Despair

by Dennis Bradford

in spiritual well-being

Whence despair? What is it? Where does it come from?

If we understood its nature and cause, then we might be able to answer the question, “What cures despair?”

It is not idle curiosity that prompts such questions; rather, they come from the depths of suffering, from dread (anxiety, angst). How many depression suicides have you known? [Click here for more on that]

Many spiritual teachers have answered these questions. The problem is that, at least for me, their conceptual frameworks are so alien that it’s been difficult to grasp their answers. Their language is obscurantist and their thought confusing.

Permit me to be clear and simple. [Click here for the Being / Becoming terminology.]

Despair is Becoming without Being.

Now do you understand? Well, probably not!

Here’s the reason you do not understand: understanding it goes beyond (mere conceptual) understanding. That is why what spiritual teachers often have to say about it is confusing.

To illustrate this, let’s briefly consider how one great modern thinker, namely, Soren Kierkegaard who is often thought of as the father of existentialist philosophy, uses two familiar distinctions: temporality / eternity and finiteness / infinity.

Using the former distinction, Kierkegaard asks exactly the right question at the beginning of Fear and Trembling (Lowrie, tr.):

“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all – what then would life be but despair?”

It’s a rhetorical question.  Without eternity, temporality is despair.

How are we to understand this?

We think of temporality as a time line that stretches from left to right or, alternatively, from back to front. How does eternity, which is void, infuse temporality?

Using the latter distinction, Kierkegaard in the same book clearly suggests that Without infinity, a finite self is despair.

“The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude . . . whose task is to become itself . . . If . . . the self does not become itself, it is in despair . . . a self, every instant it exists, is in process of becoming. . . the self is a synthesis in which the finite is the limiting factor, and the infinite is the expanding factor.”

Without the concept of infinity, the concept of finitude is incoherent. Without the concept of eternity, the concept of temporality is incoherent.

This is why “to describe despair is possible only by its opposite.”

So where’s the problem?

The problem is that neither the concept of infinity nor the concept of eternity is intelligible! Neither can be understood.

If so, since your self is a synthesis of both infinity and eternity as well as of finitude and temporality and since neither infinity nor eternity is intelligible, it’s false that your self is intelligible.

If you cannot even understand your self, what’s the alternative to dread?

After all, the purpose of life is to live well or wisely (and we can here keep open exactly what that means) and living well or wisely is concrete, something done by a self, rather than abstract. If you cannot understand your self, how could you understand your self actually living well or wisely? You can’t, which means that you cannot understand what you are trying to do in life!

This explains why Kierkegaard writes in The Sickness Unto Death that “Comprehension is conterminous with man’s relation to the human.”

He means by “human” here our selves understood as finite and temporal. His point is that we cannot understand or comprehend our selves as infinite or eternal. That ignorance, which he calls “sin,” is the cause of dread.

Furthermore, that ignorance “grows every instant one does not get out of it”!

So what are we to do to escape? How can we get out of it?

What we cannot successfully do is to think our way out. Conceptualizing eternity and infinity is impossible. We misuse our minds when we try, and there’s no point even trying because success is impossible.

Kierkegaard himself says that what we must do is to embrace the paradox at the heart of our selves and have “faith.”

What I think he’s talking about is dropping our identification with thought. Since eternity and infinity are central to our selves and since they are beyond thought, it’s only by letting go of thoughts about them that we are able to grasp them. Faith seems to be nonconceptual awareness of Being.

What’s the takeaway lesson?

There’s no chance of escaping from despair by thinking our way out. In the words of Jianzhi Sengcan, the third Zen ancestor, trying to do so “is certainly a grave mistake.”

So what cures it?

Despair dissolves whenever Being infuses Becoming.

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