“There was an epidemic before the pandemic,” says Akshay Rajkumar. A native of India, he writes eloquently about his country’s changing approach to emotions, especially despair. I can’t help but think he describes our own country as well.
“Old India,” he says, tended to focus like a laser on financial health. Education, family, and vocation were all stepping stones to that ultimate goal. Emotions were subservient, deemed unimportant to the greater goal of wealth and success.
In the “Old US,” the “rugged individualist/American dream” was a common response to suffering and interpersonal strife, and remains among us. Negative emotions are subjugated to the goal of “everyone’s fine,” keeping a brave face and maintaining the status quo.
“Smile though your heart is aching,” crooned Nat King Cole to a whole generation. “Hide every trace of sadness, although a tear may be ever so near.”
The New Great Depression
Today, “New India” – similar to our own culture – is (rightly) turning from such rigidity about emotions as inauthentic. No doubt a tidal wave of fresh suffering including a raging pandemic that exploded in India this past Spring has caused some of that facade to crumble.
This longing for authenticity in the face of suffering may be a tilling of the soil for new things to grow. Yet without a connection to the true God who comes close to us in Christ, feelings can easily overwhelm us – even lie to us. This is what Rajkumar sees happening in India today:
“Our feelings are more than feelings… They are the center of our soul, the core of our identity. They are the lights we must follow to find salvation by the gratification of desire.”
That’s “a lonely road, marked by fear, anxiety, nagging self-doubt, self-destructive habits, and addictive coping mechanisms, not to mention the despairing weight of ennui,” Rajkumar notes.
“Among India’s youth (15-34 years old), 12 percent feel depressed often, and 8 percent feel lonely quite frequently, The Indian Express reported. “The impact of loneliness has been compared to having 15 cigarettes a day and, left unchecked, can cause severe mental wellness challenges,” The Hindustan Times said.
Again, it’s not that the old version of stoicism and “just smile” was better; both old and new miss the mark about what true emotional health can look like.
In the Psalms, we see a better dynamic fleshed out. “David knew how to treat a wounded heart,” says Rajkumar. “He knew there are no shortcuts to joy. He knew the way to the warm light of joy is through the dark tunnel of lament. He spiraled too. But he spiraled upward.”
Rajkumar points us to Psalm 7 as an example. There, David is honest about the threat that’s causing him distress; he voices “his real fears about the injustice against him (vv. 1–2), and ascends into the highest courts of heaven, into the throne room of God, longing for ultimate justice (vv. 6–9).
The Redeeming God who Listens
David brings his feelings to God, and God lifts him to himself. David begins the prayer with fear and ends with thanksgiving and praise. This is the promise of lament. This is the power of prayer.”
To turn away from the God who reigns over all things for our good, offers us the free gift of salvation, and even offers groans on our behalf (Rom. 8:26), is to embrace a lonely quest for “self-salvation.” On it, we always need to look good, righteous, and successful (see Rom. 10:3) to prove ourselves. We can never be truly authentic (seeing the real “us” as God sees us), or enjoy the freedom of not taking ourselves so seriously. This is “artificial life” as we reach in vain for the golden ring.
In the face of 24-hour news channels and social media pumping out a steady diet of distressing fare, our grounding in the gospel and consumption of the psalms for meditation and prayer – as Jesus himself did – is vital. They can steer us away from hopeless stoicism on the one hand and slavery to our emotions on the other, while giving voice to the honest expressions of the soul.
That’s emotional and spiritual maturity. That’s authenticity and honesty without emotional autonomy or suppression.
In the end, Rajkumar says, our feelings aren’t a “sound to be silenced,” but we can let them lead us to – and not away from – a God who is a good listener.
Ultimately, because Jesus triumphed over death, we can also look forward to the day when he will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4), and sorrow will be no more. Eternal joy will be ours forever, and despair will not have the final word.
All quotes from How to Despair Well by Akshay Rajkumar.
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