The Deep Places

The Deep Places: A Memoir Of Illness And Discovery. Ross Douthat. Convergent Books, 2021. 224 pp. Hardcover. $26.00

The Deep Places is a memoir written by New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat. I have appreciated Mr. Douthat’s writings for a number of years, including his books Bad Religion and The Decadent Society. Though I have my differences with Ross—he is a Roman Catholic and I am a Protestant—I have long appreciated his theologically informed approach to public thought, and almost always consider his writings to have been a benefit to me in thinking more deeply about current events.

I found The Deep Places to be a surprising book for a number of reasons, not least of which being the news of his chronic, debilitating pain over the last five years due to Lyme disease. I had listened to podcasts and watched interviews with Ross, but saw nothing to indicate the sort of agony that he was privately suffering.

Ross and his family made the decision to leave the suburbs of D.C. to live in rural Connecticut around 2015. As he was touring his soon-to-be house, he believes he was bitten by a tick which infected him with Lyme disease. Ross found himself suffering immense and crippling pain for years. In one particularly compelling passage he attempts to convey what it is really like to suffer pain:

"[T]he reality was pain that didn’t let you relax, let alone sleep; pain that made your body feel like a cage around your consciousness; tension, always tension, the opposite of a Victorian lady picturesquely swooning on a couch. All this was an education, an experience of what it meant to be an embodied human being that could be endured but not really explained to someone whose body was still a home, a cooperator, a friend (90)."

He then goes on to speak relationally about what it meant to be a fellow sufferer, and what he found was many other people who knew his pain well:

"The only place to turn for real solidarity was the secret fraternity into which I had been initiated – not just Lyme patients, but the much larger group to whom a confession of chronic illness… opened up. In my wanderings for work, in my visits to greenhouses and radio studios, in chance encounters and long online conversations, I constantly proved the truth of Scott Alexander’s observation: There was extraordinary suffering everywhere, people dealing with pain of every variety, with conditions diagnosable and not, that had been largely invisible to me until I came into the country, cleared the filter, and experienced that misery myself (91)."

He discovered that while some sufferers were young, many of them were older. “For the young, intense physical suffering was a lightning strike; for older people it gradually became the weather” (91).

Much of conventional medicine says that chronic Lyme disease does not exist. Instead, conventional approaches to Lyme say that a round of antibiotics should be enough to remove the Borrelia bacterium from the sufferer’s system.

The implication of this is that for many doctors, the immense pain that chronic sufferers of Lyme disease experience is simply a figment of the sufferer’s imagination. Because of this, doctors seemed to eventually come around to referring him to a psychologist (who seemed to find nothing wrong with his mind). The book is written with a sense of self-awareness, almost as though Ross was entirely open to the idea that this was just something his mind was doing to him, though he eventually dismissed that idea.

A great deal of the book is spent with Ross hoping that doctors will take more seriously the claims of those who suffer the effects of Lyme disease long after the detectable presence of the Borrelia bacterium is gone.

"I am also writing for the skeptical doctors and doubtful experts who are so often the targets of long-suffering Lyme patients’ fury and suspicion, in hopes of convincing them to see more clearly the enfleshed reality of a chronic life-stealing disease (194)."

However, Ross also relates his own desperate attempts in the midst of his pain to try other less conventional methods, including a Rife machine (intended to deal with the bacteria by means of vibrational frequencies), flooding his system with Vitamin C, trying salt treatments, and also trying magnets. Ross seems somewhat embarrassed by his desperate attempts, and seems self-aware that his desperate flailing attempts to deal with the constant and relentless pain he was experiencing might discredit his narrative or cause a doctor not to take chronic Lyme seriously as a result. What Ross did experience, as a result, was the limits of medicine, a frequent appeal to mystery by physicians, and a realization that the universe is a far grander, and at times more frighteningly unknown place than he had previously internalized.

This is not a theological book. It is mostly a book that helps the reader to understand the heart and mind of a sufferer and a survivor of deep chronic pain. That being said, Ross is a theological thinker, and a self-described disappointing Roman Catholic. At times he relates how he prayed. He relates to laying himself flat in an empty church and begging Jesus, Mary, and all the Saints to come to his help. At one point he relates the desperation and frequency with which he prayed.

"For two and a half years I prayed for help every day, mostly pleading, sometimes bargaining, often stumbling into empty churches…During the years…when my immune system seemed to be half working and my various dosages…had helped me gain some ground, I begged and pleaded less often, and my prayer life lost its hopeless intensity and settled back into the mediocre norm (155)."

In one particularly insightful passage, he writes from within his experience of pain of the importance of believing that God was sovereign over his experience. Taking issue with those who see pain and suffering as evidence of God’s non-existence: “One of the curiosities of the modern era is the way that the debate about whether a good God would allow human suffering… has become a persuasive argument for atheism… at the same time that actual physical suffering has in many ways declined.” Ross then came to turn the argument on its head:

"But what I learned from my illness is that chronic suffering can make belief in a providential God, if you have such a thing going in, feel essential to your survival, no matter how much you may doubt God’s goodness when the pain is at its worst. To believe that your suffering is for something, that you are being asked to bear up under it, that you are being in some sense supervised and tested and possibly chastised in a way that’s ultimately for your good, if you can only make it through the schooling – all this is tremendously helpful to maintaining simple sanity, and basic hope…

“A crutch for weak-minded people” – that’s how the noted philosopher Jesse “the Body” Ventura once described religion. My pre-illness self would have disputed that description, but my sickened self would merely give it a tweak. Absolutely religion is a crutch, and it’s not only useful for the weak of mind but for anyone dealing with severe weakness. You had better believe I leaned on my belief in a silent, invisible God more in those miserable months, that miserable summer, than on any hope or notion or idea in any prior portion of my life (97)."

It is no disproof of the truthfulness of the Christian belief in a sovereign providential God that we need that knowledge and assurance in the midst of suffering. The need for oxygen and water is no proof that they are illusions.

This book will be of interest to those who enjoy a well-written memoir with an air of melancholy to it. It will also be of interest to those, especially, who have experienced Lyme disease or have a loved one who has. Finally, as a Pastor I have found this book useful to take me inside of the heart and soul of someone who suffered greatly over a sustained period of years. Part of why we read is to enter the experience of another person – to know some hint of what it might be like to be someone else, to walk in someone else’s shoes. There are so many in our pews who hurt constantly – so much that they are nervous to share their pain out of a fear that they will be seen as attention-seeking or overly sensitive.

Pastors may be tempted to comfort the hurting with trite phrases, cliches, or truisms. And yet often we have to admit that there are people for whom we can give little or no help to, except to pray and to sit with them like Job’s friends (before they opened their mouths). We need to be realistic, and yet faithful.

The truth is not a cliche or truism, and often the road of pain has no end in sight. The sovereignty of God promises us that suffering will be for our ultimate good, but not necessarily for our ease or comfort.

"I feared the God who had allowed this, and what He might consider allowing next. This meant, in turn, that I also often despised the kindlier forms of providentialism, the talk of God’s loving plan and whatnot, to which my savage mind replied, Great, and what if His plan is for me to lose everything – not just health but money, not just money but my marriage and family? I wouldn’t put it past Him at this point (98)."

He may, in His providence take us through paths we never expected – even deeply painful paths of suffering – and His providence is no guarantee of physical comfort or even that sense of inner peace that so many have spoken of. For many Christians all over the world, life is filled with pain, suffering, and agony with no evident termination point. We should also despise “the kindlier forms of providentialism,” favoring instead the wild, good, and free wisdom of God in his sovereignty. This seems to be the mature and deep reflection of a person who finally sees the truth: God is not safe, but He is good.

The last chapter of his book offers a sustained reflection upon Charles Taylor’s observation that modern people no longer see themselves as porous individuals who are vulnerable to the world around us. Disease, sickness, and illness remind us that we are still porous, that we can be affected and changed by the world. Sickness is a reminder of the weaknesses and limitations of modern medicine as in many respects doctors turn their backs on the suffering and tell them, “you may be crazy.” To listen to medical experts appeal to mystery does my heart good in a sense, as a pastor and theologian: we all have to turn to mystery at one point or another, because this is God’s world and not ours.

You have to read the whole book to rejoice in the payoff of the last chapter, but I was repeatedly left misty-eyed by Ross’ beautiful reflections upon what he had endured, of the blessing of being able to not yield, to live for others, to survive for the good of his family and especially children.

What a beautiful book and a gift Ross Douthat has given us. I am very glad to have spent my time reading about his illness and his reflections on what he has experienced. I find myself praying for Ross’ continual improvement, and caring more about those in chronic pain. I do hope many readers will spend time with Ross in his own Shadowlands, because I am persuaded that all of us will eventually have to walk there, ourselves one day. The question each of us must ask is, what will sustain us when that day comes?