Some time ago when our young son was struck by agonising abdominal pains in the middle of the night and we had to rush him to Emergency at York Central Hospital in Toronto. In the four or five hours before he was attended to I felt the sort of helpless despair which must be the experience of countless thousands in this pitiless world when their loved ones are at deadly risk or dying or dead by accident or some other stroke of unrelenting fate.
It is the helplessness. It is the frustrated rage. It is the terrible feeling of being powerless. It is the questioning of God. Our son’s pain was unbearable, it took over his life, there was nothing but this great fierce God of pain. He begged his mother and myself to help him. But all I did – raging at the desk-bound bureaucrats, appealing to passing, harassed nurses – could not get him help before his turn. When at last he was admitted to the system of care my son was speedily and efficiently helped, his pain relieved at last with morphine, what was wrong deciphered and eventually in the course of a harrowing week and an operation all was well. But I will never forget his agony for those few hours and my despair. And it was just a few hours that seemed an eternity. I think of others in their despair – not hours but days, weeks, months, years, forever they have to endure.
That is the urgency of the despair you feel when those you love are in desperate danger or are lost forever. There is also existential despair – the despair that comes with the realization that you yourself will have an end and that the end is endless. Fortunately we are made so that we do not allow ourselves to think this way very often or for very long. Fortunately, also, the world is filled with enough distracting beauty and joys and troubles and challenges and problems and one glorious or painful thing after another to crowd out the horror of that thought. But it is there. Make no mistake. It is there. Philip Larkin wrote the most famous and brutal poem ever written about the terror of permanent extinction. It is ‘Aubade’, a poem that hardly bears reading if you are at all worried about the end which approaches us all sooner or later. Here are some of Larkin’s unsparing lines in that grim, true poem:
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse’
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realization of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
And then there is the ultimate source of human despair – the despair that tells you with relentless, scientific logic that nothing really matters because everything has an end, literally everything, your life, my life, the world, all space, all time, the universe, eternity, even the nothingness of nothing has an end. Everything known or to be known will be as if it never was. The American poet, Ron Padgett, for whom I have an increasing respect, tries to explain the depth and strength of this despair in his poem ‘Why God Did What He Did’:
Why God Did What He Did
God hates you
which is why he created the world
and put you in it
and gave you the power to realize
that you’re here
for a while
and then poof
and while you’re here
you come to see
that the world too will be
by a fiery bowling ball,
ten thousand times the size of the earth,
hurtling through space
at this very moment
so that nothing absolutely
because that’s what God wants
and he wants you to know it
because he really hates you
and he wants you to know that too
It is at such times that one falls into what those of very strong faith call the dark night of the soul when recourse to prayer even for those of the strongest faith does not seem to work at all. Yet what is there but prayer at such times, prayer even if you no longer believe in prayer, prayer even if it is a mere whisper blown away in a hurricane of doubt, prayer because in the end it is the very last semblance of belief around which the pearl of hope can form again and grow in God’s eternal void?