The Lord turned to him and said, “Go with the strength you have and save Israel from the power of Midian. It is I who send you.” But Gideon answered him, “Please, my lord, how can I save Israel? My family is the lowliest in Manasseh, and I am the most insignificant in my father’s house.” “I shall be with you,” the Lord said to him, “and you will cut down Midian to the last man.”

Judges 6: 13-14

According to Soren Kierkegaard (The Sickness Unto Death), if we imagine our life as a several story building, most of us choose to live in the basement.  When the Lord turns to Gideon and asks him to go “with the strength you have and save Israel,” Gideon responds as most of us would:  “Who am I lowly and insignificant that I should be thought worthy to put my life on the line and to save Israel?” St. Francis de Sales warned that it is not humility to be less than God created us to be.  Rather, it is an  inverted form of pride.  If this is the case, then most of us are proud indeed.

Many years ago, in my earliest years of directing new candidates for our community I had a very surprising experience with one of the candidates.  I knew from personal and shared experience how ashamed we all could be of our failings and weaknesses.  But in this young man I discovered that we are also ashamed of our greatest possibilities, of our own unique call.  We hide, from others and ourselves, the unique task we have been given for the sake of the world.  In the specific case I experienced, I could see how in formation counseling with me this young person presented himself without acknowledging the very significant spiritual gifts he had been given.  As I reflected on this rather counter-intuitive experience, I came to realize that I, and probably all of us, do the same thing.  We avoid recognizing ourselves, as Kierkegaard would put it, as spirit or as self.

I suspect that we do this, at least in part, because of the responsibility that such awareness requires of us.  Yesterday the gospel presented us with the story of the rich young man.  This young man, when presented by Jesus with the full possibility of his life as spirit and self, “walked away sad.”  He chose to live in the basement of vital comfort and functional accumulation, rather than in the upper stories of the spirit and of his unique call and selfhood.  

Kierkegaard calls this life of illusion and denial living in despair.  He says that the very nature of despair is not recognizing itself as despair:  “. . . all the so-called security and contentment with life are actually forms of despair.”  In the course of the last couple of days, a certain paradox of the gospels has been brought home to us.  We know how central to the mission of Jesus is the peace that he offers.  And yet on Sunday we heard him say that he has come not to bring peace but division.  We might add, with the help of Kierkegaard, that if we recognize ourselves as spirit , as a spiritual self and individual with a unique task in life for the sake of the world, that we will come to know the peace of Jesus only through conflict, inner and outer.

A person I once knew used to speak so often of the need to maintain her “peace.”  What this meant, however, was an avoidance of anyone or anything that challenged her self-interpretation and feeling of contentment with her current form of life, whose presence and appeal stirred discomfort in her.  As Adrian van Kaam teaches, however, we are always and everywhere in formation and our lives are constantly taking new shape, being “renewed day by day” as St. Paul puts it, through a process of differentiation and integration.  A very wise teacher of mine used to say that when things fall apart that’s the sign that everything is okay.

Precisely because our deepest and truest selves are spirit, every form we give our lives is tentative and temporary.  If our efforts are spent in maintaining our current form and finding contentment in it, we are actually living in despair.  When life and world, as we see it, are differentiating we experience conflict.  If we refuse to enter into and engage the conflict, we shall never be available to the new and more congenial form that the Spirit is attempting to give our spirit.  

For much of my younger life, I think my most basic desire was to be unnoticed, to disappear into the crowd or the background.  The shame that held a somewhat dominant place in my emotional makeup feared, above all, my being seen, of standing out. I thought that this was due to my appearance, my voice, and my “unusual” temperament.  It was, however, more deeply a fear of failing the responsibility of my own unique life call, a fear of being myself in the world.  Over time I have learned to risk being myself, which means with my weaknesses but also gifts, in the small community to which I belong.  Over time, I have become more and more aware of how many members, of this very small community, have not been able to do the same.  In a group’s hagiography we often speak of the “giants” of the community, those who have made a significant and sometimes historically memorable contribution to the community.  Yet, the health of the group, as the health of the world, does not depend merely on the contributions of the giants.  Much more, if it is to truly be a community, it must ring with the harmony that only the distinct sounding of each individual’s selfhood can create.  

There is a certain violence in the human way.  “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)  With John the Baptist, whom Jesus calls the “Elijah who is to come,” the Kingdom is breaking through in a new way.  When the old is differentiating and the new integration is merely beginning, life is not contentment and security.  It is more fear and trembling, both at what is happening and at our unique responsibility, as we are called, to help to give form to the new.  We must struggle first with the inner violence, the contestation within us between despair and hope, between complacency and responsibility, between flesh and spirit.  Then, if we accept and willingly offer our unique contribution, we must suffer the violence that our responsibility will encounter in the complacency of the world, in the world’s despair and resistance to change.  

It is by accepting and going through these conflicts, this violence, that we know the peace that Jesus offers.  Having fulfilled his call, it is the Risen Jesus who embodies peace in each encounter.  I know in my own experience that when I have tried as hard as I could and failed, I want to obsessively go over in my mind what I could or should have done differently.  This, however, is an act of the despairing ego, of my own pride.  If only I had done this or that, the outcome would have been different.  There is, on the one hand, the despair of complacency and self-satisfaction.  There is also, however, the despair manifested in arrogance.  A humbling truth of our human condition is that the self, the spirit that we truly are, is a gift to be given to and for the world.  However, as creatures, we do not determine the effects of that gift, the fruit of our efforts.  We are assured by Jesus that a good tree produces good fruit, and so good will come if we have truly been responsible to and for our call, our selves.  But that good may not always be immediately evident to us.  If we have given all we have, then there is nothing else we could have done.  To have done all we can means we can now be at peace, whatever the outcome.

Precisely because we are spirit, we shall always be in despair when we refuse or repress this truth.  That despair takes many forms: in losing ourselves in pleasure, self-satisfaction, in addiction to work or drugs or sex, in the accumulating of power or wealth, in false attempts to avoid relating to others through a false sense of solidarity, in the denial of self by assuming a group identity.  As Kierkegaard says, it is when we recognize our own despair that we are a step nearer to being cured.  

It appears that we are living in a time when most of our social, political, and religious institutions have largely lost credibility with many people.  We are well aware of the problems, bordering on times at chaos, that such loss of credibility has engendered.  And yet, perhaps the moment could become a time of reckoning.  Have our associations and institutions become far too often merely a cover for our own despair?  Have they too often ceased to be associations of vibrant spirit-infused selves and rather become refuges for the despairing?  Do we experience the lack of love and relationship in these communities and institutions because we no longer, in response to our unique calls, offer our lives to each other in them but rather merely seek from them security and comfort in our despair?

Both in our societies and in our churches, as well as the intermediate structures within them, we are experiencing a call to a serious moment of differentiation.  The spirit that we are and the Spirit that is the creative force in the world is always seeking new forms.  In our truest nature, we are a part of that great life-giving force.  But in our despair we can be unconscious of the life to the full that Jesus offers the rich young man.  We can settle, as he did, in sadness and despair for a weak imitation of life.  As a self-depreciative young person, I wanted as much distance as I could muster from “the conflicts” of life, from the violence that the kingdom suffers.  I placed so little stock in my own spirit that I longed just to get through life without being hurt.  That is despair.  To recognize spirit is to realize that in everything that is happening there is life, and a call to truer and deeper life.  But as Jesus makes clear, to really live that life will cost us what we most hold dear.  For the rich young man it was his many possessions.  For myself it was security and appeasement.  To refuse that cost is to choose despair.  To dare to give without counting the cost is to enter into God’s world where we discover that to live out our responsibility to God is the very source of life.

We must not assume, therefore, that despair is something rare.  On the contrary, it is quite general.  And we cannot assume that just because someone doesn’t think or feel he is in despair, he is not in despair.  Nor should we think that only the person who says she is in despair is so.  On the contrary, she who says without pretense that she despairs is, in actual fact, a little nearer, a step nearer to being cured than all those who do not regard themselves as being in despair.  Yet we must concede that the normal situation is this:  that most people live without being properly conscious of being spirit, and for this reason all the so-called security and contentment with life are actually forms of despair.

Ah!  So much is spoken about human need and misery and how to overcome it.  So much is spoken about wasting our lives.  But the only wasted life is the life of one who  has so lived it, deceived by life’s pleasures or its sorrows, that that person never became decisively, eternally, conscious of him or herself as spirit, as a self.  Or, if I may put it another way, such a person has never become aware — and gained in the deepest sense the impression — that there is a God and that that person, him or herself, is answerable to and exists before this God, and that this God can only be met by way of despair.  Alas! so many live their lives in denial, decapitated from eternity.  So many are not aware of their true destiny, defrauding themselves of this most blessed of all realities.

Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, 53-54.

One comment on “Overcoming Despair

  1. D J Samson on

    I am going to keep this post for repeat reflection. So much to unpack, all of which awakened in me a renewed belief that sins of omission and despair are inextricably linked. Peace and gratitude to the author.


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