A depressed person feels very small. That’s good.Smallness is good. Especially when breaking out of your cell. Because once small enough, you can fit between the bars of any prison cell and escape. Especially the prison cells in which we lock up our own selves.

The prison of all prisons is the ego. A person obsessed with his own self-worth can never find happiness. First of all, because most of happiness is in small things—and when you’re very big, small things are too insignificant to deserve your interest. Secondly, because once you feel important, there is no limit to how important you are—and therefore no limit to what you feel you deserve.

A small person feels he deserves nothing—whatever he gets is an unexpected gift. And he’s small enough to notice the small delights of life. In fact, in his eyes, they’re not small anymore —they tower above him.

Apply Jewish Kung Fu

Paradoxically then, depression contains the key to its own demise. It can be fought in Kung Fu fashion, using its own power against it. Depression argues that you’re a worthless, hopeless scum in whom nobody would ever take interest. So agree with it. Tell it back, “You’re absolutely right. I’m even less than that. I was created with a purpose that I have not lived up to. I’ve messed up again and again. And yet, nevertheless, I have a G‑d who has put up with me despite all my failures, who continues to ask me to be His agent in His world, eagerly awaiting my mitzvahs, looking forward to me sharing my concerns with Him three times a day. My purpose still lies before me, and whatever of it I can fulfill, even for a moment, is worth more than all the pleasures of the Garden of Eden.”

I didn’t make that up. I ripped it off from chapter 31 of that classic of chassidic thought, the Tanya. To be fair, I should present you with the retort suggested there:

“True, without any doubt, I am very distant from G‑d, as distant as you can get, despicable and disgusting as I am. However, all this is me myself as I stand on my own—meaning my body-self and the life-giving soul it contains. But within me, in a very real sense, there is a bit of G‑d. It is there even in the shallowest person. She is the G‑dly soul with a spark of real G‑dliness invested within her to give her life.” “It’s just that she is there in a kind of exile. And if that’s the case, then I need to turn my thinking around: The more I am completely distant from G‑d, the more disgusting and despicable I am, the greater the exile of my G‑dly soul and the greater compassion she deserves.” “Therefore, I will make it my entire goal and desire to release her and pull her up from that exile. I will bring her back to her Father’s house as she was in her youth, before she was invested within my body, when she was absorbed within His light and completely united with Him. Now as well she will be absorbed and united with Him as I make Torah and mitzvahs my entire ambition, when I will invest all her ten faculties within them. Especially in the mitzvah of davening, when I will let her cry out from her pain of exile in my despicable body-self, pleading to be released from imprisonment so that she may be bonded with Him once again.”

Perhaps the entire drama can be summed up in a single anecdote:

The Rebbe looked at the young man standing before him and said, “A Jew has to serve G‑d with happiness!”

The young man replied, “Rebbe, what is there for me to be celebrate?”

“Celebrate about the mitzvahs that you do!”

The young man paused. “Rebbe, I haven’t done any mitzvahs for a long time.”

“Then celebrate that you have a G‑d who waits every moment for your mitzvahs!”

Against such an argument, depression has nothing left to say. We call this “transforming darkness to light.” When light pushes away darkness, darkness only waits in the corners for its time to return. But when the darkness itself is transformed to light, it is a light that no darkness can oppose.

Breaking Out of the Tunnel

Here’s another secret of depression’s utility: For a tiny seed to become a great oak, it must become rotten cellulose in between. For an olive to give its oil, it must be crushed. For an artist to produce great art, he must travel through yet another birth canal of darkness. For any human being to reach great heights, he must first touch the lowly ground.

Yet there’s a caveat: Let’s say the artist gets stuck in that tunnel of darkness. Is there anything good about that?

I did that once. I had to complete an assignment, a piano suite, of which the third movement was to be painfully bitter. It was due the next day, and the notes were just not flowing out of my soul. It was a bright summer day, and I felt more like riding my bike around the seawall at Stanley Park than sitting there composing melancholy music.

But the project had to get done—I needed the grade. So I shut the windows and drew the curtains closed, turned off the lights and sat there thinking depressing thoughts. Eventually, I went to bed and fell asleep. The movement was never completed.

It was then that I learned: it’s not the depression, not the inner turmoil, not the existential angst or any another such similar pathology that squeezes the art out of the artist. It’s the act of pulling your soul out of those states, like pulling a sponge through a wringer, like a lion bursting out of a cage.

The dark tunnel is a place to move through, to escape. The tunnel is beneficial only as long as you are moving through it Stand still within it, and you are accosted by the worst demons of the human psyche: self-pity, despair, lethargy and more. Break the cords of restraint and an explosion of energy results such as could never have been otherwise attained. There’s a depth in that darkness, a mystery that the sun-dwellers will never know, and you too can not yet know until you break out into the daylight.

Looking at it that way, it makes sense that the greatest men and women of history, including our own giants, were people who suffered dark moods to the extreme. Moses cries out to G‑d, “I can’t deal with these people any longer! If this is the way You treat me, if I have found favor in Your eyes, please kill me so that I don’t have to see my own tragedy.” King David cries, “I am a worm and not a man; a reproach of man, despised by peoples. All who see me will mock me; they will open their lips, they will shake their head.” The question arises: Without that capacity for inner suffering, would these men have been as great as they were?

And yet it was not their suffering that made them great, but the vital energy that burst out of that darkness.

What Depression Is Not

Now let me correct something I wrote: Depression is not the tunnel. Depression is the act of sitting still inside that tunnel. If you’re moving through it, struggling to get out, that’s not depression. That’s bitterness. Depression is just plain bad. Bitter doesn’t taste so good, but it has its place. From bitterness comes freedom, from bitterness comes joy.

Think of Miriam, Moses’ big sister. Her name comes from the Hebrew word “merirut”—bitterness. She was bitter about exile, slavery, oppression and she refused to surrender to it. She fought it, defying Pharaoh's decrees and encouraging others to do the same. Her bitterness was driven by her faith that this is not where her people belonged, and one day they will be redeemed. That’s why, when the Jews finally saw themselves truly liberated, and sang their praise on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, it was Miriam who not only sang, but led the other women in joyful dance, accompanied with timbrels and drums. According to the bitterness is the joy.

Is there a beautiful song in this world with no tinge of bitterness? Without bitterness, can anything be sweet? Is there a story that uplifts the soul without first striking its darker chords? Is there an act of love that does not contain sorrow, a magnificent scene that does not harbor strokes of blackness? Elements that on their own would be nothing less than hideous, in the context of art become the principal elements of beauty. So it is for the master artist, so it is for those who want all that life can provide: If bitter is not bitter, than sweet is not sweet.

The Tanya, that classic work of Chassidic thought that I’m always encouraging people to study, describes the joy of breaking out of that tunnel as the joy of returning home. You were lost, forsaken, alienated from your true self, and now rediscover that place where you belong. The child who never leaves home can hardly celebrate being where you’ve always been. You, who have tasted the other side of life, you now know the true meaning of the word “home.”

Fight depression as a blood sworn enemy—but be smart about it. Like a Kung Fu master, use it’s own strength against it. Teach it to destroy itself, until one day, you will turn to look back, and discover depression itself has been transformed and all you are left with is a celebration of life.