On an off day, Stuart would privately think that life had little to offer him and he even sometimes felt that all he was doing was going through the motions of living. Money was tight, and in a time of recession there were poor prospects of job advancement. Although working as an estate agent, he had started to despair that he could do anything about finding any way of earning a living in a meaningful role in line with his youthful ideals.
Whatever he did wasn’t satisfying for very long and from time to time the feelings of hopelessness would return. He kept busy and this was his way of avoiding what he didn’t realize was a state of inner despair. He had been an idealist when younger, very keen to help bring about a world where the natural environment was protected, business people were honest, and social justice was the norm.
Now days he felt depressed whenever he read a newspaper or watched a newscast that clearly showed the opposite of his vision. He had switched from being very positive to very negative in his hopes. He was starting to feel like a failure and trapped by his situation, with a reducing willpower left for continuing the struggle with the disappointments of daily living.
How can someone like Stuart change this state of despair and find something to give hope and energy?
Despair resulting from lack of belief
There is nothing wrong with having a vision of a better world. Many of us like Stuart have imagined a human society uncorrupted by warfare and other social evils; or a natural environment with its beauty not exploited by greed; or a community of mutually supportive people with real concern for the public good, that gives everyone a sense of belonging and being included. Whatever idea of the future that excites us, it can serve to energise our best efforts.
I feel Stuarts’s problem however was that he had no deep belief to sustain his endurance when set-backs and adversity got in the way: nothing to hold on to that had the power to transform society: no spiritual framework of ideas to sustain his youthful vision, to give it credibility in the long run as an achievable objective, and to enable his wishes to survive a rational appraisal of what is possible. When there is nothing on which one can pin one’s hopes, then despair is likely to be the result.
If you despair, in what can you put your faith?
In other words, I am trying to argue that what is crucially needed is something beyond oneself, that transcends the material realm, and in which one can put one’s faith: an entity greater than oneself: that goes beyond the ‘little me’ with my petty concerns: that offers a timeless vision of life.
The way you think affects the way you feel. This is a psychological process known about by psychologists and used in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Consequently, it is key to examine whether the belief that sustains your hopes is a reasonable one. Stuart’s despair seems to come from his denial of any divine spark within and beyond humanity that could help us think further than self.
But how to be convinced? How to find a rational faith that could challenge the setbacks and illusions that destroy hope? The illusions of meaninglessness, alienation and self-condemnation?
Persuasive belief and despair
One answer comes from the spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. He writes about a limited type of belief that results from being persuaded by some ideology such as a political or religious teaching: often this is a belief of convenience so our attitudes unconsciously fit in with those of our family and friends. He claims that it is possible for such a belief to be part of the thinking mind, but not also part of the feeling heart: if so he says it cannot endure. For example being persuaded that it is wrong to steal cannot transform a person from being a robber at heart unless there is a desire to be honest, so that thought and feeling are in harmony. Incongruity between head and heart accounts for the hypocrisy seen in some of the history of religion including Christianity. It can also account for lost hope and despair.
Swedenborg contrasts persuasive belief with a genuine faith in a higher power. He maintains real faith is to do with trust and confidence: it is knowing in your heart with an inner conviction for example that there is a divine providence behind the universe beyond all the ability of material science to observe. So just how can one find such an inner conviction that sustains hope? What do you do to be convinced deep down?
Despair or receiving confident hope through faith
Swedenborg’s answer is that such a faith is a spiritual gift – not something we can create for ourselves but rather something that we can receive: a gift only for those who are ready to receive it: who are willing to give something of themselves in order to receive.
But give what? Things that occur to me are:
- Giving an open mind to the possibility of a higher spiritual power that we can source to change things for the better,
- Giving the time to try to understand what this would mean,
- Giving our effort to try to lead a way of life in line with what we are persuaded is true.
If all this is correct then to find confidence in justice and peace, one needs to attempt to act fairly with others. Likewise to have a deep trust in a creative force within the universe, one needs to oneself start nurturing the natural environment. Also to believe in the reality of the power of compassion, then one needs to begin practicing a caring attitude towards those with whom we come into contact. I believe this is the way to receive the gift of inner conviction.
Without confidence and conviction there can be no sustainable hope. Without hope there is despair.
“Give and you will receive”
“Search and you will find” (Jesus Christ)
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems