Humility and Despair

Journal of Psychology and Christianity 40 (3):267-271 (2021)
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Abstract

Since the wife-husband team of Anne Case and Angus Deaton popularized the term deaths of despair, psychologists have become more interested in decoupling despair from clinical depression and anxiety. Despair’s central marker is the loss of hope. It is characterized by feelings of social and spiritual isolation, meaninglessness, hopelessness, helplessness, demoralization, and shame. Causes of despair are complex, ranging from individual (e.g., grief, bad health, addiction, abuse), to societal (e.g., social and cultural dislocation, unemployment, economic disaster, poverty), to a combination of both. Sometimes, acknowledging and/or addressing despair’s material causes is enough. But the problem with despair is that it tends to generate a vicious cycle of self-defeat. Often, it manifests in self-perpetuating negative cognitive biases, self-defeating emotional reactions, and self-destructive behavior. To break free, the person must address the psychological and spiritual roots of her despair. Here, I offer insights from a Christian tradition grounded in the monastic spirituality of the Desert Fathers in the hopes that these might help a therapist seeking to do just that. After distinguishing between an emotion and a sin of despair, I locate the latter’s roots in the vices of acedia and pride. Finally, I point to the virtue of humility as a traditional cure for despair.

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Alina Beary
Biola University

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