Monday, April 11, 2005

In defense of Hope

For over fifty years I’ve live with a very disabling disease. It has many names – Churchill called it his black dog; some call it the darkness at noon. The medical term is clinical depression.

It afflicts over 15 million Americans and yet is still not talked about in polite society, much as cancer and tuberculosis were never mentioned by name until recent years. Many still consider depression to be a character defect or a sign of God’s displeasure, rather than the shortage of neural transmitters that it is.

In my first bout as a young student, I mistakenly went to a confessor instead of a therapist, thinking I was suffering the moral failure of despair rather than the medical condition of depression.

The confessor told me that my despair was a sin against the Holy Spirit, and therefore unforgivable. In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church I was damned. The Church in its infinite wisdom considers despair to reflect doubt in God’s infinite mercy, so therefore God in his infinite justice must damn the person.

I assure you, the certain knowledge of one’s eternal damnation is not the best way to treat a depressive episode.

I go into this for two reasons. First, to add one more voice to the growing chorus of people stepping forward to admit to the disease, to help destroy forever the medieval notion that there is something shameful about depression. It’s as ‘shameful’ as diabetes or heart disease. We’re here; we’re ‘blue;’ get used to it!

And secondly, because over the years this condition has forced me to learn something about discernment. When I see a bleak or hopeless situation, I have to ask myself – is this the disease speaking or is this really as bad as all that?

And I bring this up now because I hear more and more people, especially young people, speak of the future in despairing terms. The Bush administration is bankrupting the future for its short-term political gains. The God religions, with their insistence that ‘for us to be right all others are wrong,’ are proving themselves to be not the path to salvation, but the sire of warfare. And the business world has elevated the ‘free market’ to a theology. Nothing - not the environment, not social justice, not the rage of the many left behind - must hinder the perfect mechanism of free enterprise.

Which brings me to the notion of hope. Nothing is more galling to one in a depressive state than to be told, Just cheer up! Be perky!! Gosh darn it all, let’s see ya smile all the while!!!

If we had the energy, we’d tell such fools to shove their sunshine up where the sun don’t shine.

But that’s not hope - the virtue of hope - any more than wishing for a really nice birthday present is true hope. Hope is a tough slog. It means staring into the face bad news and still finding a reason to keep muddling through. Hope is, as Father Thomas Berry said, being cheerful even when you know all the facts.

Hope can even come from the study of history, believe it or not. For all the horrors of the past, we endure. Good men and women still make babies in the conviction the world will be better for their children.

Gandhi-ji pointed out the truth that no evil regime has ever endured and asked us to think about that. There seems to be something in the nature of evil itself that brings about its own destruction.

This could turn out to be a very bad moment in history. The bad news may in fact be that this is the end of civilization as we’ve known it. But, of course, that would also mean this is the end of civilization as we’ve know it, so we should find some comfort in that.

Hope is not easy, nor supercilious, nor the benighted bliss of the twit who knows not but knows not that he knows not. Hope is as hard won as the ability to forgive one’s enemy or to pray for those who profit from injustice.

But if we don’t exhibit it, who will?

Having spent maybe 25 percent of my life in a state of paralyzing despair, and having one afternoon spent two or three minutes glimpsing an abyss so profound it made Dante’s poem read like a Hallmark card, I’ve come to understand the need for, and the saving grace of, hope.

True hope is not passive – “I hope someone will come along and bail me out.’ Hope is active, get-off-your-ass, this-is-my-moment-my-karmic-my-sanctifying-graceful-moment. Plug in!

So there abides Zoloft and Prozac and hope. And the greatest of these is hope.

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