catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 3 :: 2010.02.05 — 2010.02.18


Fighting despair in 2010

After only seven months hosting The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien was forced — by NBC executives or on account of his own principles — to leave what was for the comedian a lifelong dream come true.  In a rare serious moment, O’Brien asked a favor of his loyal fans:  “All I ask of you, especially young people…is one thing. Please don’t be cynical,” O’Brien said. “I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.”

Aware of the angry tirades posted against NBC executives (stand-ins for corporate America) and the increasingly hostile and entrenched political landscape, O’Brien did not give in to the cynicism.  He acknowledged his good fortune and overall positive relations with NBC, while at the same time conceding the loss of his dream, helping turn personal disappointment into a very public life lesson.

“Coco’s” final days hosting The Tonight Show set a perfect tone for the situation and his brief words against cynicism were sorely needed.  Cynicism is indeed a problem that reveals a pervasive danger in our time — a loss of hope. When one does not achieve what is hoped for, the temptation is often to give up expecting anything good at all.  One chooses to see the world as hopeless in order to protect from future heartache.  Whatever happens, then, always confirms the cynic’s perspective — it’s either too good to be true or exactly as bad as the cynic knew it would be all along.  The modern day cynic, therefore, feels invincible to pain, though in reality this cynicism is only the outward expression of a hurt that runs deep.           

The Cynics of Ancient Greece would certainly find the modern definition of cynicism to have strayed far from their original intention of living the virtuous life of a dog, free from the pressures of societal values, money, cleanliness and fame.  The Cynic of ancient times would have looked more like the Dude from The Big Lebowski than the haughty teen posting jagged barbs against anyone and everyone on message boards all over the internet.

Today’s use of the word cynic seems to have developed in the 19th Century.  One of the earliest documents of this modern sense can be found in New York preacher Henry Ward Beecher’s sermons in 1853.  Beecher described the cynic as a “human owl, vigilant in darkness and blind to light, mousing for vermin and never seeing noble game,” a “wretch, blotched all over with leaprosy [who] may grin hideously at every wart or excrescence upon beauty.”  In 1868, a poem bemoaning a lack of virtue in American politicians called The Snarl of a Cynic: A Rhyme was published.  And writings against the spread of cynicism by politicians, journalists and satirists can be found in newspapers dating 1875 and 1882.  Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard picked up on the phenomenon leading to modern cynicism as early as 1836 when he wrote in a letter “the present age is the age of despair.”

In 1841, the student Kierkegaard wrote in a sermon:

Did there not come a time when your mind was unfruitful and sterile, your will incapable of all good, your emotions cold and weak, when hope was dead in your breast, and recollection painfully clutched at a few solitary memories of happiness and soon these also became loathsome, when everything was of no consequence to you, and the secular bases of comfort found their way to your soul only to wound even more your troubled mind, which impatiently and bitterly turned away from them?  Was there not a time when you found no one to whom you could turn, when the darkness of quiet despair brooded over your soul, and you did not have the courage to let it go but would rather hang onto it and you even brooded once more over your despair?

Seven years later, Kierkegaard developed his exploration of despair further in The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening.  For the philosopher, despair is a fate worse than physical death because it is an eternal death, a death that does not die.  One who despairs would reasonably want the feeling to end, but true despair does not dare to hope for an end to the suffering-that is why it is despair.  As Kierkegaard explains, “Despair is veritably a self-consuming, but an impotent self-consuming that cannot do what it wants to do.  What it wants to do is to consume itself, something it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consuming, in which despair is once again unable to do what it wants to do, to consume itself.”

Though there is no human means of escape from true despair, according to Kierkegaard, people still try.  The pursuit of happiness is one such attempt.  If a person is not happy with himself or the position he’s in, he may attempt to achieve a different self, a happy self.  He may assume that the cause of his despair can be removed, but this is impossible without a removal of the self.  Kierkegaard explains it this way:

An individual in despair despairs over something.  So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself.  In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to be rid of himself.  For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it.  But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself.  Consequently he does not despair because he did not get to be Caesar but despairs over himself because he did not get to be Caesar.

But even if this ambitious man did achieve his goal of becoming Caesar, Kierkegaard says, he would not have escaped despair.  Because despair is never despair over something but is always a self in despair, one cannot escape despair as long as one is still one’s self.

We are successful at hiding the despair for a time.  We have designed many modern conveniences — which Kierkegaard calls “the secular bases of comfort” — to distract us from ourselves.  Advertising capitalizes on our underlying dissatisfaction and creates the fantasy that particular products can make us the type of person we want to be or think we are.  Popular music, movies, video games, television and social networking sites combine to offer an enticing virtual world in which we see ourselves as the stars of our own pretend life. 

It is not necessary to list the innumerable products, services and technologies designed to distract us from ourselves because all modern technologies arise as a means to this end.  It is easy to spot this phenomenon of self-distraction in the media but the self-distancing goal of modern technology is also evident in our military technologies, the food industry, education system, politics and churches.

Our self-distraction can also be demonstrated by merely asking the question: “What does it mean to be a self?”  A person steeped in the modern world will more than likely look for the answer in a dictionary, on the Internet or in the library to see what other people have said on the issue.  Or they may take Descartes’ advice and remove all other distractions (by which he means what is perceived by the senses), relying instead on the orderly rationalistic method of thought that has become the modern mind.  All these responses to the question avoid a true encounter with the self.  Though we may be able to fashion together some kind of answer we believe satisfies the criteria of the question, it will be yet another technological device used to hide ourselves from ourselves.  We don’t want to know ourselves, really, if we are going to find our selves in despair.  So we devise ways to deflect our attention from ourselves, hence the dictionary, Internet, library and machine-like method of analysis.

In this context, then, Conan O’Brien’s entertaining antics could also be seen as a means of distraction like all the rest.  The self-deprecation, the playing of characters, making light of misfortunes — all these tactics have a therapeutic effect for a society in despair.  Perhaps Conan is aware of his role in this despairing society, which is why he used an opportune moment to speak a few gentle words against cynicism. 

O’Brien’s awareness of the importance of speaking out in this way helps us take notice of this crisis; knowing how deeply cynicism is rooted in despair makes the need to respond all the more urgent.  How to respond to despair was Kierkegaard’s concern over 150 years ago in The Sickness Unto Death.  His struggle to write a scholarly work offering faith in the midst of despair is therefore an excellent model for our current crisis. 

In his preface, Kierkegaard makes a distinction between the “indifferent” style of scholarly writing and the earnest concern of the Christian who strives “wholly to become oneself, an individual human being…alone before God, alone in this prodigious strenuousness and this prodigious responsibility.” 

The Christian knows despair and, as one who faces it with faith, offers words for upbuilding.  “From the Christian point of view, everything, indeed everything, ought to serve for upbuilding,” Kierkegaard writes.  “Everything essentially Christian must have in its presentation a resemblance to the way a physician speaks at the sickbed; even if only medical experts understand it, it must never be forgotten that the situation is the bedside of a sick person.”

Though most of us refuse to acknowledge it, despair is hiding in plain sight.  Its symptoms are cynicism, the pursuit of happiness and modern technology.  Though despair is not exclusively a modern phenomenon, it has certainly intensified at the end of the modern era…and for good reason.  At no other time in history have human beings strived for so much — the eradication of disease, the end of war, the equality of all races and classes, a democratic world, a scientific explanation for everything, the end of poverty, the archiving of all the world’s information, preventing environmental ruin, etc. 

The failure to achieve many of these dreams has indeed led to an increase in human despair.  And even if humans have achieved some of their goals in the last few hundred years, the despair still continues to intensify.  We are losing hope in the ability to achieve our dreams and have become skeptical about the dreams that have been achieved.  Cynicism, the pursuit of happiness and modern technology were able to distract us for a little while and may still be able to for a while longer.  But a few words of upbuilding seem appropriate here — quiet, gentle, whispering words of healing, words that offer new dreams and a renewal of faith in the midst of despair.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus