HOPE AND DESPAIR
The Poet Shelley, in "The Skylark," states, as the main difference between human beings and skylarks, that:
In other words, we are humans because we are capable of longing and despair. I myself would rather turn the coin over and look at the other side, and say we are humans because we are capable of faith and hope! The point is that animals and birds are conscious on only one level — the life they are living NOW. Their present existence, with its varied sensations of pain and pleasure - that's all there is for them. And, unfortunately, quite a few humans seem to be equally circumscribed, maintaining "This is all there is." But truly human life is characterized by feelings which transcend the here and now: memories of the past and hopes of the future. Moreover, we have several levels of feelings, so that sadness and happiness can lie side by side, or one within the other. Sometimes when we think we are happy we realize afterwards that we were miserable; whereas, looking back on some dreadful situation, some major tragedy, we realize there was a kind of joy deep down within it all. That, I think, is what Shelley was referring to, and nobody has expressed the paradox more poignantly than he.
Hope and despair, those sensations which humans experience but animals and birds do not . . . we feel them most commonly while looking forward into the future. We hope for better times, yet despair that things will not get better but will probably get worse. The optimist is a cheerful fellow; he expects a regular improvement in everything. Evolution seems to bear him out: better and better forms developing as life proceeds. The pessimist scorns this facile view, and points out that any improvement is more than counterbalanced by a degeneration in other respects. "Anyway," he says, "our bodies are growing older, and soon we shall become senile and die, and that will be the end." Such an attitude of pessimism is inevitable if you don't accept spiritual values. It is the corollary of the materialist viewpoint, and all sensitive people must come to it, even to despair, if they look only on the outer side of things. Hence the mood of alienation in the world today, especially among intellectuals. When I was young, atheism was fashionable and rather exciting. Science had taken the place of God. Science could do anything, achieve anything. Unlimited power was at man's disposal to achieve his heart's desire: the abolition of poverty, the conquest of disease, food for everybody, good housing in plenty, quick and easy transport from place to place, everybody able to visit any part of the world at will, and eventual journeys to the moon and planets. General prosperity, we were told, would bring wars to an end, and everybody would be noble and gentle, with "the flame of freedom in their souls and the light of science in their eyes."
Alas, things have not worked out that way — not yet at any rate. The new powers released by science and technology have been used, not to abolish war, but to make it more horrendous. The industrial system which held out so much promise has polluted our streams and rivers, and poisoned the very air we breathe; and the greater personal freedom we all enjoy as a result of increased affluence has back-fired into permissive sex, drug addiction, assaults, hijacks, murders and bomb outrages. No wonder there has been in recent years a reaction of despair! Evolution, which proclaimed "better and better forms developing as life proceeds," seems suddenly to have gone into reverse.
On the other hand, we can regard our present situation as nothing but teething troubles on a vast scale. Most of our disappointment is due to the slowness with which human nature adapts to the rapidly changing environment. It is like someone with a slum mentality suddenly being placed in a palace; it takes some time to adjust! People whose ancestors had to fight to survive, want to go on fighting in the same old way, although now there is enough of everything for everybody, needing only to be fairly distributed. National honour and aggrandisement, national jealousies, flag waving, foreign embassies and passport visas — all are out of date in this modern world. The only flag that makes sense is one I saw recently, with a picture of the world on it as seen by the astronauts from outer space!
They say "human nature doesn't change" — well, it will have to change if the human race is to survive. And I am hopeful, because many of our young people seem to be making a clean break with the past, and are planning to use science as it should have been used all along: as an instrument for the liberation of the human spirit, not for selfish aggrandisement and the piling up of material wealth. The mistake of the old Secularists was to assume that human nature could be improved by affluence and power, which it cannot be. It can only be changed by a new kind of life from within. All improvement is basically spiritual. Why I am an optimist is because I believe that the Lord is at this very time bringing new spiritual forces to bear upon the situation. Science and technology cannot themselves enrich life . . . but the Lord can, using the tools of science which He himself has made available. The New Age now dawning has not been produced by the scientific discoveries, but the New Age has produced the scientific discoveries! The New Age is being produced by the Lord himself, at what we like to think of as his "Second Coming".
As human beings, we are free to affirm or deny the influence of the Lord in worldly affairs. In other words, we are free to be optimists or pessimists. True optimism has nothing to do with the facile trust in evolution mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Even the scientists themselves have ceased to be dogmatic on that point! True optimism is an affirmation of the Lord's providential care of his creation; pessimism is a denial of it. Optimism is from heaven, pessimism from hell. Evil spirits are continually endeavouring to induce in us a state of despair by showing us a world without God — and it is indeed a sombre picture! At the same time they are telling us that it is all our fault, arousing in us feelings of hopelessness and guilt. What they want is to make men insane — and they have had a great deal of success in that direction! On the other hand, the angels are perpetually striving to raise us up out of those feelings of despair by showing us the presence of God deep down in everything — the "tranquil operation of the Divine Providence in every least particular, leading to the salvation of the human race." Here we see the opposing viewpoints of optimism and pessimism on a deeper level, the ultimate sources of Hope and Despair. Hope is an inner conviction that God is in ultimate control of the universe, while despair is an inner denial of this.
Christianity is a religion of HOPE. Its declarations are creative and positive. Its emphasis is not on sin but on forgiveness — though of course it acknowledges the existence of sin and is fully aware of its dangers. Christianity stresses not punishment for guilt, but pardon and restitution; not condemnation, but mercy and grace. Not defeat, but victory. Not the temporal but the eternal. Not the shadow but the light.
Someone once said to me: "What's the use of telling me I ought not to be depressed when I am depressed? Of course Hope is better than Despair, and I realize there is no logical reason why I should feel despair, but I do! How can I snap out of it?" Maybe a clue to this problem can be found in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 13. "Now abides faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." Obviously you cannot have faith without hope, or hope without faith. It is less obvious, but no less true, that you cannot have either faith or hope without love! Our confidence in the future, and our hope for eternity, is grounded in our acceptance of God as LOVE. And we cannot receive God's love in ourselves unless we, in our small way, love one another.
If ever you are depressed and feel like despairing, don't go and commit suicide (which won't really help) but set out consciously and deliberately to show love for someone, even if only in some trifling way — preferably someone you dislike, someone you have quarrelled with, someone you are not on speaking terms with. This will lift you out of despair into a state of faith and hope, out of hell into heaven. Hope breaks up and disperses despair. It does not touch the details of thought — it leaves our thoughts just where they were; but it gives us an inner feeling of assurance that, despite all our thoughts to the contrary, God is in control and all will be well. This is HOPE, and it can only manifest itself in us through Love or Charity.
Today is the beginning of the rest of your life. There is great hope for each one of us individually. A wonderful future lies ahead of us, if we will only take it. You won't be able to gather it all up at once — there's too much of it. But you can begin to receive the good things it contains, here and now, and you can go on taking more and more of them every week, every day, as your capacity increases, as your love grows and deepens and becomes more active. Hope extends indefinitely into the future, and you can always be entering more fully into it. But you don't even have to be looking into the future; you can have it in the present, side by side with whatever happens to be on your mind. On the external level you may be struggling with apparently overwhelming problems, but on the inner level you can be gloriously triumphant.
Think of the story of the Prodigal Son. What a distressing tale of failure for that poor deluded young man, with the ultimate humiliation of having to despair and go back home. But that was on the outer side. Inwardly his defeat was the greatest success story ever told! No, not the greatest. The greatest success story was of another young man — a village carpenter who threw up his work to become an itinerant preacher, and from an external point of view failed completely, so that his best friends forsook him, and he ended up with the fate of a common criminal; yet inwardly ascending on high, crowned with many crowns, merged with the Divine, taking upon himself all power in heaven and on earth. With such an example before us, of success in the midst of failure, how can we despair? We should rejoice even in our disappointments, knowing that seeming human failures can be the steps of a ladder leading up to the greatest success of all.