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When wanting to believe is the best we can do

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Time does not heal all wounds; for some, time simply runs out.

A Facebook friend posted a Thomas Merton quote that nags me:

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a person deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.

“Deliberate despair”? The remark is found in New Seeds of Contemplation (1962), published six years prior to his death, appearing in the chapter “Humility Against Despair.”

“But a man,” he adds in context, “who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.”

I’d like to talk about his understanding of humility, too, but here I’ll stay with despair.

Merton’s conception of despair, then, is the by-product of pride, an arrogant self-pity. It is a self-pride “so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that he is above us and that we are not capable of fulfilling our destiny by ourselves.”

Since it’s Merton saying it, I suppose the possibility of “deliberate” despair exists, but bouncing off my pastoral experience in my Lutheran days, I also know circumstances that so cripple the spirit that despair is the inevitable outcome, and trust – Merton’s “happiness of God” – becomes a cruel tease. I knew one situation where, I am convinced, the person died despairing of God’s love.

Florence, I’ll call her, was 86 when she died. She had stumbled back to worship some years before. I had known her but four years as she approached death. She told me her life in pieces; horrific doesn’t do it justice. She was seeking release from bitter memories, but had never found relief. She was never a whole person and age brought neither perspective nor resolution. In her life I think she managed to alienate almost everyone ever inclined to love her. One of her friends told me it was hard being Florence’s friend. She was suspicious, distrustful; she had no evidence of anyone having her interests at heart. But it hardly mattered because she never in the first place conceived of herself as anyone worthy of love.

From young girlhood to her later teen years (roughly 1924 through 1935) she had been the subject of persistent and egregious sexual abuse by her mother’s brother, her father by this time having died. There was a “secret room” where these things would happen. When Florence told her mother, she was slapped and called a liar. As a widow with children in poor and worsening economic times, this possibility exists — that her mother essentially pimped Florence to her uncle.

There was no protection for Florence. Florence, by experience, concluded there is nothing about her worthy of protection and love. The victim is blamed; family members isolate her emotionally. The child, not the victimizer, is held guilty. The child does nothing right. Family dissatisfaction focuses on that child.

It is a cruel logic I learned from Florence. Through the experience of molestation and loss of innocence, Florence came to believe it was her fault, hers alone. It if weren’t, those who should have would have loved and protected her. But since they did not, it must be her fault, her responsibility. She is unloved, ultimately because she is unlovable. She visited those same inadequacies upon her children. Florence was a toxic mother.

Two, three years before her death I set her to writing devotions; I wanted her to reflect on things larger than herself. Her reflections focused exclusively on the Father, never Christ, never the Spirit, only the Father. This Father always was loving, always protective, always an unquestioned source of security, safety; never one to withdraw his love from his children, a Father unswerving, steadfast, and true.

She could write it, but never did she grasp it. It was imaginative fiction to her. That Father did not exist, not for Florence. She was writing of a father she had never known yet desperately sought, a Father for her. But she was unloved. How could this Father be “for her?”

My last conversation with her was that subject, the last communion I carried to her bedside. For the umpteenth time, I demanded how can you write this and never believe it? “Because it is what I want to believe.”

This was not a self-indulgent, exultant sense of despair as Merton describes, so she might indulge the “rotten luxury” of being lost.

Her children did not know her history; no one did. She started it, but I pulled it out of her. I got it only in small pieces later pieced together whole. I consulted a therapist friend who gave me good guidance on approaching Florence but his warning was true. “There is no way to receive reassurance where elementary trust is absent.” She had learned from her mother’s knee, speaking truth got you slapped down.

The despair Merton describes I take as that of a poser, someone enamored with lostness, who relishes sophomoric angst. What I encountered wasn’t deliberate, and “because I want to believe” was as near as she could manage. I’ve said before, time does not heal all wounds. For some wounds still fresh, time simply runs out.

I finally told her, she’d just have to wait and see and be surprised. She wrote good stuff, but she’d probably spend eternity learning how to live it. Not so different, really, from the rest of us, I suppose.

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