The Sin of Despair?

The last appointment I had with my counselor, I thought going into it I didn’t have a lot to talk about, but by the end I was in tears and feeling awful. I came home and basically told my mom, “I’m miserable. I feel like everything’s hopeless and God doesn’t care about me.”

My mom’s answer was one that, in theory, I probably would have said was a bad answer to give somebody with depression, but it was exactly the right thing to say in this case: “You can’t think like that. You FEEL that way, but you KNOW it isn’t true. You have to fight it.”

And she was absolutely right. I KNEW she was right: I had been feeling okay that morning before the counseling session, and I knew that I had basically talked myself into my horrible, despairing mood. So I knew it was possible to talk myself out again.

In a move that is probably going to give you all mental whiplash, I should like to turn to the subject of the Seven Deadly Sins.

…Sorry.

Okay, so you’ve probably all heard of the Seven Deadly Sins: the seven things you’re NOT SUPPOSED TO DO! I’ve seen them most often as the subject of art series, like this:

She may be wrathful, but she ON FLEEK.

But did you know that the Seven Deadly Sins are not Biblical? By that, I mean that while they’re certainly based on Biblical theology, but they aren’t actually formulated as a list in the Bible. The Seven Deadly Sins were actually formulated as opposites to the Seven Christian/Heavenly Virtues: the four Cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage from Aristotle and Plato’s philosophy, and the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity from the New Testament epistles (chiefly I Cor 13:13). Both of these lists, sins and virtues, have been formulated in a number of different ways over the centuries.

A lot of people actually misunderstand the meanings of the terms for these sins, too.One of the least understood is “sloth,” which is often depicted, as in the image above, to mean general laziness. But sloth isn’t just sitting on the couch too much and not getting enough exercise: it also includes things like displaying perpetual boredom or lack of emotions, ceasing to utilize the gifts of the Holy Spirit, not practicing charity toward others, not fulfilling responsibilities, and sins of omission in general–not doing what one knows one should.

Another historical meaning of the sin of sloth is despair. Yep, you heard that right: theologians believe that despair is a sin.

Whaaaaaaat???

Think of Despair as the opposite of Hope. Hope–and the closely related Faith–are Heavenly Virtues. They’re based on the belief that God loves us and that he will keep his promises regarding us. Faith means believing that God exists and believing that he will reward those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6)–that things will work out okay in the end, either in this life or the next. “Faith” literally means “trust”: God said he’d do it, and I trust him to keep his promises. Hope takes that a step further, and trusts that God will do even more than he directly said he would. It’s Faith Plus.

So if Hope and Faith are virtues, their opposing sin is Despair. Despair is a failure to trust God. If one despairs, believing that things won’t turn out okay somehow, that means one of a number of things: Either one no longer trusts God to do what he says he’s going to, and/or no longer believes that God is Good (and therefore loves us and keeps his promises), and/or no longer believing that God exists. If you’re non-religious or non-Christian, you could think of it as no longer believing that “everything happens for a reason” or that things can ever go right again. And when you believe that there’s no chance for things to go right or get better, then there really is no reason to keep “fighting the good fight.” If we’re all gonna die and everything’s going to be terrible anyway, why be good to other people or fight for what you believe is right? This means that Despair leads directly to inaction: Sloth. As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” So Despair is a sin because it is a lack of Faith and Hope, and because it leads to a deadly inaction.

With me so far?

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that having depression or anxiety that lead you to despair makes you a bad person. These are real diseases caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, and they can produce a despair that is not the fault of the sufferer.

That said, however, there is more than one cause for depression or anxiety, or even for a temporary or long-lasting bad mood. And some of these causes are actually within our power to prevent or to remedy. Let me introduce you to the concept of “rumination”–a subject which I’ve written on before.

Not THAT kind of rumination!

To quote the Bastion of All Knowledge (by which I obviously mean Wikipedia): Rumination is the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions. Both rumination and worry are associated with anxiety and other negative emotional states. …The tendency to negatively ruminate is a stable constant over time and serves as a significant risk factor for clinical depression. Not only are habitual ruminators more likely to become depressed, but experimental studies have demonstrated that people who are induced to ruminate experience greater depressed mood. There is also evidence that rumination is linked to general anxiety, post traumatic stress, binge drinking, eating disorders, and self-injurious behavior. …Some common thoughts that are characteristic of ruminative responses are questioning the well-being of oneself and focusing on the possible causes and consequences of their depressive symptoms (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). For example, some ruminative thoughts include “why am I such a loser”, “I’m in such a bad mood” or “I just don’t feel like doing anything.”

Ruminating is a really easy habit to fall into if you have depression or anxiety (and obsessive thought patterns are literally the problem if you have OCD). “Why did that person turn me down for a date? S/he must think I’m really ugly. I AM really ugly! I’m basically Quasimodo!! I will NEVER find anyone who finds me attractive! I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE AND UNLOVED AND BE FOUND THREE WEEKS LATER, HALF-EATEN BY AN ALSATIAN!!!”

Apologies to Bridget Jones.

There are, however, methods for controlling one’s thoughts to combat anxiety and depression. There are whole books of them, in fact: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie is one that I found particularly helpful. One of the first things Carnegie suggests is to only think about what one has to do today. Don’t let yourself start thinking about past regrets or future possible disasters: just figure out what you need to do today and think about that, because that’s all you can really affect. When you find yourself thinking about the past or the present, reel yourself back in and start again. Practice makes perfect.

And after that conversation with my mom, I did a little research and found ways to combat the negative, insulting voices in one’s head, as well: the ones that say things like, “You’re worthless, you’ll never amount to anything, nobody likes you, nothing can ever get better.”

A little video on the origins of these voices, if you’re interested:

And here’s another resource that gives steps for how to overcome that critical voice:

  1. Identify the critical inner voice and what it’s saying and recognize it as alien to your real point of view.
  2. Differentiate the critic’s thoughts from your own by writing down the critic’s words to you in the second person. Example: “Nobody likes you.” Geez, this inner critic is a jerk!
  3. Respond to that inner critic in the first person. Example: “That’s not true. I have loving friends and family members who enjoy my presence and my contribution to their lives. There are many people who like me.”
  4. Don’t act on your inner critic, but practice talking back to it and then acting on what you know to be true.

These techniques are helpful for both people who have mood disorders and people who are mentally healthy but tend to ruminate or beat themselves up.

Obviously, rumination can lead to anxiety, depression, and despair. But it can also, even in mentally healthy individuals, lead to excessive complaining. In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis describes someone who, while apparently otherwise mentally healthy, has gotten into such a habit of complaining that even after death she can’t seem to have any sort of conversation apart from a stream of complaints:

At this moment we were suddenly interrupted by the thin voice of a Ghost talking at an enormous speed. Looking behind us we saw the creature. It was addressing one of the Solid People [one of the Saved in Heaven] and was doing so too busily to notice us. Every now and then the Solid Spirit tried to get in a word but without success. The Ghost’s talk was like this:

“Oh, my dear, I’ve had such a dreadful time, I don’t know how I ever got here at all, I was coming with Elinor Stone and we’d arranged the whole thing and we were to meet at the corner of Sink Street; I made it perfectly plain because I knew what she was like and if I told her once I told her a hundred times I would not meet her outside that dreadful Marjoribanks woman’s house, not after the way she’d treated me … that was one of the most dreadful things that happened to me; I’ve been dying to tell you because I felt sure you’d tell me I acted rightly; no, wait a moment, dear, till I’ve told you–I tried living with her when I first came and it was all fixed up, she was to do the cooking and I was to look after the house and I did think I was going to be comfortable after all I’d been through but she turned out to be so changed, absolutely selfish, and not a particle of sympathy for anyone but herself–and as I once said to her ‘I do think I’m entitled to a little consideration because you at least lived out your time, but I oughtn’t to have been here for years and years yet’–but of course I’m forgetting you don’t know–I was murdered, simply murdered, dear, that man should never have operated, I ought to be alive today and they simply starved me in that dreadful nursing home and no one ever came near me and . . .” The shrill monotonous whine died away as the speaker, still accompanied by the bright patience at her side, moved out of hearing.

This scene always cracks me up, partly because I’VE KNOWN THIS PERSON.

Don’t lie, you have too.

And if you haven’t, either you’re very lucky… or you ARE that person.

If you think that this sort of complaining isn’t really that bad, neither did Lewis’s narrator:

“What troubles ye, son?” asked my Teacher.

“I am troubled, Sir,” said I, “because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right.”

“That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.”

“I should have thought there was no doubt about that!”

“Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman-even the least trace of one-still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

“But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?”

“The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences . . . it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

Even if you’re not a Christian, you have to admit that Lewis has a good point. We all know people who have been like this, or we have seen it in our own lives: We as human beings can very easily fall into certain moods and trains of thought that we COULD do something about if we tried, and a part of us really does know that. But at a certain point, we can get so wrapped up in that mood or that point of view that it can come to seem like the truth: we get so divorced from reality that it’s no longer even possible for us to see reason. THIS is the danger of things like rumination, complaining, and despair. They can take over our lives. Remember the alien critical voice in your head that tells you you’re worthless? It’s like a parasite, and it can take you over entirely, in the end.

Most of the images of the chest-bursting alien were too gross to put on here. I’m hoping the baby is enough of a cuteness antidote.

That’s part of the reason why close friendships, fellow Christians if you are one, prayer partners, loving family members, and mental health counselors are all really important: those people are outside of your head, so they can see your attitude more objectively than you can yourself. Iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17). Other people can keep you from getting lost inside your own head: they can go, “Hey, Steve, you’ve got a bit of alien on your face there. …No, a little more to the left… Yeah, you got it.”

Sorry–too far?

I should note here that Despair, related to sadness and anxiety, is not the only emotion on the list of deadly sins: there’s also Wrath. As with Despair being a step further than simple sadness, Wrath is a step further than simple anger. Good Saint Wikipedia writes, Wrath can be defined as uncontrolled feelings of anger, rage, and even hatred, often revealing itself in the wish to seek vengeance. Wrath, in its purest form, presents with injury, violence, and hate that may provoke feuds that can go on for centuries. Wrath may persist long after the person who did another a grievous wrong is dead.

Anger is an emotion, and as such, is partly out of our control: you can’t entirely stop yourself from being angry at something, just as you can’t entirely stop yourself from being happy when you’re happy. But Wrath is Anger Plus: it is anger that is allowed to run wild, to hurt others–to take over one’s will. And to some extent, we CAN control it, just as we can, to some extent, control all of our feelings. The Bible, for instance, doesn’t say “Never become angry,” because that’s impossible. What it DOES say is, “Be angry [at sin—at immorality, at injustice, at ungodly behavior], yet do not sin; do not let your anger [cause you shame, nor allow it to] last until the sun goes down. 27 And do not give the devil an opportunity [to lead you into sin by holding a grudge, or nurturing anger, or harboring resentment, or cultivating bitterness]” (Eph. 4:27 AMP: the bracketed notes are part of the amplified translation). Anger is an emotion, but it’s an emotion we’re supposed to try to control rather than letting it control us. The same could be said of a negative attitude that leads eventually to Despair.

I’m sure many of you have heard The Parable of the Two Wolves:

A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.

One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.

The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”

The grandfather quietly replies, “The one you feed.”

It not only wins, it also gets adorably fat.

Each of us has the wolves of the Seven Deadly Sins inside of us. But we also have the wolves of the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Whether we feed the Wolves of Despair or the Wolves of Hope is up to us.

In fact, you could say that every one of the Seven Deadly Sins (except, arguably, Gluttony) isn’t so much an act as an attitude. Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Wrath, and Despair/Sloth are all ways of thinking about God, oneself, and others, attitudes that make us more likely to make bad choices than good ones. We can’t help being attracted to someone, but we can keep ourselves from dwelling on that attraction to the point where it overwhelms our self-control. We can’t help occasionally being jealous of someone, but we can refocus on the blessings we have rather than concentrating on the blessings we don’t. That’s why we’ve got that one weird commandment: Do not covet. As Eddie Izzard says, “Don’t… just really want your neighbor’s ox??” But to covet, according to the dictionary definition, is “to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others.” It’s an attitude toward other people and their property that can easily lead to more active sins.

That IS a really nice ox, though…

Okay, so let’s sum up. Though emotions and negative thoughts are partially outside of our control, we can decide which emotions we are going to feed: which ones we are going to dwell on rather than combating. If we fail to combat them, unhelpful emotions and thoughts can become bad attitudes and false beliefs, which can then become evil actions. These actions can really hurt other people–and they can also really hurt us. Even the attitudes themselves can hurt us, even if they don’t lead to major actions. Think about that complaining person you know: Are they happy? Or do they seem bitter and dissatisfied with life? Wrathful people aren’t happy. Envious people aren’t happy. Despairing people definitely aren’t. So we should feed the good wolves, the Virtues, because they are not only good for those around us, but they are good for us, as well.

If you have realized that you have some negative attitudes or have been ruminating on some negative emotions, I want to encourage you to utilize the above resources and others to try to combat them. If you find yourself unable to combat them, I hope you’ll consider seeking out counseling, medication, group therapy, a fellowship group, a religious leader, an accountability/prayer partner, or any other option that you think can help you feed the good wolves and not the bad ones.

Fat, chubby, happy wolves.

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