Newman’s Nook: Inadequacy, Depression, and Shinji

I feel inadequate in so many ways. This feeling is on display each time I write, preach, teach in the church, or try to share the Gospel. While I have advanced degrees, none of them are for those actions, and I sometimes feel like these are irrelevant and insufficient when writing, preaching, or teaching.

This personal feeling of insufficiency is a central plot point in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Many characters in the series feel like I do. Asuka is uncertain as a child trying to be an adult. Misato is filled with a sense of doubt as she is constantly deceived. However, Shinji Ikari presents the most powerful depiction of feeling unworthy.

Shinji is a pilot of an Evangelion unit—evangelions are living, organic-machine hybrids used to defeat giant monsters called angels, which are destroying the world. Shinji is first introduced when he is about to see his father (Gendo) for the first time in years. Gendo treats those around him as disposable, merely as tools to accomplish his goals—this includes Shinji. Dismissal from his father and overall loneliness feed into Shinji’s depression.

In a piece in 2017, Mary Lee Saunder at Manga.Tokyo wrote about the young pilot’s depression and its realistic portrayal in the series:

The implication from the ‘Get in the robot, Shinji’ meme is that he’s holding up the mission (and the plot) because he’s a coward and if he would just do his job already, then he would be fine. However, this ignores how depressed people actually think. According to the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, ‘such individuals often misinterpret neutral or trivial day-to-day events as evidence of personal defects and have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for untoward events.’

In Shinji’s case, he irrationally fears that everyone hates him and constantly seeks approval since he has no sense of self-worth…He’s aware of these issues, but his only method of stopping them is repeating to himself that he ‘mustn’t run away’ (‘nigecha dame da’) over and over. It’s a mantra that he can’t follow because he lacks the mental tools and support to do so, meaning that all he’s doing is beating himself up even further.

Shinji cannot control his feelings of failure. Victory and moderate praise do not remove his internal feelings of doubt and despair. Nothing truly can.

I do not suffer from depression; therefore, my feelings of inadequacy are not comparable to Shinji’s very real condition. Mental health issues are not the same as our everyday feelings of sadness or insufficiency. Depression is not solvable by a happy anime ending with cheers from your friends. It takes time, work, help, and hope. And despite the thought that God’s people can’t or shouldn’t feel depressed—an idea impressed both outside and within Christian culture—many Christians struggle with the condition. The Bible even points use toward examples of depression, particularly in two its greatest prophets, Moses and Elijah.

Moses was raised in affluence and lost it all after murdering an Egyptian solder. After escaping and spending years hiding among the Midianites, he returned to Egypt and led the Israelites out of bondage. Following the Israelite’s escape from Egypt, Moses continues to serve as leader to the Israelite tribes. The people come to Moses with all of their concerns, complaints, and problems. However, the people also disobeyed both Moses and the Lord at various times. The stress of everything culminates in Moses asking the Lord to take his life (Exodus 32:32, Numbers 11:13-15). Overwhelming stress lead Moses to wish he was dead.

I have difficulty imaging Moses as struggling this way. In fact, I often envision Moses as Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments—bold and afraid of nothing. However, that was not the Biblical Moses. The Biblical Moses felt inadequate, was overwhelmed by his responsibilities, and longed for death. Moses is not a perfect, doubtless hero in the Biblical narrative—he is a real person, struggling to survive.

Does Moses eventually defeat his depression? To tell the truth, we just don’t know. His Father-in-Law helps lighten his leadership burdens, but that does not permanently take away depression. Removing excessive responsibilities may help a person deal with their stress, but it does not remove the underlying issue. The same happens with Shinji when receiving praise from Misato—it helps boost his confidence temporarily, but his depression remains. For Moses, the underlying stress and depression leads him to lash out at the Israelites and disobey God in anger (Numbers 20:11-12). Shinji also lashes out and flees on a number of occasions in response to the stress of his life.

Moses wasn’t alone in desiring death—the prophet Elijah also begged the same of the Lord (1 Kings 19:4). He served as one of the few surviving prophets of God in Israel under King Ahab, bold in his faith and very publicly attacking the Priesthood of Baal. This culminates in a huge “Battle of the Gods” between the Lord and Baal. The battle ends with Elijah showing that his God is real and Baal is not. Immediately after this epic victory, though, Elijah flees. When no longer surrounded by the crowds, Elijah sits alone with his thoughts and longs for death. He is alone, afraid, and weary.

While alone with his doubts, Elijah begins to wish for an end to the emotional suffering he feels. Was his depression  a temporary affliction? We do not know. However, in the Biblical narrative Elijah is given a happier ending. The Lord personally enters the story to refresh Elijah and show him he is not alone. Soon after, Elisha joins his ministry as a partner as he preaches to the people. Following this display of support, we no longer read of Elijah wishing for death.

This past Sunday, I preached on my feelings of inadequacy. I spoke to my lack of formal training as a preacher as part of the reason. I emphasized my lack of continued study of the word as a contributing factor for my personal feelings. It is hard to feel unworthy or ill-prepared for something you desire to do. However, this is not depression. This is relatively normal.

Approaching something new can be daunting. Even situations similar to those you have done before can be taxing depending on your stress level. However, if you ever feel overwhelming dread or a sense that ending your life would solve your problems—that’s not normal stress; it could be depression.

There’s not a simple answer for depression. It doesn’t merely go away “if you have enough faith.” Moses had an overabundance of faith and still suffered. It is not solvable merely by building up your friends or telling them to “stop being sad,” or by passing on religious talk that amounts simply to platitudes. It requires time and professional help.

Heathline has a great list of suggestions on how you can support friends suffering from depression. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or tendencies, please get help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK to talk to someone or go online for more information and help. You do not have to suffer alone.

Neon Genesis Evangelion can be streamed at Netflix and is available for purchase on Amazon.


8 thoughts on “Newman’s Nook: Inadequacy, Depression, and Shinji

  1. I’ve had struggles with a little depression the past two or three years through a few experiences I’ve had. But I feel like God is showing me that I don’t have to be depressed about those experiences because they are all in the past; He wants us to look toward the future.

  2. «March comes in like a Lion» may be the best anime portrait of depression I know of. Kiriyama Rei’s eyes really pull everything around him into the darkness, his overwhelming guilt about everything and the constant weight on his shoulders, with and without immediate cause, is constant and terrible. The times he becomes paralyzed, his difficulties even on basic conversations, his loneliness and his own feelings of inadequacy are all beautifully portrayed, as is the slow, painful and not quite ended way out.

    1. I’d agree with you—there’s such realism and subtlety there, as compared to anime’s usual over-the-top depictions. And the same could be said of how that series treats bullying and abusive relationships.

  3. I have a close family member who suffers from depression, and I wouldn’t have thought it would be as straight forward to diagnose someone from as far back as the Bible as also having depression, but for what we have it seems reasonable. The symptoms are there, and they’re likely the most notable aspects of their lives given that they’re what is recorded.

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