uninvited she comes
binding tight
    in burial clothes.
Left to hang
     to rot
     to die.

But no–
death wraps crack.
Tight folded wings
     shimmering color,
legs long, and few
The beautiful caterpillar
     gone. And now who?

Am I to fly?



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.