despair poetry

Sorrow: A Chestertonian paradox

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"The stars," she whispers, “blindly run,
A web is wov’n across the sky;
From out waste places comes a cry,
And murmurs from the dying sun.”  

- “In Memoriam” Tennyson  

These few but powerful lines of poetry carry out their created purpose; they depict shades of emotion, particularly the feelings of sorrow and misery.  In all my experience and all my encounters with the human race, sorrow, suffering, misery, and wrath are the emotions most commonly written about in poetry and novels, expressed in the plots of dramatic movies, or sung about in heart-wrenching ballads.  It was misery which gave us Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It was sorrow which stirred Eric Clapton to write ‘Tears in Heaven’.  And undoubtedly, Tennyson’s prose was provoked by some shade of suffering.      

I am certainly not capable of supplying an adequate answer as to why humanity is more familiar with pain and more intimate with suffering than with happiness or comfort.  However, I came upon an interesting thought supplied by the one and only G.K. Chesterton which deeply struck me.  Chesterton discovered a link, a paradox to be precise, between sorrow and value response.  After citing the excerpt from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” Chesterton writes, “Sorrow is the most profound and stirring paradox that experience ever grew certain of.”  The paradox being: a man can never really be miserable if he has never known anything worth being miserable for.  He goes on to clarify that there is a distinct difference between sorrow and pessimism, “Sorrow and pessimism are by their natures opposite: sorrow rests upon the value of something; pessimism upon the value of nothing.”

Does this mean that every miserable, lonely, or sorrowful materialist is implicitly responding to value?  It seems so! Chesterton has brought a new perspective to an age-old affliction which plagues human nature whether we like it or not.  Man can not escape the despair which berates his mind when he is lonely.  Man longs to be reassured that he is worth recognition.  When his existence is ignored by his fellow men, his heart drops to the pit of his stomach and his eyes begin to water uncontrollably.  Likewise, it is said that those who know love best are those who recognize the absence of it in their lives.  Most angsty and single young people (like myself) are tempted to deny the existence of love.  However, they would never even think to deny its existence if they were not initially looking for it, yearning for it, longing for it.  And it isn’t until the human race comes up short, when you can’t find anyone to love you, that you begin to despair.  

We try to convince ourselves that we are pessimistic cynics but true pessimists can never truly be miserable because they never know anything worth being miserable for.  Human beings have too many feelings and emotions to be true and honest pessimists.  We are sorrowful creatures because we realize that we live in a world which has treated us with less respect and love then we deserve.  We despair because we are undergoing a great loss.  A loss of innocence, a loss of goodness, a loss of beauty, a loss of truth.  

Yet, although we are exiled to a universe of moaning and weeping, we have not been abandoned to this valley of tears.  It is in the great paradox of despair that we can re-discover the values which have become hidden.  I know that love exists because I am miserable when deprived of it.  I know that one’s company of friends and family possesses worth and value because infinite loneliness is the most frightening concept in the world.  And if ultimately, all of these human experiences possess meaning for me which pervades the thin lining of the material world, than I must be on the threshold of spirituality; the “other” world which gives all things deeper meaning.  

It is only within the security of this “other” world that humanity is not abandoned to despair.  Either your sorrow has deeper meaning or it doesn’t.  Likewise, the universe has deeper meaning or it doesn’t.  We take a risk believing in “deeper meanings” and “paradoxes”.  If we are right we gain everything and if we are wrong we have lost nothing.  The true pessimist’s world is not only void of happiness and joy but must equally lack sorrow and misery.  However, a human being can not claim true pessimism. He can not claim he is content with an empty and hollow universe, for his human nature and experience proves him wrong.  Our sufferings are proof that although we might be hollow men we desire to be made full: full of meaning, full of hope, full of love.  


Sources: In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K.Chesteron (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011).
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