Kierkegaard defined despair as the sickness unto death. He goes on to explain that when someone is physically sick their hope is for life. But when the sickness is spiritual, and that sickness has progressed to such a state that it becomes despair, then the torment of that state is the inability to die.
In other words, we want our present burdens to be relieved by the freedom we think death brings, but we are unable to commit the violent act to make this happen. Believing in an afterlife makes one consider carefully, and so we give ourselves a stay of execution because we’re afraid of the spiritual ramifications, or we hear that still small voice telling us to stop what we’re doing. So, because of these things, many people have stayed their hands and lived another day. But, what if, one day when despair has crippled you, you are not afraid of the consequences and you don’t hear that still small voice? What if there is silence? What if all the lines are down and you believe that you have been left all alone? I don’t want to get into a theological discussion about suicide: as in, what happens to the souls of those that have chosen that path? That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the hopelessness that leads to despair and the despair that leads to taking one’s own life. Hopelessness and despair. That’s what I’m really talking about.
What does this have to do with Kenny?
I see, in Kenny, the beginnings of despair.
What does this have to do with me?
I see them in myself as well.
I have for years.
I had lightly touched Kenny’s shoulder. When he gave me permission to pray for him, I moved my hand further down his arm to about the level of his bicep. His coat was scratchy and had little give to it. Carhart jackets can be very stiff. They remain that way for a long time. I started to pray. I didn’t ask him if there was anything that he wanted prayer for. I just assumed, here’s a guy holding a sign up, asking for money as people drive out of the Wal-Mart/Village Inn parking lot, he obviously needs money and he needs a home. He’s been reduced to begging. What else could he need prayer for?
Well, I don’t know until I ask, do I? But, I didn’t ask.
Not that day.
I prayed the prayer that had become a standard: God bless Kenny. God help Kenny feel like he’s not alone. God please let Kenny know You love him. Sometimes I wonder if God even hears these prayers. I’m sure He does, He has to, but I can’t help thinking that.
When I finished, I was ready to go and get back in my car. I felt like I was finished serving. I had done my part. But I lingered for a moment and then Kenny began to talk. I don’t remember everything he said that day, but he began by telling me that he wasn’t like this. He wasn’t a panhandler. He wanted me to know that. Kenny said that he worked construction, but the economy went into a tailspin and no one needed to have anything built anymore.
He told me that he had been a builder for years and he didn’t know what he was going to do. Spittle was forming at the corners of his mouth as he heatedly tried to convey to me that he wasn’t a deadbeat. Then he paused, and looked away from me briefly. He looked at the ground. His pale pink face was growing redder, and his eyes reflected the autumn light as they began to moisten with bitter tears.
“Man…my dad just died…eight weeks ago, and I’ve been out here…”
Kenny said more than that, but I didn’t hear it. As he forced out these words, Kenny had raised his head and looked to his left, and I saw the side of his face. The pain was desperate and I knew Kenny was having a hard time controlling it. I saw it writhing within him.
God, I know that look. I’ve seen it in the mirror.
I have struggled with depression, in one form or another, for years. I had never really learned to deal with it, but there was always a light at the end of the tunnel, even in my darkest moments. Not that I could see some kind of shining, feel-good glow that I moved toward. No, what I mean is that the depression was causal. In other words, if this or that situation, etc. suddenly resolved itself, then I would feel okay again. Maybe not joyful, but at least not on the brink. I would be off the ledge. I could live with that.
Then, a few years ago, I lost hope. It just seemed to happen. So when I got into a trough again, and I thought about getting out of it, I heard this: what if you don’t come out of this? What does it really matter if you stay here? Would it mean anything to anyone if you just disappeared? Why bother? You are just going to be here again. And, by the way, none of this matters. None of it.
That was new. I had never lost hope before. Not like that, and it scared me. These were uncharted waters, but I have sailed them ever since, struggling to stay afloat. This fight against despair is daily. Some days I lose, but most days I win. Sometimes I coast along and forget that I’m surrounded by these dark waters. I get complacent, but when I see that look on someone else’s face, that haunted look, I am reminded of the daily battle. It’s not a pleasant reminder. It certainly wasn’t, on the day I met Kenny.
Most of us have lost a loved one. If you haven’t yet, you probably will. It is the law of averages. Most people I’ve known have experienced the gut wrenching agony that this can be. The look that I saw on Kenny’s face as he looked away went beyond that level of grief, however. The loss of his father was the most nameable pain. The most easily categorized. In that autumn light, I realized that Kenny had lost more than his source of income, more than his father, more than just creature comforts. He had lost hope, and despair was fumbling with the latches, searching for a way in. Maybe it had already.
I just kept thinking: I can’t help this guy. There is nothing I can do for him. Why have you brought me here, God? Shouldn’t someone more equipped be dealing with this? Shouldn’t someone who has joy in his heart be telling this guy that everything would be okay? Because, I can’t. I just can’t. It won’t make any difference.
So I left. I mean, I shook his hand and told him good luck, but I didn’t offer to pray for Kenny again. I should have. I could have said more, stood there for a while longer, but I didn’t.
All I can say is pray for Kenny. Pray that he will hear that still small voice. Pray that the lines of communication with God will be opened. Pray that he will have hope again. Pray that despair will be defeated.
Pray that it’s not too late.