There are all kinds of negative emotions. Not all of them are morally or spiritually bad, as such. Depression, for example, can come upon a person for good reasons or because of a medical condition. Depression is not the same thing as despair, which implies utterly giving up on everything.
Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, has written a fascinating essay on the subject in American Conservative entitled “That’s Despair?” In it, he draws on both the Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard and the Christian novelist Walker Percy.
“Kierkegaard had a specific idea of despair,” says Dreher. “It is not an emotion, but a state of being. You can read more about it here, but in brief, to be in despair is to live alienated from God, in relation to Whom one can only know oneself. There are, in Kierkegaard’s thought, three kinds of despair”:
- Not knowing that you are alienated from God, and that you need to be reconciled with him to know who you are, and to live a fully human life; in other words, to be a complete stranger to yourself and to the world, and therefore not aware of one’s own Selfhood (which can only be known in relation to the infinite God); you can be in despair and still think of yourself as happy; this is the most common kind of despair;
- Knowing that one has a Self, and that that Self is incomplete without God, but arranging one’s life in such a way as to keep God at a distance; the despair is the anxiety of knowing that one is living inauthentically, but lacks the will or the courage to live in truth (this was basically me from ages 17 to 25);
- Knowing that one has a Self, and that one is in despair, but refusing to accept that God loves one, and that one abides in that love; it is the kind of despair that loves itself, and in which one identifies one’s own Self through the Self’s relationship to that hopelessness.
I hadn’t realized that Kierkegaard was so theocentric! Despair as a state of being–not an emotion–in which one is alienated from God, whether knowingly, unknowingly, or willfully. Dante described Hell as a realm, above all, of despair.Dreher also quotes Walker Percy, a Christian, Catholic author whose novels are comic, and yet dark. An interviewer asked him why he seemed so despairing. Percy, who enjoyed living in New Orleans, said that he doesn’t despair at all!
Q: From the outside looking in, one might raise the question: you’ve lived a fairly privileged life: why such despair?
A: Who says I despair? That is to say, I would reverse Kierkegaard’s aphorism — the worst despair is that despair which is unconscious of itself as despair — to: the best despair and the beginning of hope is the consciousness of despair in the very air we breathe and to look around for something better. I like to eat crawfish and drink beer. That’s despair?
Despair that is the beginning of hope. The despair in everything that leads to the discovery of “something better.” That is reminiscent of Luther’s Law and Gospel talk, the way Christians are brought to the point of despair by sin, death, and the devil–as exposed by the Law–which leads them to the promises of Christ in the Gospel. (Read Mark D. Thompson, Luther on Despair.)
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