Saintly Essays & Discussions

On the Moral Necessity of Despair

There is a great deal of truth in the statement that our life is what we make of it.  By this I mean that attitude can determine a great deal.  If we focus on those aspects of life that are negative we stand a good chance of having a negative experience of life, whereas if we focus on the positive (while by no means guaranteed) we stand a better chance of having a positive experience.  Of course, who would wish to have a negative experience of life?  Thus, so we are told, better to be positive in all things so that we may better enjoy ourselves and be more enjoyable to others.  Furthermore, empirical studies indicate that those who are positive live longer healthier lives, experience more fulfilling personal relationships, are more successful in their careers, have better sex, are nicer, and are all around better people than those who go around undergirded with a sense of doom and despair with their depressing negative attitudes.  Again, I suspect that there is much truth to this, so it would seem that the thing to do is (in the immortal words of Eric Idle) "always look on the bright side of life."  But I wish to play the contrarian.  Not so much that I wish to come out as one who is against happiness and success per se--I enjoy these goods as much as the next person.  But I wish to suggest that the more potent, and perhaps ultimately the more fulfilling draught, is to be drawn from the cup of human sadness than than from the goblet of human happiness.  For to be happy in such a world as ours is, it appears to me, necessarily somewhat disingenuous.  Are we not surrounded by a sea of human suffering and despair?  Men, women, and children dying from hunger, war, and disease?  

Why yes, you respond, but we are not going to solve any of these pressing problems by moping around.  We must keep ourselves in good spirits so that we may critically ponder and solve these grand problems.  

You and I both know, I respond, that these problems shall not be solved so long as the fundamental nature of humankind remains unchanged.  You practice your "scientific" utilitarian charity in order to assuage your moral sense of wrongness; in essence, your charity is simply another way that you gird your own happiness.  

What is wrong with that, you respond?  I am both happier and more effective than you are.  In the end, do not I make both myself and others happier by my good attitude, while all that you do is preserve the status quo?  

You appear to do good, I respond; and those who you consciously see may in fact appear and feel better for your efforts than they were before, this much I will grant you.  And I do not suggest that you should cease in your charity, even if disingenuous.  But what of those who you do not see?  Do you pretend to be so open-eyed concerning your world that you can see the chain of cause and effect stretching back into the mists of time, showing how your actions have affected all others in this world?  I will answer this question for you--of course you do not and cannot, no person can see this far.  Who knows what ills may spring from anger you engender in the person you (unintentionally) cut off in traffic on the way to work, which later explodes into a shooting spree.  You may be the most moral and upright person in the world and still cause great evil either by your action or lack thereof.  And this regardless of your intentions.  Why, based on the best information available and with the best of intentions, you may in fact cause greater evil than if you had done nothing!  And this is not even considering the guilt of your ancestors.  You are the heir of a system built upon the backs of brutalized slaves; you partake of the goods wrought by violence and oppression.  You cannot escape this blood guilt by simply ignoring it.  

Yes, you respond, but we must do the best we can, it does little good to bemoan those things which you cannot change. 

Oh modern man, I scream!  It is precisely those things that you cannot change that keep getting you into trouble!  Listen to me, you cannot be good enough, cannot think yourself out of this bind.  

Alright then, you respond, assuming for a moment that we believe you, what of religion?  Might that not provide some consolation?  Is the point of grace (at least in the Christian tradition) not to wash clean this stain of ancestral guilt?  

You have misunderstood grace, I respond.  Yes, the mystery of grace does seem to respond to notions of guilt "transference" or "sharing".  But grace does not simply cause these harms to vanish in a puff of theological smoke.  Its workings are more subtle than this.  The purpose of grace is not to alleviate this burden, but only to allow us to bear it.  For is it not, oh you Christians, the point of your religion that you are to unite yourselves mystically to Christ, to put on Christ and to participate in his crucifixion (and resurrection)?  And surely, has he not born our griefs and carried our sorrows?  So is it not true that the more that one unites with the Christ of the cross, the more one feels these sorrows?  

But what of the triumph of the resurrection, you intone?  

It is there, I respond, I by no means suggest ultimate despair (though it might at times be useful to preach this doctrine).  But all is not finished in this world, and I find far more reason to experience the pain of Christ than the triumph of the resurrection, here below.  It is a question of proportionality.  

[my meditation is met with silence]

Thus, I continue, whether you are a Christian or a secularist, the only path possible is to dwell in the pain and despair of existence, to meditate on it and let it rush over you as ocean waves rushing over the ever sifting sands.  To do otherwise is to live within the bubble of a self-constructed faerie story.  Of course, I rather like faerie stories.