Hoping and Living: Beyond Despair
A lifetime in my skin has taught me about the intersection of beliefs, moods, and personal circumstances in my own life … and how I am prone to the sin of despair.
In between the cricket scores and Bollywood gossip, there were two reports that stayed with me. The first was about the epidemic of suicide among poor Indian farmers: In the first 10 days of August, 16 farmers in the state of Andhra Pradesh killed themselves. In July, 60 killed themselves.
What’s happening in Andhra Pradesh is not an isolated or uncommon occurrence: In 2006, nearly 18,000 Indian farmers killed themselves and since 1997 at least 170,000 farmers are believed to have taken their lives.
The other story, also out of Andhra Pradesh, involved a single death: a 28-year-old software engineer killed herself just hours before her wedding because “her parents were unable to meet the dowry demand of the groom.”
Again, this suicide was part of a larger trend: On average, six Indian women kill themselves every day for similar reasons, despite the fact that demanding a dowry has been illegal since 1961.
All of this self-inflected death in a country as — I have no better word for it — alive as India flabbergasted me. I was aware of the injustices underlying these stories: the unimaginable (to Americans) inequality in Indian society and the (not to put too fine a point on it) barbarism with which many Indian women, especially poor ones, are treated.
At the same time, injustice and the cruel treatment of women are not unique to the subcontinent. What is, if not unique, out-of-the-ordinary about these stories is the result: suicide.
All of this got me to thinking yet again about suicide. I explored the subject a few years ago for Boundless and since then I have continued to think about how our beliefs, moods, and personal circumstances can come together in tragic ways.
A few weeks in India hardly qualifies me to speak authoritatively on why so many Indians take their lives. But a lifetime in my skin has taught me about the intersection of beliefs, moods, and personal circumstances in my own life and how I am prone to the sin of despair.
If labeling despair a “sin” seems odd, even cruel, to you, you are not alone — for a long time that’s how it seemed to me. That’s because I didn’t understand what despair was or, for that matter, wasn’t. Despair isn’t sadness and it certainly isn’t clinical depression, which is an illness with a biological cause.
In the Christian tradition, despair is the opposite of hope. It is not a feeling or a mood — it is a belief or more precisely, a disbelief. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, despair “is due to a man’s failure to hope that he will share in the goodness of God.” For Aquinas, despair was more dangerous than explicit unbelief or even hatred of God because “by hope we are called back from evils and induced to strive for what is good, and if hope is lost, men fall headlong into vices, and are taken away from good works.”
For Aquinas, “nothing is more execrable than despair. For he who despairs loses his constancy in the daily labors of this life, and what is worse, loses his constancy in the endeavor of faith.” He approvingly quotes the 6th-century theologian Isidore of Seville’s maxim that “to commit a crime is death to the soul; but to despair is to descend into hell.”
While I didn’t wind up in the Hell, my dalliances with despair have led me into a hell of my own making: a place where everything was at best a shade of very dark gray, every day seemed indistinguishable from the one that preceded it and all of my efforts seemed to be in vain. It’s a place where “what’s the point?” is a commonly-asked, albeit rhetorical, question.
Every setback and struggle was a metaphor for the human experience and life was something to be endured, not lived and certainly not enjoyed. (Despair and solipsism are frequent companions.) Oh, I did the right things, or at least I halfheartedly strove to not do the obviously wrong ones but there was no joy in doing good or in very little else for that matter.
Not much of a life, was it? Why did I descend into this hell? My infelicitous brain chemistry has something to do with it and my personal circumstances contributed but, in my case, the difference between what my friend Cher calls “joyful sadness” and despair lay in my failure to hope that I will share in the goodness of God. Specifically, it lay in my incomprehension of what that goodness is.
I thought that this goodness would manifest itself a way that I would always recognize — in other words, God would give me what I want. Now, I’m not completely childish — I knew enough not to want the wrong things (or at least not too many of them). A good God didn’t have to make me rich, famous, etc. He could even allow the occasional hardship to cross my path, as long as it was obvious that the hardship was transitory, as well as occasional.
Unfortunately, some of the hardships turned out to be chronic and disinclined to wait their turn — that’s when I started to despair. Mind you, it was a low-key kind of despair: Only my closest friends had an inkling of what was going on. But it was still execrable.
I can’t point to a single moment, event or insight that turned things around: All I know that over time I came to understand what St. Paul meant when he asked “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” More than at any time in my life I am “persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The understanding starts with being clear on what is not being promised: a life free from (sometimes-persistent) hardship. Nor, for that matter, are we being promised an explanation for hardship. What we are being promised is that the love that sent Christ to the cross, the willingness to sacrifice His only-begotten for the sake of our wellbeing and redemption is infinitely greater than any hardship we will ever have to experience, a promise whose fulfillment was guaranteed by God’s raising Jesus from the dead.
This understanding became the basis for hope, which in turn made it possible for me to look beyond (not ignore or deny) my hardships — I learned that there is more to my story than my present circumstances which, to be honest, aren’t in the same solar system as persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or swords.
This may sound abstract and fuzzy but it is the difference between life on a largely biological level (bios), dominated by concerns for safety, comfort, and our “needs,” and life (zoe) as the New Testament speaks of it, a life freed from the “dungeon of our egos” that can be lived for the benefit of others in imitation of our savior.
(Needless to say, Aquinas was right: Hope made me more constant in both my “daily labors” and the “endeavor of faith.”)
Ironically (or fittingly), the more I thought about others and less about myself, the more I became aware that I was being cared for. I was not alone in my struggle — my life was filled with little (and some not-so-little) acts of mercy and kindness that lightened the load I was carrying. As a result, I became more grateful which, in turn, made me more hopeful.
(I should be clear: This is not a substitute for seeking treatment for depression, including medication if needed. If you suspect that you are depressed, you owe it to God, your friends and your family to seek the help you need. In case you’re wondering: I’m still taking medication.)
This isn’t “positive thinking” or some other “self-help” nostrum. Optimism, as the late Father Richard Neuhaus used to remind us, isn’t the same thing as hope — the former is a way of looking (hence “opt” as in “optics”) at things while hope is a belief about the nature of things.
While I won’t presume to expound on how beliefs figured in the Indian suicides that I mentioned earlier, I do know that for me, Christian hope is the difference between life and, if not death, something not worthy of the name “life.”
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Copyright 2009 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Roberto Rivera y Carlo writes from his home in Alexandria, Va.