Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/10/2010

Is Despair Presumptuous, or Should I Buy New Shoes?

Do I need new shoes, or hope?

Do I need new shoes, or hope?

Sometimes hope seems to me to be one of those fairy tale commodities silly people who don’t understand what’s really happening here on planet Earth allow themselves. I live, from time to time, a pretty hopeless life. That’s partly my own doing—I allow myself to slide into hopelessness when I could probably look at what’s going on with a much different attitude. Not “probably,” but certainly.

Other times, of course, I don’t have much choice in the matter. I take meds to ward off those times, but they don’t always work.

Sometimes things seem to be an up-down-up-down cycle I can’t control and can’t step out of.

My guess is everyone lives to some degree in that kind of cycle. Except, of course, a few people such as Nuha Khoury, Dean of Dar Al-Kalima College in Bethlehem. If she has periods of hopelessness, no one but she knows it. I suspect people who live in the most dire of circumstances are capable of much more hope (and courage) than those of us whose greatest real worry is that the stock market might go down today and rob us of a few dollars.

[Don’t get me wrong. I know how disastrous that can be for someone living on a fixed income and depending on those stock dollars for even the basics of a life. I know because I will work until I’m 70 if possible instead of retiring at the 65 I thought most of my life would be automatic. If I “retire” sooner, I will outlive my money—which may well happen anyway if I have any catastrophic illness. My employer’s HR office says one needs $240,000 stashed away for medical expenses to have a non-penurious retirement.]

If I think about these things, I can fall into hopelessness with hardly even a gentle push from any circumstance, real or imagined.

In 1989, on the TV program “30 Good Minutes” that airs on WTTW (PBS) in Chicago, Episcopal Priest John Claypool said,

.  . . hope is where the energy of our human life is always found. . . . Hope is that magnet that draws us out of the present into the future. If we do not have a lively sense of possibility, then it does seem like there’s no use going on. But if [God] is in fact the inhabiter of the future. . . then in fact despair is presumptuous. (1)

Even though I’m not certain these days about bringing God into the picture, I’m drawn to this idea. Despair is presumptuous. Despair, I take this to mean, is making the assumption that I know what the future will bring, and that it will be bad.  Nothing I do (nor any other force/person/idea) can change the course of events from disaster to some other outcome.

I get it. I know I presume a great deal about how “things” will turn out. And most of it is not positive. As an example at the moment, I presume Karl Rove will succeed in buying those ten crackpot, vicious, demagogues the Senate seats he so desperately wants them to have so he can continue the devastation of America he began in 2000. I see no way to prevent that (you foolish Democrats who are not happy with the watered-down agenda the President and Congress have managed to pass are going to sit by and let it happen).

Mike and Ira

Mike and Ira

Yesterday, returning home from the Capezio store where I bought a pair of shoes to replace the ones I’ve been wearing for thirty years to play the organ, I heard the last part of NPR’s “This American Life.” The show was built around the book Sleepwalk With Me, by Mike Birbiglia, in my mind—as in nearly everyone else’s—the most entertaining comedian around. I didn’t hear Glass interview him, but I heard several people talking in response to his book about the fear of death as it manifests itself in the middle of the night.

Their conversations with Ira Glass were interesting, but my attention was arrested by Glass’s reading of an excerpt of the poem “Aubade,” by Philip Larkin (1922-1985). In an “aubade” lovers say goodbye to each other in the morning after a night of love-making, one of those highly specialized poetic forms college students learn of by reading John Donne’s “Break of Day.”

The second stanza of Larkin’s poem reads

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
–The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused –nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always.
Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

Larkin stands in the tradition, I think, of the “poet-prophet.” Perhaps all good poets are prophets. But such a poet, according to Walter Lowe, offers

. . . . a relentless denunciation of anything that bears a suggestion of religious reification. And what are the marks of reification? They are: a credulous penchant for the literal; attachment to the dead letter; refusal to hear the living Word; adherence to form and institution; resistance to the spirit; subservience to the law. . . . a familiar and effective polemic. (3)

Adherence to form and institution. Or, as Philip Larkin suggests in another stanza of “Aubade,”

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.


Is Fr. Claypool wrong? Hope is that magnet that draws us out of the present into the future. Hope is, for many of us, I think, a very difficult commodity to come by. The world is impossibly corrupt and difficult (to wit, 43.6 million Americans living in poverty while bankers take record-high bonuses for themselves;  to wit, the “peace talks” stalled between Palestine and Israel; to wit, Sharron Angle’s assertion that Sharia Law is already in place in several American cities—as if she had any concept of the meaning of Sharia Law; to wit, my living daily without seizures only by taking medication powerful enough to kill me; to wit, the complex and anti-patient insurance and Medicare rules that are making it nearly impossible to care for my 96-year-old father; to wit, etc. etc.).

The “adherence to form(s) and institution(s)” seems to me to grow more and more desperate among most of the people I know—and certainly in our common life, politically, spiritually, socially—any form of common life one might mention, even as these intractable apparently hopeless situations continue, worsen, deepen.

At the same time, my grip on those forms and institutions loosens daily as I come to understand (or convince myself I do) more clearly Larkin’s poetic declaration

. . . . Courage is no good;
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

"Hope," by Robert Indiana

“Hope,” by Robert Indiana

I don’t know about hope. I’m not sure what to make of Fr. Claypool’s assertion that

If we do not have a lively sense of possibility, then it does seem like there’s no use going on.


I must remind myself, however, that I was returning home from buying a new pair of organ playing shoes when I heard Ira Glass read Philip Larkin. I’m learning some new music and need shoes that are not falling apart. New music.
(1) Claypool, John. “The Worst Things, the Last Things,” Program #3218. 30 Good Minutes. The Chicago Sunday Evening Club. WTTV Chicago. February 5, 1989. Web. 7 Oct. 2010.
(2) Larkin, Philip. “Aubade.” Collected Poems. Anthony Thwaite, ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
(3) Lowe, Michael. “Christianity and Anti-Judaism.” Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments, ed. Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart. London: Routledge, 2005 (115).  For further reading: Hanson, Paul D. “Religious Identity in the Public Square.” Interpretation (July 2010): 259-268. (Paul Hanson is Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.) DeRogatis, Amy. “’Born Again’ Is a Sexual Term: Demons, STD’s and God’s Healing Sperm.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77.2 (June 2009), 275-302.


  1. Two quotes kept popping into my head as I read this.

    A Zen aphorism:

    “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

    And Juilan of Norwich, who professed this was told to her by God:

    “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

    I’m glad you bought new shoes for learning your new music.


  2. […] am told “despair is presumptuous.” Eastern Ukraine, Gaza, James Foley, Michael Brown. Who in their right mind is not despairing? […]



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