Thoughts on Humility Against Despair

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.

P.S. Do me a favor, will you? If you reading this, let me know you're out there by leaving a comment, even if it's just to say, "Hi Athol. I'm here." Thanks!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:53 PM  


Fridaydreamer said... November 11, 2009 at 8:00 PM  

Hello Athol,
Just wanted you to know how much I appreciated this post, and to let you know that I am indeed out here, reading your blog and enjoying it very much.

I think this particular post is really important. For a long time, even though I wouldn't have said so out loud, I thought depression was a state of mind a Christian shouldn't indulge. I guess it was easier to think that before life had taught me a little humility. After an extended time of a many-tentacled trial, I have more compassion and understanding for people who live with depression. I wouldn't say that I have gotten to a point I would consider depression, but the continual state of stress created by challenging life circumstances can definitely mess with your head and affect your mood for awhile.

I am so in agreement with you that to choose "life in the midst of despair for the sake of outward focused love" is the demonstration that not all despair is born out of extreme self-love (although some despair can be.) To choose to act on Truth despite depression and feelings of despair, is exactly the Spirit-filled response to which we are called.

I'm so glad you wrote about this--it is filled with compassion and the kind of distinction Jesus lived out in front of us. You are a blessing!


Glynn said... November 11, 2009 at 8:14 PM  

I understand what Merton wrote (I think), but I'm more aligned with where you on this. I've dealt with depression off and on for most of my life; it seems to come in cycles. For me, it's usually associated with an extended period of intense work or major run of creativity orsome kind of family/personal upheaval. I've learned to recognize the signs so that I can start dealing with it early on.

I enjoy reading your blog, and I enjoy your novels. Just finished "Lost Mission" last month -- a great story.

Athol Dickson said... November 11, 2009 at 8:52 PM  

Shaunie and Glynn, thanks so much for letting me know you're reading. After a few posts with 0 comments, I begin to wonder if I'm the only one reading the blog! :)

I do want to say I think Thomas Merton was a genius on the order of C.S. Lewis, although he wrote about a different part of Christian life, and for a different reason (no apologetics here). It's just I think he didn't understand this particular issue very well.

Another thing I should have mentioned is that NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION was first published in 1961, which means it was probably written in 1959-60. We've learned an awful lot about how our minds work in the last fifty years. If Father Merton were alive today, he might well revise his opinion. He did have quite an open mind, which is one of the things I love about him.

Brian said... November 11, 2009 at 9:36 PM  

I'm reading. There was a long space when you weren't posting, and I'm glad to see you back. I enjoyed River Rising, and found your blog when I was trying to decide what an author-blog should look like. Please keep posting. Thanks.

Jon Hetzel said... November 12, 2009 at 5:16 AM  

I'm here Athol...check your blog every day and love your books. Thanks for using your gifts!

Athol said... November 12, 2009 at 6:55 AM  

Brian and Jon, thanks for letting me know you're there. And yes, Brian there was a long period when I wasn't blogging. All my writing energy was going into wrapping up LOST MISSION and getting started on my next novel, which goes out to the editor tomorrow. (Yippie!) But now I'm searching for the next Big Idea, and thinking all over the map, trying to come up with a theme for another novel, so there's plenty of material percolating for the blog. I'm so glad you guys are here!

Brian Powers said... November 12, 2009 at 7:27 AM  

Howdy Athol. Thanks for posting this over on Facebook. I wasn't going to say anything but then at the end of the article you asked me to. So there is power in asking for things. I need to do more of that myself.

Kay Day said... November 12, 2009 at 9:14 AM  

This is a great post. Thank you for bringing to light a difficult topic.

I think when people have never dealt with depression they simply have no clue and probably shouldn't address the topic. I had a friend once say, "just stop thinking about the things that make you sad."
She meant well, but it wasn't that simple.

I suffered two years of major depression that came out of the blue. I think perhaps related to a small stroke I had. An actual physical response, rather than emotional.
Not sure, but I too had suicidal yearnings. I believed my toddler daughter would be better off with a mommy who didn't cry all the time and could function as a mommy should.

But I also know that I was in the Word and praying through it all. I was trying to focus on the Lord. But in the midst of the trial my thoughts tended to center on myself and my pain, so even though it wasn't born of a self-centered self-love, it seemed to degenerate to that at some level.

But God brought me through. It ended almost as suddenly as it came.

After that, when the blues would come upon me I would feel panicked that I was beginning the decent into the darkness. But I learned to just relax, give it to God and hang on to Him for whatever followed. I've never gone into that kind of despair again, but if God takes me there in His grace, I will hang on for the ride and trust Him with it. I guess that's the humility part.

I believe that I am better now for what I experienced. In many ways.

Anonymous said... November 12, 2009 at 11:51 AM  

Hey! A lot of that is over my head, but I can say that yes, despair, depression is a lot more complicated than we give it credit for. There is no easy answer.

Love your books, own a few

Patricia Hickman said... November 12, 2009 at 7:22 PM  

I agree, Athol, that, had Merton lived today, he might have shifted his wording. I was just reading his morning prayers yesterday, so, like you, I'm thankful for his writings that he left as a legacy. But the dark night of the soul, be it clinical depression or the ravages of grief, is not something that can be candied into a jar of Christianese. Each person's pain is their own and complicated. I don't think Merton meant to minimize the pain of a person suffering grievously. He was probably being certain that his point was to side with God. I have come to realize, though, that I know more about God and know him better because of personal grief. In writing down what I've learned, it's taught me to side with grace. I agree with you, Athol.

Kim said... November 15, 2009 at 4:04 PM  

Hi, Athol,
I'm so pleased to have just found your blog. Your books have been stunning, thought-provoking reads my husband and I really appreciate. Among "inspirational" fiction they are in a class by themselves.

Thanks for writing on this subject. I relate only too well.

~michelle pendergrass said... November 15, 2009 at 6:56 PM  

I'm here. I may not comment on every post, but I do read.

This subject is salt in a deep wound that I'm pretty sure will never heal.

And honestly, this makes me believe Paul's thorn was not at all physical.

3 years ago, my uncle (but in all reality--he was more like my big brother than my uncle) hung himself after a deep 5+ year depression and many unsuccessful overdose attempts.

After his second to last attempt, when he came out of the drug stupor, he accepted Christ (05-05-05-like I could forget that?) Then 9 months and 15 days later, he was successful.

After what I experienced, I find it hard to believe it was self-love at all.

I am still trying to come to terms with it all. I can't fit all I would like to say in a blog comment, for sure.

My heart has settled upon something that may not be true. That, while it wasn't God's will that my uncle took his own life, God allowed it. And I don't believe God's hand wasn't clenched around him. Or at least I don't want to believe God gave him eternal life and snatched it away from him.

How the destruction of depression can be equated to self-love is probably beyond my comprehension with the gaping wounds in my heart.

Athol said... November 16, 2009 at 8:29 AM  

Michelle, I think you have to cling to one of my favorite verses in the Bible: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Ro 8:1) That comes immediately after Paul admits that he still wrestles with sin. "When I want to do good, evil is right there with me." Paul even speaks of "another law" (evil) "waging war against the law of my mind." (Ro 7:21-23) So I think he was familiar with a mental struggle against evil, perhaps even the struggle your uncle faced, or if not that particular burden then another which to Paul was also grevious. And while it's true that suicide is a terrible sin, I think Paul would say with confidence that your uncle, as a believer, was no more condemned in death for that sin than any believer is condemned for any other sin. Either all is forgiven, or nothing is forgiven. Either the gospel is true, or it is a lie. There are no other choices. "There is now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." What a glorious promise! And it's certainly something you can rest easy in when your uncle comes to mind.

Athol said... November 16, 2009 at 9:00 AM  

Kim, thanks for your encouraging words! I'm glad you found my blog and hope you visit often.

Dee Yoder said... November 16, 2009 at 3:02 PM  

Uh huh. I understand the thoughts you expressed. After my husband's death from a long bout with cancer, I was left with a three-year-old and myself. It was oh, so lonely and dark during the first 6 months while I learned how to get on with things without Jim. Grief is a soul-stealer and ever so tiring physically. I had nights that I thought of joining my spouse, but then, I'd think of my little boy...already lost his dad...well. It wasn't anything but that thought that kept me getting up each day. And then, one morning, I looked out the window and saw a red sunrise. The song "Great is Thy Faithfulness" started rolling in my was a turning point. A spiral upward, as C.S. Lewis put it. I agree with you that sometimes despair is a reaction to grief and loss. Excellent post! Glad I found your blog.

Bad~Zen said... November 24, 2009 at 6:06 AM  

Life has kept me out of much of the loop for several months when it comes to keeping up on my favorite blogs... and yours ranks right at the very top. What you are saying here is so-o-o on target for more reasons than I care to mention here. When I can, I am still slowly working myself through that same Merton book.


I think only in the last 3-4 years I have begun to emerge from such a state as you describe brought on in late 2002 which has resulted serious, even debilitating physical and mental ramifications. I'm still working on it with God's inexplicable patience and tolerance.

I'll gladly pass this on to others.


Anonymous said... December 28, 2009 at 6:51 PM  

Thank you for touching on a subject that just simply isn't discussed in most christian circles. I think we would all do well to simply not judge others that are in despair and/or struggling with depression. We can pray for them and be there to love them which is the more constructive way of loving people and ministering to them. I am there myself. After a few job losses and life disappointments I am finding myself in a very dark place yet again. Sometimes, yes, I want to die. I have to remind myself that I am not the God of my own life. I have to remind myself that God knows best and I don't know what is the best thing for me because I am too caught up in the "experience". I also have to remind myself that Adam and Even had literal perfection in the Garden with God and in their natural realm and they still were unsatisfied. They wanted more.I don't think all depression caused by a medical source. I know mine comes when I am facing a lot of stress. I hope that as I keep seeking God that I will find His comfort, however he chooses to do so- even if I never get any resolution to my trials. Is that what faith is about? God bringing victory when a victory is an impossiblity? Asking him for help when it seems like there isn't a way he can help? Or you have done everything to help yourself but you know that isn't enough? Isn't that what humility is? Recognizing that you are desperately dependent on God? I do also see that in my despair, I am becoming more self centered in a way. I am always wanting people to comfort me and I am always praying for myself. That is something that I have to recognize and pray against and consciously make choices that do not feed that inner demon if you will. I do also know that Jesus knows that we are humans prone to human reactions. My despair isn't brought on by being self centered but my desire for relief from despair can cause me to be self centered. I was just praying about this when I happened to indirectly find your blog. I think the hardest thing is not having anyone to talk to for spiritual insight or just to be heard without being told what I am not doing enough of or what I am doing that is wrong. Everyone is so eager to throw a stone at someone when they feel like they are unsufficent enough to help someone. Wasn't that the beef that God had with Job's friends? Love is powerful and love comforts. Sometimes loving someone is simply being there with them and not saying a word.

I love to read so I will definately be checking out your books!

God bless!

Athol Dickson said... December 29, 2009 at 7:38 AM  

Anonymous, I so much appreciate what you wrote, especially this:

"My despair isn't brought on by being self centered but my desire for relief from despair can cause me to be self centered."

It seems to me that statement perfectly defines the difference between the despair that concerned Merton, which he called an extreme example of self-love, and the despair that comes upon us much as many other kinds of trials will come: not as the result of disobedient choices, but simply because we live in a fallen world.

The despair you describe is, among other things, a spiritual test, much like cancer or the death of a loved one. As Christians everything depends on how we meet the challenge. From what you wrote, it seems as if you are meeting it well. But simply understanding the nature of the trial and facing it with faith does not make the trial less painful.

Corresponding with a stranger via emails isn't a substitute for Christian brothers and sisters at your side, but if there's no one in your life to offer the comfort of simply being there, you can contact me. Click on "Contact Me" above; mention this in the comments, and I'll get back to you with my address.

God bless you, and keep up the good fight.

Leah Morgan said... January 6, 2010 at 10:03 AM  

Obviously there was not an over abundance of self love present when a man who thinks this brilliantly felt cowardly to present those thoughts on a particular occasion. And then admit it!
I LOVE brushing against an individual whose thinking capacity is not drowned with the herd dashing into the sea. And love it even more when the ability to voice those observations are present. Whether now, or a more courageous later.
Well done.

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