Pride, Despair, and Sovereign Grace

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Grab a corner of the curtain over the powers at work in this world, pull it back, and look inside, and you will discover two of the strongest forces on earth: pride and despair.

One generates what seems to be tremendous dedication and focus; the other robs life of all motivation and concentration. In the clutches of pride or despair much of mankind gets stuck — trapped by self-glory or pinned down by hopelessness, both alienated and isolated, unable to taste the joy.

Few see more clearly behind this curtain, and few explain what they see with more bone-chilling reality, than David Foster Wallace in his novelInfinite Jest. His complex and sprawling work exposes the human love affair with entertainment, the high-octane drive of personal glory, the prison of drug addiction, and the nightmarish isolation of depression. For a thousand pages, he exposes the world’s dark plagues of pride and despair.

Pride Ensnares

LaMont Chu is an eleven-year-old athletic prodigy with “an increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame.” He desperately wants his picture in glossy magazines. He yearns for television commentators in jackets and headsets to celebrate his every move on the court. He wants endorsements. He lusts for hype. He longs for the worship of photographers. His greatest threats in life are losses and injury.

“Why,” his friend Lyle asks, “are you driven to this fame?”

“I guess to give my life some sort of kind of meaning,” he answers honestly.

LaMont’s lusts burn for a fame that will give his life substance.

Like a good friend, Lyle tries to talk real sense into LaMont by explaining how fame decomposes the heart. “The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps this first time:enjoyment. After that . . . they do not feel what you burn for. . . . Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.”

The lust for fame and the need to preserve our fame are both traps that cannot sustain meaning in our life or pleasure in our soul. Craving for self-glory is to hunger for food that does not exist, it is to feed a fire that cannot die by feeding it. It is to be suffocated by constant fears and growing isolation.

Despair Destroys

Despair accomplishes something similar but through another route. Throughout the novel, David Foster Wallace walks the reader down through the various layers of depression in a Dante-like descent.

He begins with anhedonia, a simple melancholy. At this level, “The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid.” Anhedonia is life hollowed of joys, leaving a shell of dull detachment. Such a woman can still recall memories of happiness, and she can talk about happiness, but really only as a matter of principle. She feels none of it. The melancholy anhedonic becomes “Unable to Identify,” uprooted, lost, disconnected from the world and home, floating through life in a sort of affection-dulled and anesthetized abstraction from reality.

This type of depression is especially reserved for the characters in Wallace’s book that have lived only to achieve professional goals. In mid-life, they find the joys they have expected through all their strivings have evaporated. Like a blow to the gut, they have come to see the fun in life, what drove them, was the carrot chase. Once the competition to supremacy ends, they find only a dose of numb emptiness. Anhedonia.

But this stage of melancholy is a vacation compared to “the Great White Shark of pain,” a “predator-grade depression,” an anguish and despair so dark it simply goes by the name It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. . . . It is lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. . . . If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her, cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and nothing is the solution. It is a hell for one.

No simple solutions cure clinical depression, and the characters in Wallace’s novel pursue just about any medical option to escape the pain (or worse). Those tormented by the relentless It, long simply to be numb again, to return to a place where they feel no pain or pleasure, anything to escape the ravishing pain and the living decomposition they now feel eating away at them. They stand at the open window of a tall building on fire, the flames roaring below, pressed for a decision: burn or jump? That is the daily decision of those living under the oppressive nightmare of It.

Made to Love

Pride and despair empty the human existence, because at the root of our identity, we know we are made to love. In the profound words of David Foster Wallace: “You are what you love.” We love, he says, because we are “absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something.”

We were made to give ourselves to transcendence. As another character suggests: “Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. This without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.”

Written by Tony Reinke
Read more at Desiring God

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