Don’t give up
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.2 Corinthians 4:1-8
Martin Scorsese’s film entitled Hugo is about an orphan who lived in a Paris railway station in the 1930’s looking after the clocks. All that connected him to his dead father was a mechanical man, but the key had been lost and Hugo could not discover its secrets. The plot of the movie is magical, and central to it is a toy shopkeeper, George Melies and his god-daughter. She and Hugo become friends, and fortuitously she provides Hugo the key which not only unlocks the automaton’s secrets but also the memories of the old man. It transpires that before the Great War he was a celebrated magician and the pioneer of silent movies, and that the mechanical man was one of his inventions. But after the war George’s movies went out of fashion, his mechanical man dumped, and he was forgotten. In despair he had consigned all his movies to the flames. In recounting that sad episode later when all had been restored, he remarks: “when you despair you give up all hope.” Isn’t that so true!
Despair is not the same as depression though their symptoms are similar. You begin to lose interest in life; you know longer care. But depression is a mental state that can become a chronic illness; despair is a temptation. It is the temptation to give up on hope; it is losing purpose in life and succumbing to fate. Hugo in the movie summed it up for me: “A broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do… Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose… it’s like you’re broken.” Most of the time despair may be a fleeting mood, a passing sense of things just getting us down, but sometimes it can become a serious and more permanent condition of heart and mind as it did for George Melies, destroying the will to live, driving us into our shells, breaking us and preventing us from doing what we are meant to do.
I recently read Willie Esterhuyse’ book Endgame in which he documents the many secret meetings between Afrikaners and the ANC that helped prepare the ground for the ending of apartheid. It was a process that swung from despair to hope and back again as progress was regularly dashed by events on the ground. In the last chapter Esterhuyse, reflecting back on that experience, describes the ongoing cycle of despair and hope we all feel today about the way things are currently going in South Africa.
There is more than enough reason to despair as we hear the news or receive word of friends who have cancer or family members going through tough times. It is human to despair. Read the Psalms and you will encounter many expressions of exasperated despair. The prophet Jeremiah went through terrible times of despair when he even felt let down by God. Jesus himself despaired over Jerusalem, a city renowned for killing its prophets and refusing to learn God’s way of peace; he must also have despaired over his disciples! We today despair over the situation in Israel-Palestine and Syria, as well as over some developments in our own country and are tempted to wash our hands of the whole affair.
But imagine if everyone did that! I am sure that Kofi Annan would love to just turn his back on the whole Syrian catastrophe and enjoy his retirement. Imagine if every time you despaired of your friends or children you simply gave up on them. Imagine if the waiting father in the parable gave up all hope that his younger prodigal son would return from feeding the pigs in a distant land. Despair is such a dangerous temptation because it prevents us from doing what we should do. It prevents us from seeing signs of hope that motivate us to action, to love, to joy, to healing relationships, to working for a better future. If you give in to despair you lose the capacity to forgive others or even to accept God’s forgiveness yourself because you no longer believe that people can change for the better; you stop praying because it makes no difference. In short you give up on life, on God. To overcome despair, we need to recognise its true nature. It is the temptation to surrender hope and doing what we can to change things for the better.
St. Paul had every reason to despair. You have only to read about the way in which he was persecuted, slandered, tortured, and driven away from preaching the good news to his own people, to discover reasons why he should have despaired and given up. But his testimony is different. He was “afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.” To be afflicted and perplexed was only human; to give in to despair would mean surrendering all that was important to him. Those who truly live by hope are often afflicted, often perplexed, and sometimes brought to the edge of the abyss, but somehow never crushed or driven to despair. And the reason is that like Paul or a recovering alcoholic in Alcoholics Anonymous, they acknowledge dependence on a power greater than themselves in which they find their strength.
Breaking this bread and drinking this cup together today is a protest action against despair. It is saying that while we acknowledge despair, we refuse to allow ourselves to collapse into a heap. We refuse to accept that our lives have no purpose or meaning. We refuse to give up on people and situations that drive us to despair. Above all, we hang on to the hope that God has not despaired of either us or the world. And in doing so we express the greatest antidote to despair – thanksgiving and gratitude for life, for family and friends, for this place and every place we call home, for the good that happens despite the bad, and for the gift of Jesus Christ who shared our despair but overcame the temptation to give up on us but continually seeks us out to bring us home.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 7 June 2012