Wednesdays on the blog I am going through the ‘eight thoughts’, the subject of my new book Idol Thoughts. These are the typical patterns of interior dialogue that the desert fathers identified as the principal opponents to the work of the Holy Spirit in us—hence idols we worship in lieu of God insofar as we give our allegiance to them. My book shows what each of these thoughts are, and how to pray with the Gospels as one way of being liberated from their tyranny in our lives.
This list of eight thoughts was adapted to the familiar ‘seven deadly sins’ in later Roman Catholic teaching. We have already looked at the first four thoughts, and so far they have corresponded to the list of seven—gluttony, lust, avarice, anger.
But with thought number five we depart from the rest of that list—sloth, envy, pride—somewhat. Pride is still there, but vainglory takes the place of envy, and sloth is broken up into acedia (more on that next week) and today’s thought, despondency.
So what’s that about? How is ‘sadness’ a thought that blocks the work of the Holy Spirit in us? Isn’t it just a normal emotion, one of the spectrum? Isn’t it healthy to be sad when sad things happen? What could the desert fathers mean by characterizing it as a moral problem?
We have to distinguish the simple emotion of sadness from the thought of sadness. Still more do we have to strongly state that the disease of clinical depression is something quite other than those. The desert fathers knew all about depression, although of course they didn’t have the name for it. They speak of a causeless sorrow that engulfs the human person, against his or her will, and which they are powerless to overcome. They are quite clear in their writings that this is not the thought of despondency.
Nor is the simple emotion that thought, either. Emotions come and go and we have little immediate control over them—they are not in themselves morally significant. The thought of despondency is something quite different. It is, essentially, the fixed conviction that I cannot be happy unless I have things my own way. Happiness is getting what I want, and so when I don’t get what I want (which, not being God, happens to me fairly often), I will be sad.
Pouting, in other words. Sulking. We may do it in adult ways (the spectacle of a grown man weeping openly or throwing himself on the floor if he doesn’t get his favourite coffee cup is fairly rare), but nonetheless there is little to separate us from the toddler on this point. I want what I want, when I want it, as I want it. And I will be miserable, and make everyone else miserable, until I get it. Such is the driving force of the despondent soul.
Now of course all of this is sheer and utter nonsense, and a moment’ clear thinking is sufficient to show it. For one thing, if it is truly necessary for happiness that one gets exactly what one wants, then in any normal living situation we must end up in a state of practically mortal combat. What I want will only coincidentally be what you want, and quite often be quite different. So only one of us can be happy at any given moment, if the above notion of happiness prevails. Despondency thus links arms with anger and life becomes a pitched battle for dominance, and nobody ends up especially happy.
There are people whose lives are ruined by the thought of despondency—people who end up so bitter over the hand they were dealt, constantly complaining, never satisfied, always finding something wrong in any day, any situation, and focusing on that with laser precision. And we all know other people who, in spite of fairly serious afflictions and tragedies in their lives, someone come through to a place of joy and peace, hard-won perhaps, but all the more real for that.
Most of us fall somewhere in between, with little flashes of despondency, large or small veins of self-centredness and childish self-will lacing through our person. But the truth all of us need to return to is that happiness has nothing—nothing at all!—with getting one’s own way. Happiness lies in coming to love God’s way, in growing to see that our life, our real life, is to live in a communion of love with God in which ‘what we want’ is more and more purified and simplified to wanting what God wants.
And the great surprise twist ending of not just our life, but the life of the whole cosmos, is that what God wants is, in fact, to fulfill every desire of our hearts in the right way, a true and good way, and that the path He sets for us of obedience and surrender, trust and abandonment, is in fact the path to perfect self-fulfillment, to having everything just the way (uh huh uh huh) we like it, forever.
As the Bible ends ‘every tear will be wiped away’ (Rev 21:4) – sadness ultimately is done away with in the kingdom, but the path to that kingdom is to forget about ourselves and our own ideas and follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Rev 14:4).