Spiritual Despair: Consciousness of Despair

A piercing observer of the human condition, Søren Kierkegaard argues that despair is the sickness unto death. The very structure of being human is such that we can only be what we were created to be and are called to become by resting transparently in God. This means, among other things, that being rightly related to God is the only way truly to be oneself. If we fail to rest transparently in him--that is, if we fail to have faith in God--then there will be a fundamental misrelation at the center of our existence and this is the condition of being in despair. Since we all fail to rest transparently in God, then we are all in despair, at least to the degree that we lack faith or our faith remains imperfect.

Unconscious Despair

Though all are in despair to some degree, not all people realize they are in despair. Unconscious despair is despair "that is ignorant of being despair." This is the condition of the unreflective person who has no sense of what it is to be human--of the responsibility and eternal significance of bearing the divine image (SUD, 40 and 82; cf. SUD, 14). To be in unconscious despair, therefore, is to be undisturbed by the inconvenient truth of one's humanity and fallen condition and standing before God.

From the perspective of the unrepentant sinner, this lack of consciousness is exceedingly desirable: it is the holy grail to suppressors of divine revelation, the cold comfort of agnosticism, and the secular dream. The secular man has no solution to the problems of sin in our world not only because he's spiritually bankrupt but also because he's well studied and practiced in stamping out the very consciousness of sin and therefore of being human--a spiritual being--and in despair before God.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kierkegaard believes "this form of despair...is the most common in the world" and adds that "what Christianity calls the world" is "despair [that] is ignorant of the fact" (SUD, 45). Even among those who seem least despairing in the world,

Deep, deep within the most secret hiding place of [their] happiness there dwells also anxiety, which is despair; it very much wishes to be allowed to remain there, because for despair the most cherished and desirable place to live is in the heart of happiness (SUD, 25).

I suspect we know all too well what Kierkegaard is talking about here and have observed even in ourselves how quickly we seek refuge from anxious and hopeless thoughts in mirth and how easily laughter can turn to tears.

The idea that one can be unconscious of being in despair underlines his insistence that spiritual despair is not a sense of hopelessness that sometimes surfaces in a person's self-consciousness but a universal spiritual malady. In this sense, he explains, despair is like a physical sickness and requires a physician's skill:

The physician has a defined and developed conception of what it is to be healthy and ascertains a man's condition accordingly. The physician knows that just as there is merely imaginary sickness there is also merely imaginary health, and in the latter case he first takes measures to disclose the sickness. Generally speaking, the physician, precisely because he is a physician (well informed), does not have complete confidence in what a person says about his condition. If everyone's statement about his condition, that he is healthy or sick, were completely reliable, to be a physician would be a delusion. A physician's task is not only to prescribe remedies but also, first and foremost, to identify the sickness, and consequently his first task is to ascertain whether the supposedly sick person is actually sick or whether the supposedly healthy person is perhaps actually sick. Such is also the relation of the physician of the soul to despair (SUD, 23).

If you were to ask your neighbor whether she believes herself to be in despair, chances are she would deny it. For some this denial is a cover-up, a lie; but for many others it testifies to their lack of consciousness of being in despair--of "having no hope and [living] without God in the world." This is a kind of perfection of despair and an indication of how adept we can become in suppressing the knowledge of God and ourselves, whether by refusing to hear the truth at all or by the hardened callousness of hearing it without effect (SUD, 46).

Conscious Despair

Unconscious despair in its ideal or perfect form, however, is exceedingly rare. People may be so lost they don't even know they are lost but it is doubtful whether anyone can successfully pass through their whole life without ever becoming conscious, at least at certain "intervals" and to some degree somewhere along the way, of being lost or in despair or at least of despairing.

The natural reaction of the despairing person is to dismiss any surfacing consciousness of despair as a mere episode of some sort to be escaped and forgotten as quickly as it arose. Kierkegaard, however, insists such episodes are symptomatic of our actual "sickness unto death" that can only be cured through faith in the living and forgiving God who has come to us in Jesus Christ (see John 11). As such, moments of conscious despair are signs, first, that we are spiritual beings who ever exist and have our being before God and, second, that we are indeed in despair.

Consciousness of being in despair, however, ranges across a sliding scale of intensity from a minimal consciousness, which hardly merits the label "conscious of being in despair," to a maximally intense, demonic consciousness, which knows itself to be in despair before God, and shudders, but nevertheless defies him. Much of this spectrum of consciousness consists in the kind of despair that we commonly recognize and call despair. The common perception is superficial, however, because we fail to recognize the depth of spiritual despair within us. A person may "be quite correct," Kierkegaard writes,

According to his own idea of despair, to say that he is in despair...but that does not mean that he has the true conception of despair. If his life is considered according to the true conception of despair, it is possible that one must say: You are basically deeper in despair than you know, your despair is on an even profounder level.

The depth dimension to conscious despair, in other words, runs just as deep as it does in unconscious despair. So, it is likely that people conscious of being in despair nevertheless fail to be conscious of the cause of their despair and the depth of their despair because they may only be conscious of certain symptoms without discerning the underlying terminal condition of being in sin, "having no hope and [living] without God in the world."

*This is the second post in a series on "Spiritual Despair." You can find the first post in the series here.