The Secret for Overcoming Despair

For a long time scientists have wondered why some people linger in despair and others pop out of it. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and past president of the American Psychological Association, was acclaimed for scientifically dissecting despair in the laboratory to see how it works. Despair is no longer a mysterious black box. Hopelessness can actually be measured by how you choose to explain bad events. He writes,

Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair. . . People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.”

Seligman developed the “hope score” which measured the degree of pervasiveness and permanence a person showed when explaining bad events in their lives.  

He also tested a third variable of the “hope score”, not as determinative as the first two, called personalization. Those that internalize bad events by blaming themselves are more pessimistic than those that externalize bad events by blaming others or circumstances. But, Seligman writes an important disclaimer:

Although there are clear benefits to learned optimism – there are also dangers. Temporary? Local? That is fine. I want my depression to be short and limited. I want to bounce back quickly. But external? Is it right that I should blame others for my failures? Most assuredly we want people to own up to the messes they make, to be responsible for their actions. Certain psychological doctrines have damaged our society by helping to erode personal responsibility: Evil is mislabeled insanity; bad manners are shucked off as neurosis… I am unwilling to advocate any strategy that further erodes responsibility.”

Seligman’s research has helped millions identify their own pessimistic explanatory styles and replace them with optimistic explanatory styles. But there were two limitations presented by his research. First, He didn’t resolved the dilemma about personal responsibility. Second, his laboratory experiments measured localized and temporary pain, not permanent and pervasive suffering.

But, what if the bad events in your life are in fact pervasive, permanent and personally caused? Suppose these nasty p-words are not just in your head, as an explanatory style, but are objectively true!  

Joni Erickson broke her neck diving off a pier and became a quadriplegic. Her broken neck is tragically pervasive, inhibiting every aspect of her life. It’s also permanent, binding her to a wheel chair for over 50 years. What kind of hope can we offer a person like Joni?  

If this life is all that there is then Joni Erickson’s spinal cord injury is truly permanent and pervasive. Explaining away her darkened reality with an optimistic explanatory style sounds ridiculous. But, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened, then this life isn’t all there is. God guarantees another. When Jesus returns, those in Him shall rise with new physical bodies in a fully renewed cosmos. Joni imagines that day and writes,

“The first thing I plan to do on my resurrected legs is to drop on grateful glorified knees, kneel quietly before the feet of Jesus and then I am going to be on my feet dancing.” She continues, “Can you imagine what hope [the resurrection] gives someone with a spinal cord injury like mine?”  

When Tishira Duffy clipped a family’s minivan while driving at 92 miles an hour, she killed Meg Abbott’s mom, dad and two brothers. Tishira is personally responsible for robbing a six year old girl of her entire family. How does Tishira deal with her personal fault and yet find hope?  

Unless there is a God who forgives, she never will. But if Jesus Christ really died for sinners, then Tishira may appropriately externalize her guilt to him. Jesus will take her blame and pay the penalty for her crime. But there is a catch. First, Tishira must take responsibility for her guilt (which resolves Dr. Seligman’s concerns). Admitting sin and asking for forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of hope with Jesus.  

The secret is out! Through empirical research, Dr. Seligman has stumbled onto truths Christianity has proclaimed for millennia. Jesus’ substitutional death and bodily resurrection provide an explanatory style capable of returning unexpectedly high “hope scores”  for people trapped by permanent and pervasive suffering — even when they’re personally to blame.

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One thought on “The Secret for Overcoming Despair

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