November 4, 2007
Dr. Carl Menninger, the famous American psychiatrist, was asked to treat a woman with severe depression. He decided to visit her in her home. He found her slumped in a chair. Her house was dark and quiet. She admitted to him that she had struggled with depression since her husband died several years ago. As the two of them talked, Dr. Menninger noticed that this woman loved violets and grew them. Throughout her house there were pots filled with bright purple and pink and blue flowers. This led him to an unusual prescription. He asked the woman to look in the local papers every day and send a pot of violets to anyone who was experiencing a major event in their life: a birth, a death, a wedding, a graduation. Within a month the woman called Dr. Menninger and said that her life had changed dramatically. The people who had received these unexpected violets were often overwhelmed with the gesture. They would write back to thank her, send her a little present themselves, and even come to visit her. Over time people began to call the woman the “Violet Lady.” Her life was changed because she had replaced her depression with an action, an action of service towards others.
Now when we experience disappointments in life, when the people we love leave us, when we have to face rejection or failure, it is easy to slip into depression. We keep playing over and over again in our minds the way things used to be, the decisions I should have made, the words I could have said. Questions keep streaming through our consciousness: Why did this happen to me? Could I have done something to avoid it? Why is my life so unfair? Such questions are understandable, but they are largely questions without answers. Instead of helping us, they tend to pull us down more into sadness.
So how do we cope with this kind of discouragement? How do we pull ourselves out of a sort of pervasive depression? Denial doesn’t work. We can, for a while think of other things, but sooner or later, the sadness washes over us again and we find ourselves where we started. Positive thinking is good, but after we have looked at the many good things in our life, our pain returns and takes up center stage. Even prayer does not always work. Sometimes as we ask God to remove our sadness or pain, that prayer only reinforces the things that upset us and continue to draw us down.
The surest way out of sadness is action—doing something, taking on a project, giving ourselves in service to another. When we act, we take the focus off ourselves. Action redirects our pain, producing good for ourselves or for others. Such action refocuses our lives and pushes depression aside.
Dr. Menninger knew this. This is why he prescribed action for the “Violet Lady.” Zacchaeus, in today’s gospel, knows the same truth. If anyone had reason to be sad or depressed, it was Zacchaeus. Everybody in Jericho avoided him and shunned him. They tagged him as a sinner. His good actions were either ignored or ridiculed. When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to Jericho, he could have easily chosen to do nothing. He could have easily said to himself, “What’s the use? Why would Jesus ever be interested in me?” When he could not see Jesus because of the crowd, he could have thrown up his hands and sunk back down into his self pity. But that’s not the choice that Zacchaeus made. Zacchaeus chose to act. He ran out in front of the crown, climbed up a Sycamore tree, made a fool of himself, in the hope that maybe he would have a chance to meet Jesus. His bet paid off big time. Not only did Jesus see him, but he called Zacchaeus down and said that he wanted to stay with him.
Zacchaeus is a model for us. When we get stuck in our sadness, Zacchaeus tells us that the way out is not by sinking, or sighing, but by acting. The way out is by doing something, by throwing ourselves into motion for our own good and for the good of others.
The story of Zacchaeus tells us that action not only will pushes our depression aside, but also leads us to Jesus. And when we meet him, Jesus will say to us, “Today salvation has come to this house for the Son of Man has come to save the lost.” When we are lost in our sadness, the gospel shows us the solution. Like Zacchaeus, we should rise up from our self-pity and run out to meet Jesus in good things that we choose to do.