May
03

Student Spotlight: A Refutation of Despair

By

Bragging about one’s own children has always seemed to me to be in poor taste. So I won’t do that. Instead, I will brag about my students.

I am finishing up my first year at Regents Academy, and I have been consistently pleased with the work my juniors and seniors produce. Like any teacher who grades many papers, I find some papers to be thematically uninspired or stylistically flat. Yet there are many papers that fulfill the promise of their author. Sloppy prose or quotidian thoughts don’t obscure their ideas; rather, lucid prose and vivid writing open their ideas to the clear light of genuine understanding.

Let me share a student’s paper with you. First a bit of explanation. The 11th-12 grade Omnibus class recently read Book 1 of the great Christian epic The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. A masterpiece of 16th century allegory, Spenser’s epic follows the journeys and travails of the Redcross Knight, who is on a quest to free the beautiful lady Una’s kingdom from oppression by a dragon. Spenser pictures the struggles of every Christian to live a life of holiness. In a key episode the Redcross Knight meets the dread character Despair, who attempts to convince him to give up hope and commit suicide.

The assignment for the students was to choose one of Despair’s arguments, show its contemporary relevance, and then refute it using a Christian worldview. And here is where the bragging begins. I received many admirable papers with genuinely profound insights. One in particular was that of 11th grader Adrienne Duke. Adrienne wrote what I am sure you will agree to be a powerful statement of Christian hope. It is my pleasure to spotlight it here. Please read on and compliment her the next time you see her. More than that, find inspiration in her prose.

Reasoning with God: A Refutation of Despair

by Adrienne Duke

“What justice ever other judgment taught, but he should die, who merits not to live?” This question is posed to the Redcross Knight in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene by what is perhaps his most formidable enemy, Despair. In his allegory, Spenser uses the character Despair to explore the rationale for suicide. Two of Despair’s arguments closely resemble the mindset behind teen suicide; he persuades Redcross that suicide ends suffering and allows the individual to take control of his own fate. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that approximately 395,000 people with self-inflicted injuries are treated in emergency departments each year. Why do so many succumb to the arguments of despair? The answer lies in the faulty reasoning of suicidal thoughts. Despair’s appeal to Redcross in The Faerie Queene is an example of how depression can consume individuals who lack the emotional and spiritual maturity to refute it. The refutation of despair is aided by common sense and virtue with the support of Scripture.

One of Despair’s more convincing arguments is that death ends all suffering. He says to Redcross, “Death is the end of woes; die soon, O faerie’s son.” All people experience trials throughout their lives. It has been said that “adversity introduces a man to himself.” In fact, God uses suffering as a way to teach His people. C.S. Lewis wrote, “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Suffering serves a purpose. Just as physical pain alerts the mind to an injury in the body, emotional pain alerts the mind to a problem in the soul. Even the ancients recognized the importance of overcoming despair. Aristotle said, “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.” Christians, however, have the ultimate comfort. But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour…” (Isaiah 43:1-3a NKJV)

Suicide, then, can not only be viewed as impractical and unreasonable, but selfish. Some would argue that suicide impacts only one person. However, a 2007 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports, “Many people are exposed to another person’s suicide which may affect them psychologically. One estimate was that approximately 7% of the U.S. population knew someone who died of suicide during the past 12 months.”  Thus, if an individual takes his own life, it will affect his family, friends, and perhaps others who knew him. In C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape writes several letters to his demon-in-training nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape advises him on ways to thwart a certain human in his path towards God (who Screwtape refers to as “the Enemy”). In one such correspondence, he writes to Wormwood about despair: “There is, of course, always the chance, not of chloroforming the shame, but of aggravating it and producing Despair. This would be a great triumph. It would show that he had believed in, and accepted, the Enemy’s forgiveness of his other sins only because he himself did not fully feel their sinfulness—that in respect of the one vice which he really understands in its full depth of dishonour he cannot seek, nor credit, the Mercy. But I fear you have already let him get too far in the Enemy’s school, and he knows that Despair is a greater sin than any of the sins which provoke it.” Screwtape recognizes that Wormwood’s human understands the “vice” of mercy, and knows that despair is unreasonable in light of it. Oftentimes, the immature reasoning of suicidal teens causes them to despair because they see no other option. The human character in The Screwtape Letters seems to have more maturity in this area, providing a contrast between the immaturity of suicidal reasoning and the spiritual growth that occurs in all Christians. This spiritual maturity comes from an understanding of what the Bible teaches. Psalm 103:8 provides one example: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” (NKJV). The Christian worldview teaches that despair can be selfish and sinful because it demonstrates an ignorance of what God’s Word tells everyone—that mercy is available to all who believe in Him.

Another reason people, especially teens, commit suicide is because of control issues. Most people wish to have control over their lives, and they view suicide as the ultimate expression of autonomy. In The Faerie Queene, Despair tells Redcross that death is a way to end suffering. The Christian knight responds, “‘The term of life is limited, nor may a man prolong, nor shorten it; the soldier may not move from watchful stead, nor leave his stand, until his Captain bid.’” Redcross knows that God controls his fate, but Despair persists. Does Redcross wish to be a mere soldier, or will he be the captain of his fate? Rebellious teens as well as adults resist the authority of God to maintain an illusion of control over their lives. “A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9, NKJV). God determines the fate of each man; therefore suicide is the ultimate expression of ignorance, not autonomy.

Thus, despair can be refuted with common sense, virtue, and a willingness to submit to God’s authority. Suicide does not end suffering, but shows a rejection of the usefulness of suffering in human life. Nor does suicide affect only one individual. It demonstrates selfishness and a rejection of virtue. Finally, suicide does not show control, but ignorant rebellion. Isaiah 1:18 says, “’Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD,  ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” Christians, then, should reject the arguments of Despair and reason with God, ultimately accepting His great gift—mercy and everlasting life in Christ.

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