discouragement

September 5, 2008


I get discouraged fairly frequently. If such a thing could be objectively measured, the rate of discouragement has probably changed over the last ten years in an encouraging way. But discouragement retains its power. When it strikes, it creates the impression that no substantial or lasting improvement has taken place. In this sense, discouragement is like depression. Depression creates the impenetrable illusion that, no matter what evidence you might dig up to the contrary, you have always been depressed. There’s a difference between them that I’m trying to put my finger on. I suppose it rests on that dubious distinction between emotions and cognition: discouragement is almost a cognitive phenomenon, while depression manifests as an inability to enjoy anything and a powerful inclination towards emotional darkness.

The more urgent distinction is that with discouragement, the parameters are always changing. I get discouraged with regard to particular goals.

1. I’d like to function better on a day-to-day basis with regard to time and task management. Even if I don’t get depressed about it right away, on a bad day when I just don’t seem to get anything done, I get discouraged: I’ll always fritter away my time when I have it and then fret about everything I need to do when I don’t have time to do it.

2. I’d like to know a greater degree of wholeness and integrity with regard to my spiritual life. If it wasn’t so theologically incorrect, I could call this the goal of “being a better Christian.” Discouragement with regard to this goal comes from meditating on my own personal failures or those of people in my church who are close to me; sharper still is the discouragement that comes from engaging with strong arguments against the truth-value of the claims of the church. I owe much ironic gratitude to pw201 (a livejournal friend) for occasionally giving me a dose of these arguments. I think part of a healthy Christian life, for me, will always involve engaging with these arguments, but it’s difficult for me to really think about them comprehensively without, in Peter Elbow’s sense, “believing” in them provisionally. The process is always difficult and sometimes discouraging: if Jesus were really the truth, then would there even be any good arguments? Maybe it’s all just bullshit. And so it goes.

3. I’d like to have a realistic expectation that some day my relationship with my parents would be healthier. I had to admit yesterday, again, that since college something has been profoundly awry between us, and periodically I wish that this problem would just go away. Of course, my parents are not just going away, and what’s worse, insofar as they will “go away” someday, that process will make greater demands on my relationship with them than even exist now. So the hope of some progress in this area is something I crave. While there are flashes of hope here and there, sometimes I get discouraged and feel like I know nothing more about what makes it so hard to honor my parents than I did when I was twenty.

Recently a blogger I really like, Dan Oudshoorn, posted a striking piece on the particular form of his own discouragement. As fascinating as that post is, Dan turned it inside out with this later reflection. It’s interesting that, though one of the things that makes Christianity strong in the face of all its absurdities and contradictions is the way it comes to terms with our own absurdities and contradictions, actually drawing on that heightened understanding as a resource to cope with discouragement does not happen automatically. We have to discover it over and over again, or maybe better to say it: the Holy Spirit has to break through our persistent invincible ignorance again and again.

My daughter, not quite five, recently became a communing member of our church and we’re celebrating with a party this weekend – that’s why my parents are in town. I think a lot about the sincere and fiery conviction on the part of some atheists that I am abusing my child by raising her to believe in Jesus and participate in practices like communion (teaching her cannibalism, as one writer put it). Sometimes, when I’m especially discouraged, I do think I’m letting her down, that I should somehow keep her isolated from the contagion of Christ that I’m carrying so that she can live a freer and more fulfilled life than I have.

Other times, I think this is a world swarming with bugs carrying terminal spiritual diseases, and that my own immunity (so far) to despair and death is something I am obliged to share with my children, and something they will in turn be obliged to examine and possibly reinterpret as they get older. But there is no such thing as neutrality with regard to human existence – we are situated beings, politically, spiritually, in every way – and actively situating my kids while their powers of compassion and rationality are still immature is part of the job. There is no safe space where I can put them so that they can one day make up their own minds unencumbered. The church, to me, is a safe space and (like all havens, as James Baldwin pointed out) an encumbrance at the same time.

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