The Right to Despair

Elie Wiesel, writing from inside the barbed fences of German concentration camps in his autobiographical Night, recalls a piece of advice offered by a fellow prisoner: “We have no right to despair!”[1]

I love his resilience. But is it genuine? It’s hard to believe his statement isn’t just a half-hearted plea for optimism. If anyone has the “right” to despair, it should certainly include the Jews of the Holocaust. They were surrounded by death, even breathing in the smoke of their burning friends and family. What hope can survive in a place like that?  In my mind, circumstances so laden with death and horror gladly serve up the right to despair. Despair lets sufferers off the hook of hope.

If, however, the prisoner’s statement is honest, it creates quite a quandary. How can anyone declare hope when there’s no visible reason to hope? The possibility of hope in such a dark place grates against logic. I want to understand that a circumstance is either hopeful or hopeless, black or white. But here, the two collide. Living in circumstances that are, by any account, utterly hopeless, his hope somehow remains. How is this possible?

Logically speaking, it’s not possible. We cannot be with and without hope simultaneously. So if this man really can maintain hope in the most hopeless of situations, we have to conclude instead that his hope never depended upon his circumstances. His hope must lie elsewhere, impervious to the changes he experiences. He can invoke that they have “no right to despair” because his hope, even here, is not thwarted by their surroundings.

But what about you and me? While we’re far from concentration camps, we are nonetheless threatened by despair through our own circumstances. Is there hope for us? We face enough grief or troubled relationships or paralyzing insecurities that despair is often an easy alternative. In fact, despair is always readily available. It’s hope that’s so hard to find.

But the Jews found it. Their hope was absolutely unshakable. But how? How did they—and how can we—maintain a hope that cannot be eclipsed by despair?  

Our first task is to know where we’re placing our hope. These beliefs can then direct our actions. Like the Jews, unshakable hope requires belief in an external and transcendent Force, outside the realm of corruptability and circumstance. Even more importantly, unshakable hope requires that this Force is already involved in redeeming the world.  In the throes of despair, we do not have the energy to convince this Force of the need for goodness. If we cannot join in a preexisting mission, our hope is lost. 

What this suggests is that this Force cannot be an unnamed phenomenon or a jelly donut. Our hope must be fixed upon an actual Person who is capable of and in the process of improving the world. I, for one, know of no other Person like this than the God of the Bible. 

Having lined out our beliefs, what remains is to allow this hope-giving God to affect our circumstances. If the beliefs above draw the general shape of God, our daily task is to fill in the details. We walk with God, search for God, cry out to God, and revel with God. As we grow to know God intimately, our hope is strengthened because we realize just how faithful, how good, how powerful God is. We grow to trust in God.

Eventually, the potency of God grows more convincing than the potency of our visible circumstances. From the perspective of this unshakable hope, we learn to recognize the fleetingness of everything else, like watching busy traffic from a peaceful perch. Nothing can uproot us, because we are rooted in the Unchangeable. We unknowingly shed our “right” to despair because we no longer have a need for it.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31) 

Brandon Gaide currently resides with his wife in Sacramento, CA, working as a recruiter.  He recently finished his MA in Theology, and seeks opportunities to teach what he loves: the hope of the Gospel.

[1]    Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 42


One response to “The Right to Despair

  1. Great to have your contribution, Brandon! Amazing article on hope, and the complexity around it. It takes courage to face such extreme situations, or even mundane ones, and keep a steady vision for the future.

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