I’ve been trying to remember the first time I experienced despondency. Dr. Nicolle Roccas mentions in her blog Time Eternal that when she looks back into her childhood she can see small hints of the beginning of her life struggle with despondency, and she begins her book Time and Despondency with a story about her childhood in which she had a conversation with her guidance counselor about death. When I read the story in her book, it reminded me of my own contemplations of death and meaning as a young child, and a specific memory came to mind. It was the first time in a long time that I had had this particular recollection, and when I did, it startled and saddened me because I realized that perhaps I too, like Dr. Roccas, had the beginnings of the struggle with despondency in childhood.
I remember doing a lot of thinking at night as I lay in bed. This was a common occurrence during my childhood. It seems that I never fell asleep right away. This particular night, I was in elementary school. My mother had put me to bed, as she always did, and we had had a conversation, as we always did – this time about Heaven and Hell and Jesus and death. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I remember this profound fear and panic coming over me. Whatever was said during that conversation, it brought me to the sudden realization of imminent death – the briefness of life and the reality of afterlife. That night I tossed and turned all night, weeping over the reality of death and the briefness of life, until I passed out in exhaustion.
My spiritual upbringing had a strong focus on death and the afterlife (particularly Hell), with a heavy dose of end times/apocalyptic speculation. There was also what I consider to be a strong mentality of escapism – namely, escaping from the torturous afterlife of Hell by making a one-time decision to believe in (i.e. make a mental ascent towards the acceptance of the existence and accomplished mission of) Jesus. I spent many moments questioning my future destination (i.e. Heaven or Hell), even long after I had taken what are considered the necessary steps to attain Heaven and avoid Hell. Over and over I repeated the steps – the proscribed Bible readings, prayers of belief and confession to God, tears of repentance. Over and over my future destination still felt undetermined, never concluded, as if God was holding out on me that “assurance of salvation” that I had heard so much about. Life and death just seemed too complex and extravagant for it all to be decided in one conclusive, often emotion or fear-driven, moment. I hate to portray my spiritual upbringing in solely a negative light. It wasn’t all bad. I have a wonderful mother and extended family who instilled in me strong moral Christian values. But this focus on death and the fear-mongering that went on when discussing death had a profound effect on me.
My coping with the fear of death at that time was to become fascinated with death and all things related to it. I loved to watch apocalyptic and dystopian films (I still do) because they portrayed and facilitated for me the contemplation of life, death and meaning. I read similar literature as well, particularly in my preteen and teenage years when reading became a true love of mine (The Left Behind series and Uglies series come to mind). I also contemplated topics that don’t have an obvious connection to death, but are still related to death nonetheless since they contain elements of dying and strong emotion, particularly topics that one might consider “depressing” or “melodramatic.” These topics included tragic love or unrequited love (interestingly enough, these themes have played out in my own life over the years, probably as a self-fulfilling prophecy), loss (i.e. divorce, breakup of relationships, loss of faith, rejection), and martyrdom. It is no surprise that the existentialism of Ecclesiastes and the loss and tragedy of Job have always been my favorite Biblical narratives. Thus, my first bouts with despondency began as I wrestled with concern and grief over the ultimate destination of my soul, the meaning of life and the fear of death.
You may be confused about how fear, death and despondency relate to each other. Quite honestly, I hadn’t pieced this all together until very recently. I didn’t even know that death and despondency were related, or to put it more accurately, how life (i.e. actual action and participation in life) and despondency were related. To understand this more fully, I feel that a breaking down further of the definition of despondency is necessary. This is what I will attempt to do in my next blog post.
*This is the second post in my series, Death to Despondency. Click here to read the first post in the series and start from the beginning.
I also had a emotionally and spiritually torturous childhood. I prayed sinner prayers over and over and over and underwent baptismal ceremonies over and over and over. I never could attain “assurance of salvation”. Since I came under the teachings of the Orthodox Church, I have attained a level of healing. I am more peaceful now.
It always boggled my mind when people seemed to have that type of assurance. I couldn’t understand why they had such assurance and I didn’t. When I was a catechumen a friend of mine was having a debate with me about how one is “saved,” since our understanding was so different. It really got to me when I told him that there is no “assurance” that we are saved, but we can have strong hope through Christ and through God’s infinite mercy that we will be in the Kingdom, but only if we begin to live that life here right now. His response to me was, “But I know that I know that I KNOW I’m saved and going to Heaven!!!” I asked him how he knew, and he said that it was because he was “elect.” I could only come to the conclusion from that conversation that he believed himself to be elect and thus meant for Heaven, but me…not so much.