Sorrow’s Dangers

[Please note: I’m still groping about trying to understand.]

There are many dangers associated with sorrow: despair, hopelessness, bitterness. But there are two in particular which are pernicious: self-pity and dejection.

Self-pity is obvious. It is the myopia into which genuine sorrow can morph after prolonged attention to the continuing pain. This is not surprising. Pain focuses the attention. But once one has dressed the wound, and attended to the discomfort, one does not as a rule continue to obsess over the injury. Inward sorrow is not so visible; one cannot bandage the broken heart. But such pains can be attended to, and though the throb still steals one’s notice from time to time, one does not need be immobilized.

No, self-pity is paralyzing and corrosive. It is a paralysis that grows in strength the longer it is noticed. It is an acid that eats away at the soul. It corrodes hope, and it crowds out thanksgiving. It is a near-sightedness that turns one’s gaze from the divine Person who alone can remedy one’s brokenness to focus on one’s self. It is, in fact, something of an obsession with self. It cares little for injustice done to others. Self-pity will not bring the soul to jealousy for God’s honor. Rather, it displaces God from the center of the universe that it might idolize itself as a pain. It seeks not love–which would give it correction–but sympathy; or, even worse, mere pity. It seeks, in other words, more of itself. In the end it is an insatiable sinkhole that will grow ever larger, ultimately crowding out the genuine self for a caricature in nominalistic identity. It seeks not fully dimensioned personhood but two-dimensional cutouts labelled victim. It casts the self as sinless, or nearly so, and undeserving of the wrongs and pains it experiences. Shut up in itself, it draws all things consumptively into itself. It uses up all the breathable atmosphere of the spirit, leaving nothing but poisonous lifelessness.

According to pastoral counsel, there is one biblical and fundamental remedy for self-pity: thanksgiving. For in giving thanks, the attention has shifted, the pain is shoved to the periphery, and the focus becomes the gift-giver, the God of Providence. Thanksgiving also puts the lie to self-pity, for it uproots the deception that no good has come to the soul, or that such goods are not sufficient. This is tantamount to blasphemy, for every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights. He causes his sun to rise on the just and the unjust. He who clothes the flower of the field and watches over the sparrow, also provides us our daily bread. The enumeration of the goods of Providence are the fatal blows to self-pity.

But there is another danger as well, the danger of dejection.

St. John Cassian, in the ninth book of the Institutes, describes the struggle with the passion of dejection:

In our fifth combat we have to resist the pangs of gnawing dejection: for if this, through separate attacks made at random, and by haphazard and casual changes, has secured an opportunity of gaining possession of our mind it keeps us back at all times from all insight in divine contemplation, and utterly ruins and depresses the mind that has fallen away from its complete state of purity. It does not allow it to say its prayers with its usual gladness of heart, nor permit it to rely on the comfort of reading the sacred writings, nor suffer it to be quiet and gentle with the brethren; it makes it impatient and rough in all the duties of work and devotion: and, as all wholesome counsel is lost, and steadfastness of heart destroyed, it makes the feelings almost mad and drunk, and crushes and overwhelms them with penal despair.

He also describes how this dejection arises:

But sometimes it is found to result from the fault of previous anger, or to spring from the desire of some gain which has not been realized, when a man has found that he has failed in his hope of securing those things which he had planned. But sometimes without any apparent reason for our being driven to fall into this misfortune, we are by the instigation of our crafty enemy suddenly depressed with so great a gloom that we cannot receive with ordinary civility the visits of those who are near and dear to us; and whatever subject of conversation is started by them, we regard it as ill-timed and out of place; and we can give them no civil answer, as the gall of bitterness is in possession of every corner of our heart.

Like self-pity, dejection is a distortion of perspective, the loss of an awareness of God’s Providence. Whether it arises from this happenstance or that demonic instigation, the result is the same: the good has been poisoned, and anger is a freqent response.

But there is a way out of or through the temptation: patience. St. John describes the divine path of response to dejection:

And so God, the creator of all things, having regard above everything to the amendment of His own work, and because the roots and causes of our falls are found not in others, but in ourselves, commands that we should not give up intercourse with our brethren, nor avoid those who we think have been hurt by us, or by whom we have been offended, but bids us pacify them, knowing that perfection of heart is not secured by separating from men so much as by the virtue of patience. Which when it is securely held, as it can keep us at peace even with those who hate peace, so, if it has not been acquired, it makes us perpetually differ from those who are perfect and better than we are: for opportunities for disturbance, on account of which we are eager to get away from those with whom we are connected, will not be wanting so long as we are living among men; and therefore we shall not escape altogether, but only change the causes of dejection on account of which we separated from our former friends.

The long suffering endurance, patience, in the face of disappointment and ill treatment is what will gut dejection of its hold over us. Which is to say: the refusal to run away from the source of our anger or irritation. Steadfast rootedness, or in the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: stability. The standing firm in one place despite the struggle we face. Our instict to run is satisfied not merely by physical relocation but also by mental distraction, by entertainment and diversion. In small moderate doses, these things can be restful, a gift. Only the fine line running through the soul can discern the difference between rest and running, between acceptance and rejection. Refusing to writhe out from under the cauterizing iron is a bold and agonizing thing to do. But it is the means for healing the wound of dejection.

But St. John also offers this:

We should then be able to expel this most injurious passion from our hearts, so that by spiritual meditation we may keep our mind constantly occupied with hope of the future and contemplation of the promised blessedness. For in this way we shall be able to get the better of all those sorts of dejection, whether those which flow from previous anger or those which come to us from disappointment of gain, or from some loss, or those which spring from a wrong done to us, or those which arise from an unreasonable disturbance of mind, or those which bring on us a deadly despair, if, ever joyful with an insight into things eternal and future, and continuing immovable, we are not depressed by present accidents, or over-elated by prosperity, but look on each condition as uncertain and likely soon to pass away.

The inbreaking Kingdom is a reminder that this mortal life is transitory: we are mortals putting on immortality. By focusing on the hurt and disappointments of this life we risk immortalizing that which is mortal, we risk ascribing permanence to the fleeting and temporal. In short, we risk calling real that which is the dream, losing our sanity in illusions and shadows. Illusions are tempting, they flash and dazzle in their bright impermanence. But their fleeting reality cannot satisfy. In chasing them we are ever hungering for more and never satiated. Only the permanent can calm the pangs of our soul hunger. And by embracing the passion of dejection we call real that which is unreal, name the temporal everlasting. We delude ourselves.

By continually looking toward the permanent things we give perspective to the disappointments and hurts of the temporal life. By embracing the permanent things breaking into temporal living, we anchor ourselves beyond the shadows, within the veil, to the reality that abides.

Of course this is easily written and published in pixellated images accessible through the ever-shifting orbits of electronic pulses. These are mere words, and do not reflect the reality they seek to elicit. That reality can only be lived, in silence and integrity, by one who knows what it is to give thanks and to remain steadfast.

That one is not yet me. But I ask that you pray it might one day be me.

May the Lord destroy the false here and ground the true.

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