Humans are always searching for happiness. Since the human being is naturally a social animal, fostering meaningful relationships with other people is extremely important. However, most people can attest to the fact that true happiness is hard to find. Most people experience despair at some point in their life. Some never find happiness at all. Regarded as the father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard once said, “it is the highest claim upon every human being’s destiny to be spirit (Kierkegaard 676)”. If finding happiness and meaning such an essential existential goal for humans, why do they struggle so hard to achieve this?
It’s pretty much impossible to think of somebody who never experienced any sadness, grief, or adversity in their life. Even the most virtuous, talented, and confident person has experienced disappointment and some degree of pain in their life. Even Brad Pitt could not get a date when he first moved to LA. Like happiness, sadness is one of the most basic emotions we experience. But despair is different. Despair is a total loss of hope. It is a constant state of sadness that does not go away in 2 weeks’ time. Kierkegaard calls it “a sickness of the spirit” (Kierkegaard 675). Kierkegaard claims that despair is universal, rather than being a rarity that only affect a few. He criticized the common, superficial view of despair which says that people who behave in a cheerful manner cannot be in despair. Kierkegaard argues that some people hide their inner despair. He says that “not being conscious of being in despair is precisely a form of despair” (Kierkegaard 677). He goes as far as to describe this as a “fruit of sinful love under your heart” (Kierkegaard 678). This might explain why it’s so difficult for people to be in touch with their souls, because they are ignorant of their own despair. However, Kierkegaard might be conflating despair, the sickness, with mood swings, and the dynamic of human emotions that most of us routinely experience.
To help us understand this better, let’s look at the life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman was an American feminist theorist who wrote books about madness and feminism. She experienced loss at a young age when her father abandoned her family. This is similar to when a person is raped or experiences the death of a loved one at an early age. Events of such nature can traumatize someone for the rest of their lives. On top of that, her mother barely showed any affection towards her except for when she was asleep. She had to pretend to be asleep in order for her mother to show affection. This can very well cause someone to despair.
Furthermore, Gilman was an intelligent woman who questioned 19th century patriarchy (938). People who question society’s norms and have above average intelligence are more likely to be victims of depression than others. Throughout her life she wrote poetry and was an art teacher. Her poetry and storytelling was a way for her to find her highest claim, “to be spirit”. Unfortunately, her suffering continued. When she married, she became depressed because the housework left her little time for poetry. She sought answers to her problems by consulting a specialist who told her to reduce her intellectual life to only 2 hours a day. This left her devastated, and professional help did not help her get rid of her despair. Gilman was someone who truly struggled with despair. She felt a kind of emptiness, and vacancy in her heart that is far more painful than what is typically considered as “sadness”.
* Thou shall reap what thy sow, but best not slight our fathers and mothers of sin. *
The Bedford Anthology Book 5