Despair is a state of hopelessness. It can be triggered by a variety of factors and exists at the individual or small group level even during the best of times. But these are anything but the best of times. For the first time in my living memory, the stage has been set for potential mass despair at the global level; and by mass despair I mean millions or billions of people all across the world becoming simultaneously infected by hopelessness.
At its core, despair is a spiritual problem, but the vast majority of people in our despiritualized world refuse to recognize it as such and tend to attribute despair solely to various biological, psychological, social, or economic factors. For the sake of consideration, let's follow this line of thinking and focus almost exclusively on material factors.
As alluded to above, the vast majority of modern people are materialists; that is, they wholeheartedly adhere to the theory that fundamental reality is restricted to physical matter and the various interactions and movements of physical matter. As a result, modern people generally reject spiritual values and stress the value of physical comfort and material possessions.
Materialism is essentially a theory of meaninglessness for it can provide no answer to the question of the underlying purpose for the existence of the material world. For the materialist, everything - including consciousness and emotions like love - is just the result of stuff interacting with other stuff. Therefore, the only meaning a materialist can hope to find in world made of nothing but stuff is to divide the world into good stuff and bad stuff. As a result, materialists strive to accumulate or enjoy the good stuff - possessions, property, pleasure, status, and so forth - while simultaneously avoiding as much of the bad staff - poverty, illness, depression, disempowerment, etc. - as possible.
Despair is a tricky issue for materialists because the fundamental meaninglessness of their philosophy is inherently despair-inducing to begin with. The only hope materialism can offer its worshippers are the physical possibilities of possessions, power, and pleasure. In theory, hope remains viable as long as the possibility for material gain remains viable.
The problem with materialism is that physical possessions, power, and pleasure rarely provide lasting fulfillment; the kind of fulfillment that can only stem from true meaning and purpose. The accumulation of possessions only breeds a desire to accumulate more possessions. The acquisition of power often leads to the motivation to expand power or, conversely, to the fear of losing power already obtained. Pleasures rooted purely in the physical tend to fade rather quickly, spurring the need for new pleasures more exciting or exotic pleasures. This is the only real hope materialism can offer.
Sounds good, right? Well it must because over the past two or three centuries it has become the dominant theory driving our civilization. Simply put - as far as most modern people are concerned, materialism has triumphed. Despite this, there is one thing over which materialism cannot triumph - death. For materialists, death is an outrage - the ultimate insult. It nullifies the shining beacon of hope materialism projects. In the end, the power, pleasures, and possessions a person has accumulated and experienced are rendered null and void. The person simply ends. Nevertheless, the beacon of materialist hope remains as long as the person remains - in theory at least.
Put another way, hope for materialists is delicately tied to the prospect of acquiring or enjoying stuff. But what happens to this hope when all prospects fade or disappear? Even worse, what happens when these diminishing prospects coincide with actual material losses? Well, if history is any guide, such conditions offer a severe challenge to the hope materialism extends to its followers. Of course, these challenges occur all the time at the individual level even during the best of times. A lost job or a bad investment or a divorce are all stress tests to a materialist's hope. If hope begins to fade, the materialist can always seek distraction through pleasure or intoxication, which is a go-to strategy for many a materialist. But if hope continues to fade, the materialist is ultimately left in a state of despair.
Because materialists reject the existence of the other-wordly (supernatural), any hope they can nurture is inevitably tied to this-world (natural). Consequently, their hope and faith in materialism is put to the test every time the world turns against them. Under these conditions, clinging to hope becomes a real challenge for materialists, and whatever hope they manage to sustain depends heavily on their ability to locate further material possibilities - comfort, pleasure, gain, etc.
I mention this all of this because the birdemic lockdown has turned the material world against us all in these past five or six weeks. People have just recently started waking up to the economic devastation the lockdown is causing. Over 20 million people have been thrust into unemployment in the United States alone. Goodness only knows what these numbers might be in other countries. Add a potential avalanche of destroyed small businesses, loan defaults, and other calamities to the list and you have all the ingredients needed for mass suffering at the material level - mass suffering that may very well precipitate mass despair.
As mentioned earlier, despair is fundamentally a spiritual problem. The fact that most modern people do not recognize it as such is a major victory for the forces of evil (of course, the fact that most people are materialists is also a major victory for evil). People who regard despair as a purely material phenomenon and seek to escape despair by purely material means have already potentially damned themselves because they refuse to accept two inescapable truths: despair is a sin; despair can only be avoided by belief in something beyond the worldy.
For people like this, despair becomes a pain threshold. Their ability to endure despair will depend heavily on purely biological, psychological, and physical survival instincts. Under these conditions, materialists will be perpetually alert to the existence of anything that might offer the slimmest glimmer of hope - anything that might be able to alleviate their material suffering and restore their faith in the material world.
The forces of evil are keenly aware of this and will work hard to formulate a purely material panacea that promises to remedy a great deal of the physical discomfort and material hardships people are experiencing or will experience. Of course, this panacea will come with a price. That price will be the total surrender of human freedom and, more significantly, the surrender of the soul.
Materialists damn themselves by refusing or rejecting all notions of a spiritual solution to their material suffering. By repudiating the existence of the other-worldy and making this repudiation the basis of their hope in this-world, materialists effectively fall into the despair deathtrap evil has set for them for they become eternally blinded by the borders of biological death.
Evil uses the trick of materialism to negate the Truth. Evil then uses materially-induced despair to veil the spiritual hope Reality offers through Christ and the Promise of Heaven. Nevertheless, not all materialists are not lost cases. There is a chance some may discover true hope within the depths of despair. If they do, they will take the first step out of the worldly deathtrap and begin their journey toward everlasting life.
Understanding the obvious limits, those of us who believe in the primacy of the spiritual must do all we can to inspire those caught in the deathtrap of despair, even if this inspiration comes only through the form of prayer. At the same time, Serious Christians must find ways to help people out of the deathtrap. They also must remain vigilant about succumbing to despair themselves. After all, despair is a grievous sin - but I'll leave that for another post.
Note added: This post was partly inspired by my previous post on the subject, the comments Bruce Charlton left on that post, and the many posts Dr. Charlton has published on the subject over the past few months.