Saintly Thoughts

Hope Amidst Despair

I compose my melody of words primarily in a minor key which speaks of doom and despair.  I will not deny that I am a pessimist by nature, that I see behind every beautiful sunset the terror of the gathering darkness and dare not think that the morning will ever come.  But I think it important that I emphasize, from time to time, that such is not my ultimate aim, nor is such the story of existence to which I ultimately cling, however imperfectly.  I will not deny that despair is a constant companion and  temptation and that I am often wooed too far in the direction of her seductive bedchamber where I might lie in the cold comfort of her embrace.  You would think that I would have learned by now that to lie with her is to experience a false reprieve to my discomfort which, in the end, only compounds the power of her dominion, like the disappointment you feel when awakening from a dream in which you were entwined in the arms of your beloved only to discover that you were merely holding yourself.  And this self-deluding comfort, ironically, is the very thing that causes me to find despair so alluring.  For the fertile soil in which despair may flourish is nothing other than the sin of human pride.  I am, if I am nothing else, one whose very being is driven by a self-regarding pride, and this pride has taught me the myth of utter self-sufficiency which shuns the other and looks only to the reserves of strength available in the depths of the self.  Self-sufficiency is a lie, pure and simple.  To live is to connect with the souls of those fellow travelers with whom we share life's journey, and to live well is to engage wholeheartedly and intimately with our fellows.  This is true even for the most isolated desert ascetic, who leaves behind her earthly companions only so that she may more fully experience the Soul of that utterly other who lies beyond the abyss of human incomprehension [I'm talking about God here for those of you whom I have lost in my cultured obtuseness].  

So I readily present this confession to you, the reader: yes, I have often lost myself upon the waters of despair.  Like the Apostle, "I do that which I do not wish to do" because it is easier than the alternative of open humility which, in my fear, may bring unendurable pain.  For so often the known evil (which we know that we can endure) appears better than that unknown which may be for our good but, just as easily, may utterly destroy us (or, at least, that is the fear).  However, while the waters of despair are a constant course-option upon the sea of my soul, that heading is only an ever-present danger because the hope of my soul's journey is that which lies near it yet beyond it.  For there is no hope for us here.  Empires will rise and fall, conditions will better and worsen, humans will reconcile and then war again, and in the end, all will fall into the dusty grave.  Yes, I know that no one sees the future, and I know that many hope in the possibility that the answers to the worlds dilemmas lie just around the corner, that we may finally ascend to the heavens upon the tower of human ingenuity and progress.  And truly, our ingenuity and problem-solving capacities are great.   But in that ongoing chain of cause and effect in which we creatures trapped by time are indelibly bound, each solution seems to breed at least two new problems, and the inevitability of unintended consequences (which may be hidden for a time but which will out in the end) more often causes evil rather than good.  No, hope in such a world is a chimera; better to live for the pleasure of the moment and ignore the end-state of existence as best you can.

Hope must then--if there is to be any hope at all--come into the system from elsewhere, from that great unknown lying infinitely beyond the bounds of human experience.  But herein lies another difficulty--for not all that lies beyond is good and much of it is harmful.  How may we discern the one from the other (especially when we have not even the prudence to always recognize the "good" action within the realm of our own experience)?  No human means.  And if not by human means, then there is no means of knowing that we have any capacity to judge and discern.  Thus we reach another level at which we face the temptation to despair, for we have attained another plateau only to be again rebuffed.  And since this thing that we are striving for is infinite (or beyond the infinite, if you will), this dialectic between hope and despair is itself infinite.  But, I wish to suggest, at each level our understanding of both the hope and of the despair grows and expands.  Or maybe understanding isn't the right word...maybe it's something more akin to "habituation" by which we become "familiar" with these two states.  In our "habituation" we are able to experience ever more clearly both the heights of hope and the depths of despair.  

Maybe I've lost some of you at this point.  At the very least, I imagine that you must be asking what good comes from the engagement with despair, and at what point do we get to leave despair behind?  I don't think--in our present state--we ever do get to leave despair behind.  In this world despair will always be with us whether we choose to acknowledge its reality or ignore it.  But I wish to suggest that despair plays a vital role in our formation as human beings; for as long as despair exists men and women will fall into her grasp, and this very despair (being at its heart a perverse mutation of a prideful amore-propre) will isolate them within a cocoon of their own creation.  The very thing that those trapped in such a cocoon need is community with their fellows, but in this state, that is the very thing that they are incapable of recognizing or asking for.  How then are their fellows to recognize their need and show them true understanding and companionship if they have not first themselves walked the paths of despair?  And is not a part of that great universal commandment to love one's neighbor?  And so, does the path of despair not ultimately aid us in our journey towards true personhood, and help prepare us for the greater mysteries of being?