“What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
“Getting up this morning.”
“Your life is a good gift from a loving God, even when subjectively it doesn’t feel good or like a gift, and even when you doubt that God is loving. Please get out of bed anyway” (Alan Noble, On Getting Out of Bed, Kindle location 40).
In the new book On Getting Out of Bed: The Burden & Gift of Living
, Alan Noble addresses the universal problem of mental suffering with compassion born of experience and perspective born of bearing witness to many others’ experiences. This is not a memoir or a self-help book. Its discussion is not limited to officially diagnosed mental illness; Noble pans out to consider mental suffering in all its intensities and hues. Somehow, it comes across as both literary and comfortably readable; Noble is an English professor, after all, and that shows. His main idea is that in this earthly life, suffering is the norm and ease the exception, and at the same time our pain-marked lives are ultimately good, marked by God’s grace and love, and worth fighting for. And sometimes that fight starts with the courage to get out of bed.
Noble begins by normalizing and destigmatizing mental suffering. So much stigma and shame still surround anxiety and depression, though some progress has been made. The loneliness of that shameful silence compounds the suffering of the initial anxiety or depression. Noble comes alongside the suffering person and those who love him or her in empathetic recognition of how hard, how very hard, life in this broken world is. The tone of this book is that of a kind hand on the shoulder, a face inclining to make contact between his wet eyes and the sufferer’s, a gentle voice saying, “I’m so sorry. It will be okay. Hold on.”
Suffering and the Culture of Technique
Noble recognizes that in times of mental anguish, simply getting out of bed is a monumental act of worship and testifies to God’s goodness. As he contemplates the divergent choices of two characters in Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road
, he asserts:
To choose to go on is to proclaim with your life, and at the risk of tremendous suffering, that it is good. Even when it is hard, it is good. Even when you don't feel that it is good, even when that goodness is unimaginable, it is good. When we act on that goodness by rising out of bed, when we take that step to the block in radical defiance of suffering and our own anxiety and depression and hopelessness, with our heads held high, we honor God and His creation, and we testify to our family, to our neighbors, and to our friends of His goodness. This act is worship (Kindle location 352).
While it is terrible (and occasionally horrifying) to be under a cloud of depression or anxiety, you also have the chance to testify to God's goodness. By watching you endure, others will know that it is possible to keep going. (Kindle location 722).
I found many of his thoughts, especially in the section on our contemporary culture of technique, applied to my physical suffering due to chronic illness and breast cancer also. In brief, the concept of a “culture of technique” implies that suffering is the exception rather than the rule. If one finds the right technique of diet/exercise/money management/supplements/productivity, suffering is avoidable or at least fixable. This feels true because it is so pervasive in our culture, but it does not align with the Bible’s teaching or millennia of human experience.
The fallout from that myth is the insinuation that suffering people are at fault to some degree for their affliction and can get out of it through their own efforts if they just ___________. This adds to the shame of physical and emotional suffering and contributes to the felt need to keep one’s suffering invisible. This harms rather than helps. In reality, much suffering occurs independent of the hurting person’s choices and techniques. (See the book of Job.) The Bible affirms throughout that life is hard, and life is good, and God’s grace is bigger than our suffering.
The Myth of Utilitarianism and the Grace of God
Another section encouraged me with its particular relevance to my story as an immunocompromised cancer survivor at this point in the pandemic. Mental struggles common to chronic illness include the grief of lost capacity and activities and the depressing weight of feeling useless and burdensome. Given the stories I’m hearing from people with chronic illness, parents of high-risk children, and sufferers with Long COVID, the current season of marginalization and loneliness is making this much worse. Whether implied or stated outright, the message many of us are receiving from society is that we are expendable because we are not useful or productive.
Mental suffering also depletes productivity, slowing down and distracting mind and body, sometimes causing physical pain. A lie all too easy to believe in that space is that one’s life is a burden to others, that one is useless, that there is no point to keeping on keeping on. (Noble is forthright about encouraging sufferers to seek professional mental health assistance. Please call for emergency help if you are trapped in believing these thoughts. If you are in the US, please call 988 and tell a friend.)
Into that burdensome loneliness, Dr. Noble points readers back to the chief end of man, the only goal in life that is always attainable and will never fade away: the glory of God. He pushes back on the lie of utilitarianism with words like these:
…the only reason to keep living is if you live before God for His glory. If His Word is true, then we were divinely created to glorify Him and enjoy Him always. And our creation was a fundamentally good act—good and prodigal. Neither earned nor necessary but a gracious gift. And when we live in gratitude, recognizing and delighting in this life, we honor God (Kindle location 864, emphasis mine).
The only other reasons to live are for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil, and they only care about you so long as you are useful to them (867).
Usefulness is the sole criterion for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil. But you have no use value to God. You can't. There is nothing He needs. You can't cease being useful to God because you were never useful to begin with. That's not why He created you, and it's not why He continues to sustain your existence in the world. His creation of you was gratuitous, prodigal. He made you just because He loves you and for His own good pleasure. Every other reason to live demands that you remain useful, and one day your use will run out (885, emphasis mine).
Even when you can't feel it or rationally understand it, life remains good. And while suffering is a normal part of fallen human life, it is not the essence of life. At the center of existence is not suffering but grace—the grace of Christ. The grace that created you, that cleanses you from all unrighteousness and provides all the blessings of this life (Kindle location 883).
The same God who sent His Son to die for you sustains your existence and created you—you—miraculous you, because He loves you. Whether you believe it or not. At the heart of being is grace, not suffering. ‘For nothing is real save his grace.’ We will forget this fact many times throughout our lives. The task before us is to hold each other up, to remind one another of the truth that is truer than our deepest misery, to attend to the gift God has given us, and to accept that our lives are good even when we do not feel that goodness at all (Kindle location 895).
Dear suffering saint, you are a miracle. God made you because He loves you. Your life is a gift. Suffering may be the loudest part of your present experience, but it is not the defining essence of your life. That is grace. Your life is good and precious even when you feel the opposite. Courage, dear heart.
Do the Next Thing
Noble returns often to the concept, “Do the next thing.” Readers of this blog or of the writings of Elisabeth Elliot have heard that not infrequently. Sometimes we spin out trying to answer the Big Questions of life while ignoring the God-given task right in front of us. When enduring mental suffering, it is all too easy to turn all one’s attention inward, where the pain is. To become trapped in our own thoughts. One needful and helpful counsel in that season is to turn one’s gaze outward to the material world and the people the Lord has placed in our lives. Look around, and do the next thing. Do it slowly; do it crying; do it when you feel like it and when you don’t. Get out of bed. Smooth the covers. Make tea or toast. If able, walk into the backyard with the dog or children. Help fold laundry. Sit next to a family member watching their favorite show. Take your medicine. Drink your water. Rest if that’s the next thing. “It is never a good time to sacrifice for others, but it’s always the right time to sacrifice for others.”
This section of Noble’s argument reminded me of Elisabeth Elliot’s life, not only her words, and of my first experience of brokenness and depression. Mom and I have been watching Elisabeth’s messages on YouTube during our Wednesday visits. More than once Elisabeth has said that obedience and “doing the next thing” got her through the grief of widowhood twice over. She had a baby she had to feed, wash, and dress; food to prepare; a house to clean; Bible lessons to prepare; translation work to carry on. In the third part of a series on loneliness
, she said, “The most wonderful therapy in my deepest grief was obedience. There is no consolation like obedience. That’s where I found the transformation of my suffering.”
In my own young adult life, in a season when future plans and present community had been shattered and I was in the Slough of Despond
, two of God’s instruments in bringing me back into the light were a puppy I adopted and the infant in my care in a job as nanny. The physicality and frequency of their needs, as well as the life-affirming knowledge that they were depending on me for the sustenance of their own lives, disrupted my melancholy rumination. The close personal contact with other living creatures helped too.
“Doing the next thing” is not a cure-all technique. It may not be enough to carry you out of your mental suffering, and that is no reflection on you. Even if it is not enough by itself, it is something, and it is an act of worship and love.
Your task is to be faithful: to do the next thing. And when you cannot get up on your own, let someone carry you, knowing that in due time you will be called on to do the same for others. And when you are blessed with the responsibility of carrying someone else, then your own experience with suffering, your own experience of depending on others, will give you the wisdom and empathy you need to love them well. Christ's body here on Earth is one of His greatest mercies to us. It's the only way we make it through (Kindle location 927).
Dr. Alan Noble’s new book On Getting Out of Bed
offers compassionate, fortifying encouragement to those suffering mental distress, whether clinically diagnosed or not. The author affirms the goodness and value of life as a gift from a good God, even when we can’t see or feel that goodness. He affirms that life is worth living, even when it hurts. A lot. If the bravest thing you can do is get out of bed, then, please, get out of bed.
“I'm so sorry. It will be okay. Hold on” (Kindle location 753).
A Trinity Forum virtual conversation with Dr. Noble is available to view on YouTube:
Note: I received a galley copy of this book for review purposes. Links are affiliate links which pay me a small commission at no cost to you. As always, my aim is to provide a true, kind, and helpful discussion of this book and my experience with it.