Thoughts on Humility Against Despair
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
I chickened out last night at a weekly men’s discussion group at church. Rather than our usual Bible study, our pastor chose a chapter from Thomas Merton’s classic New Seeds of Contemplation. At first I was delighted, because as it happens I’ve kept a copy of Father Merton’s book on my bedside table for occasional inspiration for the last year or so. But then I saw the topic of our discussion would come from chapter 25, “Humility Against Despair.” While it’s a timely treatise for these difficult times, as we talked about Father Merton’s observations on the relationship between humility and despair, I found myself feeling more and more cowardly.
Father Merton begins that chapter with these words: “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.” As it happens, I disagree. But I wasn’t willing to say that, because I was afraid of having to explain why.
Later in the chapter I think Thomas Merton was right to point to humility as absolutely necessary for release from despair. I also agree some forms of despair are fueled by prideful self-pity. But I am not convinced by the father’s unqualified statements in the opening paragraphs of his chapter, where he also writes, “Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God...”
Because I didn’t know my pastor planned to present this topic for discussion last night, I didn’t have time to psyche myself up to talk about it transparently. But today I decided it might help someone if I wrote about it openly, so here’s what I was too chicken to admit yesterday:
I know quite a lot about despair. I once suffered from it to the point of being sorely tempted to commit suicide.
The Bible tells us in many places all trials are beneficial for believers, even when they cause us grief. Here is some of what I learned from my particular trial...
Jesus, quoting the Hebrew scriptures, teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” so in spite of Father Merton's phrasing, self-love itself is not the problem. One cannot love another without first having a healthy appreciation for the fact that the Creator of the universe considers us worthy of a deep and sacrificial love. Who are we to disagree with God on this?
But of course self-love can be taken to an unhealthy extreme, as all good human impulses can. For the sake of conversation I suppose it is convenient to select a word for that condition, but I wish Father Merton had chosen more carefully. In most English-speaking peoples' minds “despair” is synonymous with “depression” (it certainly seemed that way in last night’s discussion) and that’s where I find I can’t agree with the father, because there are several reasons for depression that have nothing to do with improperly conceived self-love.
According to this source (which I highly recommend) depression can be hereditary, or chemically induced, or the after effect of prolonged physical or emotional stress, or an involuntary reaction to a major change in life’s circumstances. Merton’s definition matches yet another of the usual suspects, something called “endogenous depression,” which psychologists believe is the result of a prolonged and deep-seated anger turned inward at oneself because it feels unsafe to direct it outward at the cause. In other words, there is a kind of depression which can be caused by clinging to unforgiveness.
I believe “unforgiveness” is a far better term than “despair” to describe this form of spiritual corruption, this “absolute extreme of self-love” Merton describes, because unforgiveness is the spiritual action undertaken (when the cause is spiritual), and despair is only the result.
But again, not all depression is the same. For me despair (or depression) came during a three-year period in my life when I suffered through a series of unrelenting personal betrayals, losses and grief. Each of those evils attacked me hard on the heels of another. In every case I had good reason to mourn.
There is nothing wrong with grief, of course. After all, “Jesus wept.” In this fallen world, it’s natural. But when one suffers through a Job-like period with life handing you one evil after another, if it lasts long enough, against your will it can change the way you think. That’s so important it bears repeating: against your will it can change the way you think.
This is an established medical fact. It is possible to become involuntarily addicted to a beneficial drug if circumstances require you to consume it long enough. In a similar way, depression or despair is sometimes caused by a long immersion in the grief and pain which is a natural and logical and proper emotional response to very bad events. If you have never suffered from severe depression and you don’t believe it’s possible to end up there against your will, ask a combat veteran. Ask an abused child.
So here is the question I would ask Thomas Merton if I could: should we tell a combat veteran or an abused child that they feel despair because they are insufficiently humble? And if we are not prepared to do that, who are we to decide to draw the line elsewhere, to say to anyone, “He and she have a legitimate reason to struggle with depression and despair, but you do not”?
Maybe a stronger faith, with its accompanying humility, would have kept me from the depression that led me to thoughts of suicide. But maybe not. Deeply faithful people become sick and it has nothing to do with a lack of humility. So was my depression a form of sickness, or was it sinful pride as Merton suggested? I can offer two evidences that Merton was wrong in my case.
First, when I thought of ending my life—and I did so many times over a period of several months—again and again I chose not to do it for one reason only: I knew it was against God’s will, and I knew it would break my wife’s heart. In other words, while Merton summarily dismisses all despair as “the absolute extreme of self-love,” I chose life in the midst of despair for the sake of outward focused love.
My second evidence is a guiltless conscience. Not once since that time have I sensed the Holy Spirit’s conviction in the matter, and while I am often disobedient, I am nonetheless very aware of God's displeasure when it comes.
I find great inspiration in Merton’s work and in his life-long example, or I wouldn’t keep his book so close at hand. And nobody gets it right all of the time, of course, so disagreement on one point is no reason to ignore a hundred other pearls of wisdom. Even in this chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation I agree with the good father to this extent: humility is indeed essential in the fight against despair.
In Christ’s case, only his infinite humility could have saved his sanity when he was driven by unrelenting evil to cry out with the despairing Psalmist, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” In my case, God’s beauty as revealed in His natural creation finally drew me up and out of despair. I could not have connected with God’s beauty if I had remained focused on myself, so that part of Merton’s premise is correct: in all humility I owe everything to God. There was no room for pride. I was utterly helpless; God had mercy on me, and I was rescued, plain and simple, just as I was rescued when I first surrendered myself to Him through Jesus, my Messiah.
The other men in the room touched on this final point last night and I was very glad, but I wish I had been brave enough to take it one step further, because this truth contains an important contradiction with Merton’s initial statements: God is under no obligation to rescue anyone, and whether He chooses to do so or not is not a function of human humility, therefore it is possible to be completely humble, and yet remain caught up in despair simply because it is the perfect will of God.
In other words, sometimes, despair is simply a test, like so many other forms of evil.
Some Christians are not rescued as I was. Some, like Paul with his famous thorn in the flesh, are left by the Divine within the fight. Indeed, Paul’s thorn was left in place precisely so he would not fall into self-love. So who are we to say depression can only exist because of self-love? Not only is that assertion judgmental in the sense Jesus hated, but once we take that step, we must be prepared to accept the same explanation for things like schizophrenia, or cancer.
I do believe—I know from personal experience—that humility is essential in recovering from depression and despair, I don’t think it follows that corrupt self-love is necessarily the cause of all despair, nor do I believe corrupt self-love is an essential characteristic of despair. Sometimes it is there, for sure. Maybe even most of the time; who knows? But to say as Father Merton did that “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love,” is to do a grave disservice to those who continue to suffer from depression or despair, and yet who, like Job, resist the beguiling temptation of release that death would bring, solely because of their selfless obedience to a God they dearly love.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:53 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way