“The anguish completely paralyzed me,” wrote Henri Nouwen in The Inner Voice of Love. “I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments … All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.”
Anyone who has fallen through Nouwen’s “house without floors” can relate, at least in part, to this description. Despair can be triggered by a specific event — like the death of a loved one, a failed relationship, a traumatic move.
Sometimes despair has no apparent cause, and descends without warning. Life feels suddenly meaningless and exhausting. The smallest tasks, like licking a stamp and attaching it to an envelope, require Herculean effort. No amount of coffee cuts the gloom.
Some people find that they suddenly cannot pray. It’s like those dreams when you’re trying to escape a stalker, but your legs refuse to move and you struggle to scream but no sound comes out. A priest friend of mine recommended that the best thing to say to a person in this situation is, “Don’t worry about praying for now. You concentrate on surviving, and I’ll pray for both of us.”
During a recent mini-bout with despair, I developed a bonus aliment — a flu complete with fever and the shakes. I crawled into bed and called my friend Amber, hoping to get a sympathetic chuckle out of her. “I’m on my deathbed,” I said. “I think it may be a step in the right direction.”
Two Kinds of Despair
Despair is the death of hope. Judas experienced this after he betrayed Jesus. In one of the Gospel’s most poignant scenes, he suddenly realizes what he’s set into motion. He bolts to the temple leaders, begging them to take the money back and release Jesus.
They don’t want his blood money, however, nor do they intend to let Jesus go. Judas throws the coins at their feet and flees. When he realizes that there is no going back he hangs himself.
Jesus, also, struggled with something like despair when he was languishing on the cross, as he cried out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus felt abandoned. Some of his best friends, with their freshly-washed feet, the taste of bread and wine still on their lips, pretended like they never knew him while he was being led away. Even God seemed to withdraw — offering no solace or comfort as he hung on the cross, just a shattering, expansive silence.
Jesus’ anguished question echoes through our own moments of despair, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
Anyone who has given birth without the help of anesthetics may have some idea of what Jesus was getting at. There is a common phenomenon — a moment of despair — that strikes women during natural childbirth. The pain has become excruciating, her body limp with exhaustion, and her potential best ally during labor — her mind — shamelessly betrays her.
She may begin believe that the labor will never end, that her ultrasounds were some kind of cruel trick to dupe her into thinking that she was actually going to have a baby, when she was actually suffering from an extreme case of appendicitis all along.
This may seem like an exaggeration, but despair (in and out of labor) can be out of touch with reality — even delusional. The most unusual thing about the moment of despair in labor is that it strikes different women at exactly the same phase — just before transition when the pushing is about to begin. The despair is actually a hopeful signâ€”the baby is breathlessly close.
Nature is like that as well — bleak moments lead to new life. In Chicago the winters are so wretched, that by mid-February, I start envisioning an Apocalyptic Return of the Ice Ages. Usually, a few days later, the Great Thaw begins. It is no accident that our journey through lent into Easter parallels to the reawakening of the natural world.
The Way Through
Even if we know that spring is coming, winter still seems endless. When C.S. Lewis was grieving the death of his wife, he described the vicious cycle of sorrow: not only did he have to suffer, but he had to continually think about the fact that he was suffering.
Lewis’ journal, A Grief Observed, offers a window into his heart after Joy died, as he cycled through grief, rage, despair, confusion and hope. Lewis invites us, by example, to be honest about our own pain.
Several years ago, I met an Episcopal priest who had survived the death of two wives, the first by cancer, the second in a hit-and-run accident. He told me that after his second wife died he went into a chapel and he started yelling and sobbing. He cried and raged, and then cried and raged some more. And then, he told me, a silence unlike any he had ever experienced descended on him.
“Let God have it,” this priest told me. “He can take it.”
The silence he experienced might have been similar to what Lewis describes near the end of A Grief Observed. “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer, but a rather special sort of ‘no answer,’ he wrote. “It is not a locked door, but a gaze, certainly not uncompassionate, not in refusal, but waving the question, saying, ‘Peace child, you do not understand.'”
Hold My Hand
For all those times when we simply cannot understand, when we lay questions before God and get no answer, or when we don’t even have the strength to ask, people can help carry us through.
“Find the places in your life where you sense the hand of God, and grab on with all your might,” said one of my seminary mentors. For me, one of the key places is relationships. When I’m tempted by despair, I call a few friends and tell them my woeful, meandering tales. Even when they don’t have answers, it helps to know that they are on the other end of the line, holding me in prayer.
It also helps to remember that despair sometimes gives way to dawn. The Eastern Orthodox word for Easter is Pascha, and can be translated as “the dawn.” I love the way this world captures nature’s answer to night and God’s answer to death.
Years ago, when my husband and I lived next to our church, we used to walk home from the Pascha service at four in the morning, after a long night of singing and feasting. We’d make our way through a slip of dark woods, over a trickle of brook. We’d crawl into our bed, the twilight blue of the almost day framed by our window. And then, just as we were drifting off to sleep, the birds would begin to sing.
It was still dark, but they sang anyway, sensing that the twilight would break open to reveal the dawn.
Copyright (c) 2005 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. This article was published on Boundless.org on May 26, 2005.