Religion of Despair

How we love to despair. Americans, that is. We recite with a modicum of pride the high rates of depression that affects our country. It was one out of every ten on anti-depressants when I was first prescribed them. It gave me solace knowing that so many others suffered the way that I did. It was far less solace the second time around. If a third time shows up I'm sure any solace will be lost altogether.

Despair has become so woven into the speech and rhetoric of our society that we don't even recognize it anymore. It is preached to us on Sunday from pulpits and become the leading theme on cable TV. Our most popular shows focus on the post-apocalyptic as though we are mentally and emotionally preparing ourselves for the tragedy that is sure to come. Conservative commentators have created such an atmosphere of fear and despair that the hatred and xenophobia they preach comes across sounding like hope. As though the only way to reclaim our freedom and safety is by violently expunging the other.

Progressivism isn't doing much better. The despair we preach inspires nihilism and the fatalism of eventuality. We progressives - whatever that means - woefully imprint the pages of history onto the present and in doing so portend our future. The lessons of the past are seen as instruction manuals rather than cautionary tales. The specter of hatred and fascism raised by Trump harkens to regimes past that successfully directed the desperate rage of the masses towards tyranny. Like his predecessors, Trump promises greatness and reconciliation on the backs of another's destruction.

In times like these we are wont to ask why. Why is this happening? Why has Trump or Carson or Cruz risen to power? Asking why is probably the most American response to tragedy. We want to know the arithmetic behind the problem. To unearth the deep reason that precipitated an event. There must be a rationale to it, we tell ourselves. There must be a reason. There must be something we can blame and point at. There must be something that we can destroy.

What we need to be asking is what is transformational and transcendent? Author Tim O'Brien once said, "Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is." What stories are we telling ourselves these days? Are they of hope and reconciliation? Or are they about the eventuality of loss? We need to be telling better stories. Stories of hope and reconciliation, stories that bring narratives of triumph and beauty to confront the myriad tragedies we see everyday. Stories that pierce through the blurry lines of difference so we can see the other as a Thou - a holy incorporation who carries the same thumbprint of the Divine that I do. We need stories that disrupt the solipsistic "me" and begin elevating the congregational "we", so that we can understand that mutual self-interest has much more staying power than self-interest ever could.

Ultimately, we need stories that can disinfect us from the religion of despair that is being preached and prophesied across America. We disinfect despair by choosing joy and believing it to be the rule rather than the exception. We disinfect despair with actions that bring community together and dispel any notion that we don't possess the power to change the status quo. We disinfect despair by acknowledging that yes, it exists, and that yes there is reason be afraid, but rather than leaning into fear despair we explore the space of hope and healing. We disinfect despair by turning off the TV.

And remember this: the story isn't over yet. The book has yet to be bound. The pages of history depend on us to write them. Let's write them well.