One should never be quick to say yes to despair. Sadness….yes, but never despair, for sadness is a product of joy, but despair is nothing other than sickness. Kierkegaard recognized the nature of this. He distinguished between sadness which had an object and melancholy which knew no such thing.
Related to this, but not the same, is quietism. I am not talking of the quietism that inhabits so much Nordic and Protestant thought. That is the quietism of answering to authority and being complacent to it. It is the quietism that has bred the “my country right or wrong” attitude. It is wrong, but it not the quietism that broaches on despair. I am also not referring to that quietism that inhabits the thoughts of those who have rightfully recognized things for what they are and choose to live with it. This is the quietism that recognizes you don’t control either the tides or the feelings of others. What I speak of is that quietism that negates decision.
Somewhere it is said fate is what you are dealt and destiny is what you do with it. This seems as good of a starting place as any to speak of the quietism that is sickness. Now you can argue about fate, as to if the thing exist and if we must make our peace with it, but you really can’t argue with the hand you are dealt. There really are some “born to delight and others to night.” And in every life there is that to which we exercise no control over. This is the irony of free will….if we will a thing that affects another who exercises free will, we are bound by their will which in some way, though not entirely, negates our own. This accounts for all those stories of those disowned by their families or unrequited love. Our own will now only becomes what we do with the situation. Of course all life is situational.
This is not to say we do not have choices, for in most circumstances we are afforded at least the freedom of decision. That is after all the definition of a “situation.” Whether this decision making is to be called destiny, we cannot know, but its effect is clear….if the opportunity for choice exists and if we ignore it, we are in the realm of exercising a quietism that becomes despair.
To illustrate this, I reference two sources. The first is the German fantasy film “Wings of Desire.” The story involves an angel who falls in love with a woman. (If you are thinking that describes “City of Angels,” do yourself a favor and watch the original German film rather than the American remake.) In this movie Marion, the lead female character, lives a life a life devoid of decision and seriousness. This is really the epitome of despair. Her life is one of a worthless resolve. She is capable of “loving” many and doing as she pleases and on the surface she is a creature of free will, but what she calls freedom is nothing other than the unexamined life and a will that is free in name only. She has had the opportunity of choice, but has never come to the place of decision.
Marion practices quietism. She has been afforded the opportunity to examine her life and stand in the realm of decision and possibly even destiny; yet until the close of the film it is evident she has never done so. However she is open to change and this is evident in the final moments of the film.
In the soliloquy at the conclusion of the movie, Marion ponders on destiny. She cannot be sure of this thing, but she can be sure if it exists, it is not a thing of random happenstance. It may be something she does not invite, but it is not random and it does involve her decision making and her consent. In her realization of this, Marion overcomes that despair which masquerades as freedom to arrive at the place of decision. Even if the situation is not entirely of her choosing, it does involve her decision….the ecstatic yes.
“Wings of Desire” is a love story and though I am far from one to equate destiny and decision with only love, I do know that this provides for us the most vivid examples of the release of despair and a world where we emphatically say Yes. I will not go into Marion’s Yes. It is one of those film moments you love or hate. (You can watch it here.) Suffice it to say that love works here to show how a life of quietism and despair is overcome with consent to a plan that is larger than we are. That is the beauty of a universal design….it does put in our path the decision to say yes, but it never seeks to coerce it, for coercion would also be a type of despair as it says only a thing must happen and does not give us the opportunity for the ecstatic utterance. In case you have not seen this film or have no desire to see it, Marion does say “Yes.”
In my next example, I do not deviate from the theme of love but point to a work that is often called a work of quietism at its most obvious. I am referring to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. I am no scholar of Greene, but I do know that the charge of Quietism was leveled against him, particularly by Evelyn Waugh and much of that comes from the last of his “Catholic novels.”
One has to unpack the criticism carefully. The End of the Affair is considered by many a work of great orthodoxy. Where the charge of quietism is leveled, it goes something to the effect that a complacency to sin grows out of a world where one acknowledges sin is always present and becomes resolved to not seeking to do spiritual warfare in the matter. In other words, we seek a passive reconciliation to a broken world. As heresy, this is the definition of quietism. Though I do not know that Greene condoned this passivity, it is somewhat obvious in this work.
The End of the the Affair poses a gravity that “Wings of Desire” does not. It is not a fantasy and quite frankly it is not even fiction. The story is more than a little loosely based on the relationship of Graham Greene and Catharine Walston. What this work does show are the actions of two people, one willing to say Yes and one who ignores the obligation to decision.
The plot is actually quite simple. Two married people named Maurice and Sarah fall in love and have an affair in wartime London. After making love a V2 rocket slams into their bedroom and believing Maurice is dead, Sarah asks God to spare his life. In return she will never see him again. It is a promise she can only keep for so long.
Though the book is written from Maurice’s point of view, it is Sarah who says Yes, but it is a Yes that her lover cannot understand. She has said yes to God and for a while this leads her away from Maurice. This is no small thing for in doing this she preserves not only herself, but Maurice as well as her decision is a Yes for both him and her. Maurice cannot see this. For him, her decision is only a denial of love and this because he is the one who cannot come to the point of discerning what is meant by their love. (It is important to the tone of the book to realize Sarah never once stops loving Maurice in a way that is both spiritual and passionate.) In the end Sarah does not always keep her promise to God, for the affair is rekindled. This is not “Wings of Desire” after all. There are no angels here, only very real sinners and a possible saint. But in the end even with her failings, Sarah is one to say Yes. She says this in many ways….she says yes to God, human love, the frail and sick, penance, Catholicism, and life itself even to the point it cost her life. In that final act, she has even left Maurice to say yes to belief, even if that yes is chilling and his decision not a healthy one.
What both Wings of Desire and The End of the Affair do is tell us is most life involves a certain type of destiny, but it is not a fatalistic one devoid of decision. And they both point out that to deny being in the place of decision is a quietism that becomes despair. They are both works which show us despair must never have the day and they both use the most potent human feeling to make the point. They point to this very real thing….humans too often lack fortitude and that leads them to those places they should not be in or to not take up the places they should be. This is perhaps not the reality for most, but still far too many. And though I have used eros to speak to this, it is unfortunately a reality in many other ways as well.