Hope & Despair

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons / (c) an untrained eye
Hope is essential to life. This becomes obvious when we remember that the antonym of hope is despair.

Despair is so toxic that Soren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth century Danish philosopher, called it "the sickness unto death."

Despair is the sense you have that no matter how hard you try, you'll never measure up. It's the voice you encounter in rejection and failure that whispers you'll never be good enough. It nudges you to concede that tomorrow will be the same stuff on a different day.

Despair isn't limited to those who are down and out. It's also present at the parties of the well-off, well-dressed, and well-connected. That group isn't deaf to that same whisper, and they aren't numb to those same nudges.

The despair that causes the struggling student to finally stop trying
is the same despair that drives the insecure businessman to never stop working.

So Kierkegaard says, "The greatest danger, that of losing one's own self, may pass off as quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is sure to be noticed" [1]. Imagine that. Life just slips away while we incessantly interrogate every person in the house about the $5 bill that went missing from the kitchen table.

A rock climber named Aron Ralston was climbing in Utah when he was pinned by a boulder that rolled onto one of his arms. You might have heard his story because it was made into a movie called 127 Hours. He stayed there for five nights, trapped by the rock. At first he screamed for help, but then he realized it was no use because the place was too remote for anyone to hear him. Eventually he decided that his only chance to survive was to use his dull pocketknife to cut off his own arm.

Do you think that was a quiet operation?

That is precisely Kierkegaard's point.
We would shriek in pain if we lost an arm, yet we don't even notice when our own life is being cut apart.

All of this leads me to think that recognizing our own despair is a step in the right direction. Most of us are so thoroughly schooled in denial that our first instinct is to tune it out or cover it up. We carry on as if everything were just fine, all the while thinking that the way things are is the best we can expect them to be. The irony is that, in so doing, we actually clog the pipe through which lasting hope flows.

The ancient proverb continues to ring true even today:
"There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death" (Proverbs 14:12).

Or, we could easily imagine Jesus rephrasing that proverb as a question:
"What good is it to acquire everything you want in the world if you lose your own self in the process?" (see Matthew 16:26).

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death (Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008), 13.

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Lesson Learned: Norwegian Gunman & 9/11
Church: In the Middle of It All


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