Tag Archives: despair

Cracking Up

Ken Kuhlken: At church, a guest speaker urged us toward open-hearted love for others, even the apparently lost. I appreciate this kind of urging, but only if it’s given along with clues that help us to love better. Otherwise, it’s rather as if a doctor says, “You’ve got heart problems, goodbye.”

I doubt we can learn to love much better unless we begin to heal from the despair with which Kierkegaard contends we are all afflicted. And we can’t begin to heal from despair unless we learn about ourselves, how we work. Which can’t begin to happen until we devote ourselves to searching for the truth about ourselves and our human condition and facing what we find no matter how painful. Which we can’t do very well as long as we’re over-busy with achieving career goals and staying in shape and relating with friends and so on and so on. Something’s got to give. Which is why I don’t care for the trend to treat every depression with meds that fix us enough so we don’t crack up. Maybe we all need to crack up.

Dr. Bob Weathers: I love this, Ken: “We all need to crack up.” I’ve been reflecting a lot about the path, laid down by Christ, of crucifixion.  Sounds like a downer topic, but inherent in it is liberation, the peace that surpasses all (ego) understanding.  It is simply not sufficient to cognitively assent to Christ dying for our sins; we are called to a much more radical reformulation of our very selves. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are God-given templates for our own existence.

What then does it mean to live a life of crucifixion, and resurrection? Kierkegaard provides guidance here.  We must choose to leap into the “abyss”. Otherwise, we are bound to acquiesce into Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.”.”

The ego would separate itself from God; which is as foolish as this morning’s rays of sun, glimmering across the treetops, deciding to separate themselves individually from the sun.

But we do this all the time: forgetting our essential reliance upon the Divine.  One poet observes that God is like the ocean, taking care of each wave till it safely gets to shore.  Do we really believe this?  More crucially: are we daily committing to living this?

As a start then, what does a sanctifying (I prefer that term to “sanctified”) life look like?  How do I live all of this?

This is where crucifixion, as basic blueprint, comes in.  Daily I must be willing to breathe into that which is greater than myself.  Which, to the ego, feels like death.  But only in relationship to that which is greater does the ego have a genuine bearing, a true north star.

All simple enough to say; but truly crucifying to live.  What if, for example, I take just today’s suffering—its inevitable frustrations (of ego plans), its physical pain or discomfort—as springboard into deeper fidelity to God?  In other words, could I approach my daily suffering as a cross to be borne; and so as deliverance into that which transcends my preferences, my personal willpower, me? Can I truly I consider it all joy because it reminds me where my real good lies?

According to medieval Persian saying, Someone asked the Master what the essence of faith was.  The Master said, “It’s that feeling of joy when sudden disappointment comes.”

I agree that we first need to understand who we are, and then to undertake self-transformation (powered and enlightened by grace), if ever we are to truly appropriate Christ’s promises of the “kingdom of heaven.”  Yet we habitually ignore his life, and its inexorable calling to us.

Too commonly, our conventional religion allows or even assists us in ignoring God’s call. Our rituals become rote practices, mere husks of faith, offering neither transformation nor the hope of the ultimate salvation we seek.

I certainly don’t mean to advocate creating a more rigorous or puritanical religion grounded in a kind of sublimated form of (ego) willpower.

Rather, as individuals, we drop humbly to our knees and pray to be healed of our very selves, which keep us locked out of a living experience of the Kingdom, and perpetually divided in our allegiances, between the finite (the world’s values) and the infinite (Christ’s values).  This division may well be the cause of religiously inspired bloodshed and atrocity.

Instead, we can take the road less travelled, the path of crucifixion, where we need go no further than today’s allotment of disappointment, sorrow, and reversal of fortune to discover yet another opportunity for faithfully surrendering ourselves to the one who authors us into moment-to-moment existence.

 

Ken Kuhlken writes novels.  Dr. Bob Weathers teaches and practices psychology.

 

 

I Did It My Way

Having previously written about the despair of finitude and the despair of weakness, two of the three varieties of despair Soren Kierkegaard identifies, I’ll turn to the third, the despair of defiance.

Those inflicted with this form of the disease have experienced the reality of the infinite.  Yet the experience hasn’t humbled them as it ought to. Instead, it has inflamed their self-esteem to the degree that they consider themselves equal to the power that created them and allowed them the experience.

I’m no historian, only a college history minor and writer of historical novels.  Still, I offer for consideration my view that the two most profound influences on the thought and events of the 20th century were the 19th century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard.

Nietzsche advocated for the supremacy and assertion of human will. Hitler was certainly influenced by Nietzsche, and Marxist dictators such as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were, if not directly influenced by him, inspired by the school of thought to which he belonged.

A person inflicted with the despair of defiance, as I suspect Nietzsche was, can’t abide feeling subservient.  She may be endowed with a sensitive nature coupled with a brilliant mind and therefore suffer more deeply than most from wounds caused by misunderstanding or rejection. If she has experienced the infinite and been led to believe in an omnipotent creator and ruler, she is likely to blame all the unfairness she experiences or witnesses on that ruler. Having witnessed what she perceives as grievous flaws in creation, and at some level believing she could do better, how could she not defy God’s will to form her into the self he created her to be?

Another person inflicted with the despair of defiance may have succeeded so grandly in worldly pursuits that he concurs with his admirers and believes in his essential superiority.  Why then should he risk submission to his creator’s vision of what his self should become?

As soon as a sense of entitlement or resentment enters us, we expel humility and invite the despair of defiance, which prompts the acts that allow so many honored, successful, and even truth-seeking people to fall from grace. Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment is an inspired case study of such a person.

The despair of defiance makes it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich (or powerful, and perhaps the intellectually gifted) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Because the key to the Kingdom of Heaven is found in the self we are called by our creator to become.

In the film Chinatown, Noah Cross tells Jake Gittes, “I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

Notice the defiant won’t take the blame for his despair or anything else, no matter how despicable.

 

 

Despair as Comedy

Soren Kierkegaard identifies three varieties of despair. Last week I described the despair of finitude, under the title “Get Real”. So I’ll move on to the “despair of weakness”, which he defines as “the despair of not wanting to be oneself.”

Unlike the despair of finitude, the “weakness” variety doesn’t begin with attraction to the finite but as a result of the choice to avoid the responsibility of living as a unique, self-directed individual. This person feels incapable of being himself.

Those who have learned to feel guilty about everything may easily fall into this despair, motivated by the desire to guard against the risk of more guilt by attempting to do and say what others expect of them. They reason or sense that acting differently from others would cause more recrimination and so more guilt.

This despair “… actually consists of wanting to be someone else.” Only their “someone else” isn’t a real person but the external image of someone they idealize as being above condemnation or criticism.  Someone who need not suffer guilt or consider himself to be the object of disdain.

The person inflicted by the despair of weakness may not relish the rewards of the finite except as they distract from introspection and thereby protect him from the pull of the infinite toward synthesis with the finite.  His motive isn’t attraction but self-defense. He seeks protection from the terrifying temptation to step into the void that lies between his illusions and the reality of who he was created to be.

His illusions and attention to the superficial not only help him avoid connection with the infinite but also with anything more complex than that which he regards as unpleasant. He opts to avoid whatever doesn’t positively affect his present condition or sense of security. In essence, he is so engaged in protecting himself against discomfort or suffering, he can’t think except fleetingly about anything or feel deeply about the concerns of anyone else.

Whereas Kierkegaard finds the person inflicted with the despair of finitude rather pathetic on account of his belief in the value of the ultimately trivial, he sees the person ruled by the despair of weakness as comical, trying in vain to be something imaginary. The poor fellow is the spiritual and emotional equivalent of someone devoted to lip-synching a popular song or thrashing on an air guitar.

Next I’ll turn to the despair of defiance, the variety of despair we novelists find most compelling. Please subscribe, read, and let me know if any of these conditions feel or appear familiar.

Meanwhile, should you care to learn more about the rather bizarre life that has led the author of these posts at least to the edge of either eternity or madness, his story Readiing Brother Lawrence is quite available.

Get Real

If Soren Kierkegaard wrote the truth, all we need do to overcome melancholy is get real. The catch is, getting real can be an arduous chore, which amounts to vanquishing despair.

Kierkegaard taught that we all are inflicted with despair, a disease far more dangerous than depression or melancholy. And he concluded that both the cause and the result of despair is the alienation of our selves from the infinite.

Each of us was created in human form to be an integrated self, aware of and relating in harmony with both the finite and the infinite.

The finite is necessity, the senses, and the mind as it deals with the superficial, both concrete and abstract. Mathematical equations or the most engaging philosophical or poetic inquiry can be no less finite than a cupcake.

The infinite is God, freedom, and beauty as the manifestation of love and truth.

The self is the result of a synthesis of the finite and the infinite that takes place within us, a conscious unity only accomplished in relationship to God. As long as the self rebuffs or ignores God, it is not itself. And the conscious or unconscious recognition of not being oneself is the substance of despair.

The recognition of our despair should lead us to seek the infinite and finally surrender to its pull and so experience our absolute dependence upon God. But timidity, defiance, or attachment to the familiar allows the finite to hold us captive.

Kierkegaard identifies three categories of despair. In this reflection I’ll introduce the despair of finitude, which “consists in ascribing infinite value to the trivial and temporal.” The person inflicted with this strain of despair considers the stuff of the finite world as supremely valuable. Preachers often call this form of despair idolatry.

The illusion that finite treasures, pleasures, and challenges give life meaning dissuades this person from believing in himself. He calculates that acting in his unique way, rather than in the same manner as the ones by whom he is surrounded, would risk the disapproval of the others. As a result, he might lose all the finite rewards social and public acceptance promise. So he either chooses not to risk being himself or declines to look deeply enough to realize the existence of a potential self beneath the surface.

In Kierkegaard’s vision, these people have “pawned themselves to the world.” They may amass wealth, succeed in careers, prudently calculate social, financial, or political advantages and even be honored by history. Yet they are at best copies of what they admire in others or find that others admire. They have no real self.

In “The Father”, a remarkable short story by Raymond Carver, a mother and daughters are gathered in the kitchen observing the family’s new baby. They offer opinions until one girl says, “He looks like Daddy.”

“But who does Daddy look like?” a sister asks.

The youngest sister answers, “Daddy doesn’t look like anybody.”

They all turn and stare at the father in horror.

I wonder, what more appropriate cause for despair, depression, or melancholy than the recognition, conscious or unconscious, that I am nobody? Literally nobody. The knowledge that I, as a unique being, do not exist.