Spirit Sickness

For my Realistic Living Pointers this month I am sharing a portion of my recently published book: Radical Gifts: Living the Full Christian Life in Troubled Times.

I now have copies in my house that I can mail to you or to your friends and relatives as Christmas gifts. Each book is $20, postage free in the US. I only have 17 copies left.

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Most important, please read the following and share it with others.

Chapter 2
What Is Spirit Sickness and How Is It Healed?

Spirit sickness is not the same as the dread we identified in the previous chapter. Dread in the midst of an oblivion experience is normal, healthy, spirit life. So is the dread we experience in resurgence periods – the dread in our struggles to build a new and unfamiliar life. Dread, fascination, and the courage to embrace these intensities are all factors of healthy spirit life.

“Despair” is the key concept for understanding the sickness of the spirit. For example, leaving childhood is an oblivion experience for an adolescent. Being in despair over leaving childhood, however, is something else. Despair would be the result of refusing to grow up. Despair is spirit sickness. The opposite of despair is trust in the goodness of one’s real situation – in this example, it means trusting in the goodness of leaving childhood. The adolescent might also despair over taking up the roles of adulthood. In this case, he or she would be despairing over a resurgence experience. Here, the opposite of despair would be trust in the goodness of growing up.

As adults, we might be in despair over having to leave the familiar patterns of declining aspects of our society. Or we might be in despair over having to learn new styles of social life. The opposite of despair would be a trust in the goodness of living in the midst of this awesome social change.

Another profound spirit issue is facing up to the possibility of the death of the human species and the destruction of the whole biosphere of this planet. When we are in despair over the reality of these grim possibilities, we usually refuse to admit them to our consciousness. We refuse to experience the horror of losing our living planet. Thus we are estranged from our care for the planet. We become numb, devoid of motivation to do anything constructive. This pattern of response is despair or spirit sickness.

Spirit health means a willingness to be realistic, a trust that openness to realism constitutes the good life.

Kierkegaard defines despair as an unwillingness to have my actual life. In despair, I am not willing to be myself. I am not willing to be the relationships that constitute who I am. Since I cannot get rid of myself, I am doomed to having to be what I am unwilling to be. Hence, I despair.

One can despair over anything. In high school, I despaired over being clumsy. I had accepted the common notion that there were four ways to be a real man: football, basketball, baseball, and track. I gave basketball an all-out effort. My senior year, my B-team coach said, “Marshall, you are as clumsy as a baby moose.” I despaired, not because of what he said, but because I did not want to be the person who was as awkward as I actually was.

One can despair over being 53 years old, over being a man, over being a woman. One can despair over particular weaknesses, or even over particular strengths. Despair is an unwillingness to be who I am within the here and now of my actual relationship to what is. The pain of despair becomes conscious as I see that there is no escape from what is. Despair is like being handcuffed to my worst enemy. I remember seeing a movie in which two men escaped from prison handcuffed to one another. One was black and the other white, and they hated each other. The movie played out the horror of being handcuffed to what you hate the most. That is a picture of despair. If being 53 is my worst enemy, I am handcuffed to my worst enemy. I am in despair, for there is no escape from being 53. If being in grief over some loss is my worst enemy, I am in despair because there is no escape from having that loss or from being in grief over it.

Many things in life can be an occasion for despair. Perhaps you are in despair over your fragile psychological condition. Even though we know that everyone is fragile, we may still find our particular fragility to be intolerable. Perhaps you are in despair over having never become the success you wanted to be. On the other hand, perhaps you made it to the top and found it meaningless and empty, so you are in despair over your empty success and over what to do now. Perhaps you are in despair over your marriage or over your inability to find a suitable mate to marry. If you have children, you will surely have opportunities to despair over them. Perhaps you are in despair over having to give up some unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, perhaps you are in despair over your lethargy to go out and realize your actual possibilities. You may be in despair over many of these things in combination. All such things are parts of your life; they are inescapable as realities to be dealt with. So, if you cannot tolerate them as parts of your life, you are in despair over them. You may even despair over the fact that you are weak enough to despair over any of them. When we are in despair over even one small imperfection, our whole life is affected. We often express our despair with some phrase like this: “My whole life is no damn good.”

Sometimes despair is not wholly conscious, but is hidden beneath the surface of a peaceful exterior. Despair may be so buried that there is no consciousness of it whatsoever. We travel along with fixed smiles totally oblivious to the sickness of spirit that robs us of our fuller life. At other times, despair appears in the foreground of our consciousness and paralyzes us with a sense of abject hopelessness. Or perhaps despair becomes an active program of rage and hatred toward life.

So how is despair healed?

Here is a summary of Paul Tillich’s answer to that question. Despair is conquered and thus life is transformed by a healing event, which Tillich calls “grace.” This event, when it happens, happens in three stages.

1.  You become aware of your despair.
2.  You experience the dawning of your acceptance.
3.  You choose to accept your acceptance.

Tillich has fleshed out the meaning of these three parts of the healing event in a remarkably intense sermon called “You Are Accepted.” Here is a quotation from the 12th paragraph of that sermon. I have broken it into three parts to illustrate the three stages of the healing event

Stage one

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life that we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Stage two

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted – accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.”

Stage Three

Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.

Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), page 161.

Comments are made on these Tillich quotes in the rest of this chapter and in following chapters of Radical Gifts.