No one these days escapes powerful uprushes of fear. Economic stagnation, terror threats, high unemployment, government ineffectiveness, collapsing social values, and corruption on a global scale will do that to you. But ratcheting down our fears will not help us very much to cope with an even larger problem.
That problem is despair. Theologians call it accedia, a listless sorrow that can end in a state of soul-killing sloth. It is a deep and abiding sadness over losses too numerous to enumerate, too important to discount, and too searing fully to heal.
John Bunyan referred to sadness like this as a “slough of despond.” For Kierkegaard it was a “sickness unto death.” Today, we settle for calling it a sense of hopelessness.
Actually, though, despair is anything but hopeless. It springs from something quite commonplace, what Freud named the ordinary human unhappiness that plagues us before neurotic misery sets in.
Mostly, we make ourselves unhappy by refusing to accept as inevitable the gap between our aspirations and accomplishments, between what we ought to make so, can make so, and actually do make so. Then we cling to the conviction that we are alone in our misery. Finally, we fall into the delusion that, if we can’t cure our unhappiness, we can at least medicate it by alcohol, sex, drugs, social media, money, pills, bucking for promotions, running for office, or all of the above.
Despair is avoidable, even if the sadness that gives rise to it is not. We make ourselves vulnerable to sadness because we let things and people matter to us. The pain that comes from losing them is inevitable, but it is also endurable, if we resist defining the whole of life in terms of it and anesthetizing it.
To borrow a couple of words from William Faulkner, we can do more than merely endure sadness. We can prevail over it. How? By accepting the nurture of others, who know from experience what the pain of loss and sadness is like. By allowing them to teach us how hope soothes sorrow, love transforms self-preoccupation, and empathy gives way to ecstasy, to the standing outside of ourselves in an enveloping of others with care.
Johann Franck’s words make both for good advice and good hymnody:
Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,
Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,
Come into the daylight’s splendor…