Spirituality

3 Keys to fighting despair

When we ask "How could God let this happen?" a mere cheerfulness will not suffice

When does humor hide a dark truth? Consider this meme I saw online recently: “Adulthood is like looking both ways before you cross the street and then getting hit by an airplane.”

That might makes us laugh (if nervously) because it seems so unlikely and incongruous. Yet I recall reading a newspaper story some thirty years ago about a woman driving home after picking up her 10-year-old son’s birthday cake. She stopped at a red light; a plane fell out of the sky and killed her. At the time I asked, “How will her son be able to get out of the bed the next day? How will he ever be able to leave the house?” (I wish I knew what became of him.)

I may have an exaggerated sense of the perilousness of life, expecting the unexpected more than most do. That may be so, but I earned it. For four summers, I worked for an auto insurance company. While friends spent their summers playing at the beach or earning money for school making pizzas, I spent my summers reading thousands of accident reports. Years later I worked as a chaplain in an urban trauma center. Part of my job was to be a parent’s worst nightmare. I was the voice on the other end of the phone in the middle of the night saying, “I’m afraid there’s been an accident…”

Human life has always been an uncertain and risky business. Perhaps we are more certain of our uncertainty because we are now informed instantly of tragedy from around the world. And we are subject to mishaps unintelligible in previous times—nuclear reactors going awry or commercial airplanes being flown directly into skyscrapers.

We are all subject to unforeseen loss, violence and death. Our private lives can be overturned in an instant: When our doctor says “cancer”; when our spouse says “divorce”; when our boss says “fired”; when our teen says “pregnant.” In such moments, it seems that our foundations are swept away. And it seems inevitable that in such moments we cry out, “Where is God?” And in such moments, we should not be surprised if we whispered, “How could God let this happen?”

In the face of such anguished questions, a mere cheerfulness will not suffice. It will not be enough to say, “Don’t worry—I just know everything will be OK!” At such times the empty platitudes of wishful thinking will do more harm than good. What is needed is supernatural hope.

Josef Pieper can guide us: “…there are no other words in Holy Scripture or in human speech as a whole that let resound as triumphantly the youthfulness of one who remains firm in hope against all destruction and through a veil of tears as do those of the patient Job: ‘Although he should slay me, I will trust in him’ (Job 13:15).”

It is not hard to imagine that Jesus on the cross, feeling as if His Father had abandoned Him, recalled those words of Job (Matthew 27:46). In his fanciful, “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis describes the warning of a senior-tempter to a junior-tempter: “Our cause is never more in danger when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Read More:
C.S. Lewis and the chilling letters of Screwtape

A few days ago, we celebrated the canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Less than ten years ago, some of her private correspondence was made public. Some letters indicated that her walk of faith was often a long walk in darkness, with little or no consolation. Yet she kept on walking—she continued to love, serve, witness and pray. Her struggles quietly echoed the anguish and fidelity of Job and of Jesus.

Calling despair the opposite of hope and “the most dangerous of sins,” Aquinas warns: “Wherefore a gloss on Proverbs 24: 10…says: ‘Nothing is more hateful than despair, for the man that has it loses his constancy both in the every day toils of this life, and, what is worse, in the battle of faith.’” In our own chaotic time, and in our private experiences of loss and dislocation, how shall we avoid despair and cling to hope?

From the Scriptures and the saints, we can learn three lessons: Remember, resist and resolve. Remember God’s fidelity—as seen in revelation and in the history of the Church. Resist illusions—especially the illusions that the present pain is permanent and that this present world is our true and only home. Resolve to act on truth rather than feelings—the truth is that Christ has conquered sin and death and will share His victory with His faithful people.

When I write next, I will speak of the tragedy of the cultivation of Christian immaturity. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ

 

Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has taught and lectured in North and Central America, Europe and Asia and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.  He has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation and now works in seminary education.