December 14, 2004

Chanukah: driving out despair

In the list of the Seven Deadly Sins, I never understood why Despair was included*. It just didn't make sense to include a mood as a sin; I thought of those as mutually exclusive categories.

Maybe that concept was clearer to most people at the time it was formulated, when for the most wretched serfs only the hope of Heaven provided relief from a life of drudgery. For me, what explained the concept was what I saw in this last US Presidential election and the reaction to it from those on the losing side. Most people who were upset at the results of that election have since moved on, I hope, and either learned to deal with it or gone to work to change and reclaim their future. Immediately after the election, though, a lot of the responses I saw looked a lot like despair, and that was when I realized why it was counted as a deadly sin: it's because despair paralyzes. Despair is like clinical depression, without the brain-chemistry issues; depressives turn inward instead of outward, do not try to impact the outside world, and can go into a death-spiral. If you believe that everything is horrible and we're all doomed and it will never get any better, then there's no point in having hope, thus no faith in God or in a better world to come.

To switch from a Catholic concept to a more Jewish view, if there is no hope then there is no point in working to heal the world. I think that may be a central lesson of Chanukah: not to despair. That kindling a light in darkness does matter, that fighting against ridiculous odds sometimes does result in victory, that (almost hardest of all) when near-victory has nearly collapsed into moral defeat, as when only enough oil for one day was found, a miracle is still not impossible. (Ask any Red Sox fan.) That's a lesson that can be learned from much of Jewish history, because there were so many near-defeats and near-extinctions, but it is particularly central to Chanukah. It goes with both the particular history of the Maccabees and the miralcle of the holy oil and the general ideas of solstice holidays, when the sun dies and is reborn. It's why the image of light in darkness is so vivid to those holidays. From Rachel's Chanukah ritual:

Let us remember our duty to seek freedom for all, because we remember oppression. Let us dedicate ourselves to tikkun olam, the healing of the world, as our holy sanctuary was once re-dedicated at this season. Let us carry Divine Light into the world in this season of darkness.

*Note: Dame Nora commented to say that despair is not one of the Deadly Sins, so I check and found this list at the University of Leicester's Art Historysite:
1. Superbia-Pride
2. Invidia-Envy
3. Ira-Anger
4. Avaritia-Avarice
5. Tristia-Sadness
6. Gula-Gluttony
7. Luxuria-Lust

That's the list as defined by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604). I think it's fair to define Tristia as Despair rather than Sadness. Later, the list was changed to its current form by THomas Aquinas, and Despair has been replaced with ‘Accidia’, or Sloth. So Nora and I are both right.

(I like the earlier version, being better at combatting Despair than Sloth, myself.)

Posted by dichroic at December 14, 2004 12:48 PM

From a Christian POV, despair is a sin because loss of hope is also a loss of faith -- it means that you no longer believe that somehow, some way, God will provide.

It is not, however, one of the Seven Deadlies; those are: Pride; Envy; Anger; Avarice; Sloth; Gluttony; and Lust

Posted by: Nora at December 14, 2004 01:07 PM

Hm. That's interesting. What I noticed right after the election did not come anywhere close to despair for most of the people I knew. It was mourning. People needed a few days or weeks to mourn the fact that something that they had poured a great deal of energy and hope into was not to be. After a few weeks, they were ready to pour their hope into the next similar endeavor. But they needed that time to mourn... Mourning, to me, is a time to recharge, to let go the old dream and make peace with it, then pick up life and love and new causes anew. I remember that you commented on the entry that I wrote after the election, that it (or perhaps the people standing together Downtown singing mournfully) was the wrong song. Your comment both confused me and amused me. You know why? The song they were singing, was a protest song, as I mentioned... but you know which one? "We Shall Overcome." Now, yes, those people were very sad, and singing mournfully. But they were singing things that reminded them why they'd fought and what they'd fought for, and why they'd fight again. They were mainly Kerry campaign organizers, from the looks of it. But they were just mourning, and re-aligning themselves with their dream after a very hard blow. What they had just devoted hours and hours of their time to every week for the last several months had died. They had to mourn that death. That takes some time.

I know that it's easy to mistake what I am saying in my entries sometimes... because I don't often say directly what I think politically... I mainly just describe events and what I see. I was very disappointed when Bush was elected. And I sure as hell am not looking forward to the next four years. But it certainly isn't cause for me to stop hoping for and fighting for what I believe in.

I do think you are right though. There were some people who never got past the mourning stage, and have given up fighting. That, I suppose, could be classed as despair. However, having fought serious depression during many periods of my life, I really can't criticize. That is an extremely difficult place to be.

Posted by: Melissa at December 14, 2004 07:39 PM

I read:

"1. Superbia-Pride"

as "Suburbia-Pride" and spent a few minutes being confused by the prescience of the old popes, but not at all confused by the correllation.

(Though, actually, envy might be better for suburbia... which is it that causes people to awaken at 8AM on a Saturday and use a leaf-blower?)

Posted by: Mer at December 15, 2004 06:59 AM

*snickering at Mer's comment*

Posted by: Melissa at December 15, 2004 07:16 AM
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