Hope and Despair

By Victoria Moussot
April 2, 2017

What do you normally think of when you hear the word “passion”? An intense sexual desire or an obsessive ambition to participate in work, sport, hobby or interest?

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the passions are movement of the sensitive appetites of the soul when we are faced with good and evil.” This is important to understand because you can not be defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done. Nor can you be defined by the worst thing that has happened to you.

St. Thomas understood these passions to be both powerful and troublesome as they can make the difference between happiness and misery, and between mental health and distress. When we experience an evil in a form of a loss, negative event, or injustice, St. Thomas suggested we can lessen our distress by:

  1. Experiencing pleasure
  2. Weeping
  3. Experiencing the sympathy of friends
  4. Contemplating the truth
  5. Sleep and baths, as they refresh the weary mind and restore the body

Weeping fits the state of the passions because this action produces a kind of pleasure. That is why we feel so relieved after we cry, as our focus moves away from our self-enclosed thoughts. Whenever we feel sorrow, who do we turn to? When we share our pain with our friends, it as if they share our burdens, therefore lessening their weight. Perhaps you’re that person who your friends come to for consolation. When a friend shares their pain, it shows their love for us, and this is a source of pleasure. When we contemplate the truth we move away from passion and into the realm of intellect. It is good to have a balance between emotion and intellect. Using intellect can help us become aware of what has made us upset and how we should proceed to mend the cause. It is good to think with an eternal perspective. Remember you are a work in progress, not a failure.

Think back to the last time you were angry. Were you angry because an injustice was done to you and deep down you knew you were made for good and should not be treated that way? Or were you ashamed because you know you did wrong? St. Thomas said “anger arises from an emotion of the soul due to the wrong inflicted.” Anger can be good or bad. We can be motivated to right a wrong that has been done to us or make amends for a wrong we’ve done. We’re called by St. Thomas to show mercy to the person who has hurt us, just as we are to show mercy to ourselves. Continued anger leads to hatred and evil, whereas forgiveness of self and others brings freedom.

Appetites are placed into two categories. First, those fueled by love which are attracted to goodness. The second arise from motivation to remove difficult obstacles to obtain what we love. According to Thomas, there is practical wisdom if you understand these principles.

  1. “We are made for what’s good. Indeed, we love and desire it with our concupiscible appetite.
  2. “When some good we have perceived has not yet been attained, we experience that bittersweet passion called desire sweet because it is directed toward the object of our love, bitter because it is beyond our reach.”
  3. “We have a natural inclination to love the good and to hate what is evil.
  4. “When we experience an already present evil, we experience sadness or sorrow.”
  5. “When we believe we are not up to the task of conquering an evil, we experience fear.
  6. “When we have already experienced a difficult evil, it raises the ire of our irascible appetite with the passion of anger.

St. Thomas’ principles encourage us to not define ourselves as victim or perpetrator. Instead we must “experience that positive feeling of hope when we believe that the good is attainable” because we’re made for good things despite moments of bitterness or anger. We experience “bleakness of despair when we see obstacles as insurmountable.” To avoid despair, do not try to overcome evil with evil deeds. Healing from the things we have done, or things that have been done to us, is possible.

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