Depression & Emotional Bandwidth

For many years we hosted Chinese students who lived with us while going to high school in the States. We seem to be a family that can adapt to having people in our home and, for the most part, it did not create disturbances in the way we lived. We just treated them like they were our kids and they treated us with respect. Two of them grew to be what we now call our “Chinese sons.” We’ve been to China with them and met their families and while they are now living in other towns they often come home to be with us. We love them. Our kids love them. They count them as brothers. We made room for them in our lives. And there was more room.

When my daughter was born I discovered many things, but the most profound was the expansion of my Grinchy heart. I knew I loved my wife and family, but the first time I saw my little girl I realized there was a new dimension to love I’d never known even though I’d seen it playing out in others all my life. I thought I knew it but then I experienced it. It was like seeing triangles all your life and suddenly discovering they were just sides of a pyramid. My heart could do things I didn’t know it could do.

A few years later we decided to add another baby, but not before we talked long and hard about it. We were so in love with our little girl. Would we be able to love another person this way? I had my doubts. It really troubled me. What if bringing another baby into our lives meant we didn’t love either one the way we loved the first? We talked with people who had already done it and they all said the same thing: you don’t understand it now, but you will be able to love them both with your whole heart. I admit I wasn’t fully convinced, but being forearmed with the expanding heart experience from having our daughter, I agreed to try it again. And again my heart surprised me. Love surprised me. We loved our son the same way we love our daughter; comprehensively and profoundly. I had to change my paradigm again. It seemed the triangle wasn’t just a pyramid; that my heart was more like a paper football made of a very large piece of paper and it could keep unfolding – maybe infinitely. There was more room.

During this time I began teaching a Sunday School class. It was only a little group of people to start, maybe eight of us. Each week I noticed this feeling inside me that started to grow. I didn’t know these people very well but the feeling was like an echo of the love I felt for my family. The class grew and visitors began to come and I found myself telling them I loved them. The words just came out of my mouth without much thought. I got some strange looks but I couldn’t help myself. Soon I began to realize I really did love these complete strangers. Some of them became people I knew intimately but that happened later. My heart was doing that thing again; unfolding and making room for more and more people. There was more room.

I’m betting that a lot of people understand this love thing better and more naturally than I do. My wife is more wired to love first and ask questions later. I’m more cautious and contemplative. But even if you don’t love many people I bet you feel a desire for it. We feel the desire to love and be loved and we sense the possibility. It’s in us. There is a huge emotional bandwidth for love; it might be infinite. Test it out and be honest: can you imagine a scenario where you love too many people? Would you ever be able to tell someone “I’ve got so many people who genuinely love me, I just can’t take another”? No. We are wired for lots of love.

It took me a long time to see the other side of this emotional bandwidth thing. Feeling bad about people has the opposite affect on our hearts. I mean exactly what I say. It’s not just hating people that goes to work on our hearts. It is holding people in a place inside us marked “this space reserved for idiots.” This may not be too problematic for those who are relatively emotionally healthy, but it is deadly in people with depression and anxiety. It can choke off emotional bandwidth to the point that we can’t function.

One of our Chinese students who lived with us was a big time online gamer. It usually wasn’t a problem, but at nights when we tried to stream movies and he was running his games, it sucked up enough of our WiFi bandwidth that every five minutes we got the spinning circle of death buffering thing. It made me very unhappy. It’s no fun trying to watch a movie in three minute segments. It ruins the whole show. Feeling bad about people can do this to us.

Just as our hearts seem to be created for infinite love, just a little criticism, ill will, judgment and – drum roll please – CONDESCENSION – is like one of those tiny little pellet sponges you can get at the Dollar Tree for your kids. Drop it in some water and sproing! It’s a big ole T-Rex. We are just not made for the stuff. Another test: isn’t it true that you can remember a slight against you longer than you remember a compliment? Isn’t it more likely for you to tell a friend that someone was rude to you today than to tell them someone did you a courtesy? Be honest. What’s more common?

Emotionally healthy people are not bitter people. It could be that the seeds to our depression and anxiety are sown by others but watered by us. If this becomes a habit we can end up with a whole prison block of people we keep in our hearts that we feel bad about. And we have to house them and feed them and make sure they don’t escape. It’s exhausting. It steals emotional bandwidth. It is the opposite of adding more people we love. There is not more room. I really believe there is no room at all for these negative feelings. Even one is one too many.

Part of my recovery has been the rejection of bad feelings toward anyone or anything. I became aware of the need to clear out the prison; release the captives and quit being the judge, jury, and executioner for those who offend me. I discovered it took too much energy; it was contributing to me beginning to buffer in real life. isn’t that what depression and anxiety feel like? Buffering – not present in our own present. Spinning wheel of death.

I have a suggestion for you. I would take this to the extreme. I would not allow a single bad feeling about anyone to take up space in my heart. And I mean it. Not a politician. Not a celebrity. Not a past lover. Not a current boss. Not a sports person. None. No one. Not a single one is worth me losing my emotional bandwidth. This takes practice. I realized I’d grown so used to harboring bad feelings about certain people that they were confined in maximum security. It took me a while to even find the keys to unlock the cell doors. But little by little I emptied the jail. And you know what? It wasn’t the bad guys who got free, it was me. Try it. Depression and anxiety feel bad enough, jettison the unneeded bad from your heart. And if you want to accelerate the process try something else: love a stranger. Love someone who has no way to give you anything in exchange. You don’t have to do something large. You don’t even have to talk with anyone to start loving them. How about this: think about how nobody really knows the deep pain inside you and how they probably think you are doing ok but you’re not. Now look at the next stranger you see and consider that they might very well be feeling like you do. Let your heart feel for them what you’d like someone to feel for you. Healing happens a little unfolding at a time in little moments that aren’t far away. You can do it. We can do it.