The Gift of Despair

Anne: Can’t you even imagine you’re in the depths of despair?
Marilla: No I cannot. To despair is to turn your back on God.

Anne of Green Gables movie (1985)

Marilla expresses a popular Christian understanding of despair. Jesus is our hope, the reasoning goes. Despair is hopelessness. Therefore, despair is a sin.

I believed that, until one life-changing class.

He divided us into groups and gave each group a slip of paper.

“Each paper has a list of six negative emotions,” he told us. “God gave us these emotions for a purpose. Discuss the purpose of each emotion as a group.”

This was a new way to think about emotions. I’d been taught that emotions were useless, usually bothersome, often sinful. But he was saying that emotions—even negative emotions—were created by God for a good purpose.

I read the list:

  1. Anger
  2. Disgust
  3. Fear
  4. Sadness
  5. Shame
  6. Hopeless despair

Now that I had been asked, I could think of a use for most of the emotions. Disgust keeps me from eating rotten food. Fear warns me not to pet a snarling dog. Shame lets me know when I’ve said something inappropriate. But hopeless despair?

I knew despair—knew it well. But I couldn’t see its purpose. Wasn’t I supposed to fight despair? To never give up, always  hope, always keep trying?

In fifth grade, while learning to find the areas of complex geometric figures, I was often stumped. But I wouldn’t give up; I believed I could find the solution. I would try one thing and another. Eventually the teacher would go to the board to explain the solution. I might have been feeling frustration, even despair. But I was not giving up! I would cover my ears and stare at my desk, refusing to admit defeat.

My stubborn determination may have annoyed my teacher, but it impressed most people. I was good at resisting despair—
or, at least, I was good at ignoring it.

As I grew, I continued to respond to despair with stubborn determination. If a job was miserable, I’d try harder; if a relationship felt impossible, I’d bend over backwards to make it work; if I was tired, I’d push myself to collapsing—all in the name of fighting despair. True, I still felt hopeless despair, but I’d been taught that feelings don’t matter. I just had to act in hope and hope would (probably) eventually appear. Stubborn determination was, I thought, acting in hope.

So what was the use of hopeless despair?

As we discussed that emotion, I gradually saw its purpose. Despair is not simply the emotions that cries “I give up!” Despair is the emotion warns: “Stop. This won’t work. Do something different.” If I pay attention to feelings of despair I will

  • Look for a way out of a dead-end job
  • Rest when I’m tired
  • Walk away from a harmful relationship
  • Go to the doctor when I’m sick
  • And listen when my teacher tells me how to solve a problem.

I realized that hopeless despair is not overcome with stubborn determination. In fact, my stubborn determination had never produced hope. Four years into a misfit job, struggling to make impossible relationships work, ready to collapse in exhaustion, my despair was more intense than ever. My initial despair in those situations had been a warning sign: “No Outlet.” The later despair was a cry of death.

That discussion on emotions initiated a change in my life. I began listening to my despair. I finally quit many endeavors in which I had felt hopeless and I looked for different approaches to areas where I had felt stuck.  As I did, my general feelings of despair lessened.

Hope is a Christian virtue. But hope is not the ignoring of despair. Christian hope is certain, founded on the revealed truth of God: it is hope adoption, hope of love, hope of God making all things new. To despair of that hope would be to turn my back on God.

But I might also hope, even pray, that my dog won’t die, that I will be promoted, or that my cousin will marry. Those are human hopes. They may be reasonable; they may be unreasonable. They are not virtuous. And despairing of those hopes—of my dog’s life, a promotion, or my cousin’s marriage—is not sinful. In fact, those feelings of despair are gifts from God signaling that my human hopes may be unreasonable, that I may need to give up or do something different.