I have been a regular listener of your podcast for quite some time now. I first found the podcast after returning from Israel, where I had the pleasure of staying with Jewish friends and getting to know a little more of their faith and culture. When I came home I started searching for ways to continue learning from that worldview because I greatly admire the Jewish perspective.
Not long ago you did an episode where you spoke of depression and you said something that resonated with me then, and continues to stay on my mind. To paraphrase, you said, “Happiness is not the opposite of depression, the opposite of depression is purpose.”
I have a teenage daughter who struggles with depression; she has every symptom. We have her seeing a counselor who was the first to mention to us that she is very likely clinically depressed. This brings me to my twofold question; I hope you can provide information that will help us.
How does a depressed person find purpose, and how does a parent guide a depressed teen toward their purpose?
Thank you for any wisdom you have to share.
Thank you for your kind words; we are terribly sorry to hear of your daughter’s struggles. You are clearly a loving father and doing whatever you can including working with a counselor. We are sure you understand that anything we say is intended as general advice since we neither know your daughter’s specific situation nor do we have special expertise with teenage girls (other than having raised quite a few of our own) or with clinical depression.
Before we touch on your question about purpose, we would like to suggest that you become familiar with two resources. The first is Dr. Leonard Saks’ book, Girls on the Edge, which Susan recommended in her Practical Parenting column. Dr. Saks, a pediatrician, shares fascinating research on teenage girls. From our perspective, one of the most interesting is his conclusion as to the importance of faith in keeping girls emotionally healthy, but his book will give you much insight. We also recommend becoming familiar with the folks who made Screenagers, a movie that focuses on the effects of technology on our teens. They note that social media seems to be affecting girls, in particular, in an emotionally harmful way.
As the above resources will help clarify, your daughter’s depression is part of a trend. You could say that in some ways our society has been behaving in ways that promote depression and anxiety in youngsters. For example, for many years we have been a “panic” culture and the GICs are epicenters of hysteria. Not surprisingly, it has impacted the children. Another culprit is the media which constantly warns us in deathly tones of the newest threat to our survival. Many schools and teachers exacerbate this to the point of assigning students to write letters to politicians and newspapers pleading for them to “act now” to keep the world or the environment or our democracy safe. The threat changes with political winds, but the common theme is that danger constantly lurks.
We mention these things to emphasize that your daughter may be surrounded by people opposing her interests and a culture working against your goal of her being mentally and spiritually healthy. While you will make your own efforts, as long as a teenager is in that environment parents are running up the down escalator. It takes extra and sometimes extreme effort to combat those influences.
Let us get to your question about purpose. Being a person of faith helps a great deal with this. If we humans are the result of no more than a long process of unaided materialistic evolution, then our existence is random. Everything about our lives is just random happenstance. Our lives have no real meaning. However, if on the other hand, a good and loving God created us and put us each on this planet, then He did so for a reason. Our life quest is to discover and fulfill that unique purpose for which He created us. His world was not complete without us!
While we are on that search (many of us are on that search for most or all of our lives), we are meant to be givers. In direct opposition to today’s selfie culture of entitlement, we need to create an ‘elsie’ culture of obligation and responsibility. Something as small as smiling at and greeting people you pass on the street or who are behind the counter in a store yields great internal rewards. Depending on a teen’s interests, he or she can find purpose tutoring at a Boys and Girls Club, visiting or entertaining at a senior center or making dinner for local families who have newborns or ill children. At first, this might mean taking on one of these activities as a family. Giving to others is one of the best ways to make ourselves feel better. If each day a teen has something on her calendar that makes someone else’s life better, then getting up in the morning is imbued with purpose.
One of the best ways to formalize this important life element is with a job. We’d encourage you and other parents to explore the possibility of your children having a real ‘for-pay’ job. They might absorb one of the principles in our book, Thou Shall Prosper, that customer service is akin to worship service. Having a job means taking care of another person’s needs and taking care of the needs and desires of another of God’s children makes our Creator smile. More importantly, it provides our lives with purpose.
Another area to explore is for teenagers to acquire and assume responsibility for a pet such as a dog or a cat. (Or a llama. A goldfish doesn’t really help very much!)
We’d like to issue a caveat. Help teens wisely pick an activity. Take care to avoid getting involved in fighting climate change, advocating for gun control or any other political hot potato designed to make them feel hopeless and ineffective.
We pray that you and your daughter find ways to overcome this hurdle and that she moves forward to a bright and optimistic future.
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin