‘I despair for our country.’ ‘I despair that he or she is ever going to be better.’ ‘I’m never going to be able to stop doing X.’ We often think, say, or hear these words. In the face of both social and personal suffering, it seems reasonable to despair, to stop searching for the good forever out of reach. We stop hoping.
Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)
Are our social problems worth despairing over? It depends on what we mean by despair. Despair has both an emotional or natural meaning and a supernatural meaning. In its natural meaning, we can despair of our social and political institutions. We no longer trust people or institutions to achieve the good that they promise. We no longer trust that they want what is good.
Natural or emotional despair can be the correct response to reality. We see that some particular good is no longer possible. We feel despair that our country has enacted unjust laws that cannot be reversed in the foreseeable future. We feel despair that our terminally ill family member will not be making a natural recovery. We feel despair that a good grade will not be possible after we receive our report card. We give up on particular hopes, seeking particular difficult goods, that are now impossible or no longer seen as good.
St. Thomas Aquinas, defining supernatural despair, writes, “Despair consists in a man ceasing to hope for a share of God’s goodness.” This kind of despair does not have to do with a particular difficult good we want, but our ultimate good, namely God. We would be crazy to think that we had the power to obtain this Good, if God had not told us that this is what we are made to possess. We are made to “possess” and be possessed by God.
Supernatural despair is the opposite of the supernatural virtue of hope. In despairing, we do not believe the promises of God can be achieved. We either don’t believe that God has the power to do what He promised or that He isn’t so good as to give us what He has promised to give. This is a serious sin since through supernatural despair we call God a weakling or limit His goodness.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor 4:8-11)
Supernatural hope sees the problems of society, personal sufferings, and sin in the light of the Resurrection. Hope knows that God is the very good Lord of History, and all sufferings are seen by the light of His face. Through the gift of hope, we know that God will triumph over all evil and will guide us safely into His kingdom.