Walter Mitty and the Silencing of Eschatological Despair

by John Ellis

Movement fueled my childhood imagination. Gazing out the window of the family van on the way to school, the stops halted my imaginary exploits. The sandy grass, weeds, and fences whizzing by the window while the vehicle was in motion are what served as my muse. As grass gave way to asphalt driveways or water-filled ditches surrendered to higher ground, the ever-changing environmental stasis served as more than a backdrop to my daydreams. The progression fueled my stories. Something always goes somewhere. Somewhere always gives way to another someplace. But this is not the phenomenological template of the daydreams of Walter Mitty, our collective stand-in for our live-in/for-the-moment culture.

Mitty, the loveable loaf, is forever damned in freshman literature classes for his stagnant ineffectiveness. His daydreams are things of static; a means to avoid change of stasis, movement. Walter Mitty lived in the pauses, the stops.

By way of contrast, we’re lectured, progress, our ever changing (yet paradoxically always the same) Crystal Palace, requires courageous sweat. Courageous steps. “Courageous” heads down, so as not to notice that humankind isn’t stepping with the same sized steps and is stepping in place. Looking up, looking ahead, is the way of despair. Looking to our left or our right is the way of guilt. The pause between our steps is where we find our sweet spot. Blinded by the comfort of our own pause, we fail to realize that we live as Walter Mitty.

In 1849, Kierkegaard opined:

Just as a physician might say that there very likely is not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say that there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbour an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself, so that, just as a physician speaks of carrying an illness in the body, he walks around carrying a sickness of spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.[1]

The brilliant Dane wasn’t wrong. We all harbor unrest and inner strife. We all struggle to dance to the disharmonious rhythms of life. We all despair. But that despair is salved by the very thing that should flame that despair into faith. Despair is silenced for the sake of the here and now.

At the pauses, at the stops, we’re urged, “Look back! Take stock! Be proud! Affirm yourself and your journey!” But journeys require progression; change of stasis. In the pauses, the stops, movement is measured temporarily, finitely, meaning Heraclitus’ River is barely a trickle, if flowing at all. There is no real movement, no real progress; we’re counseled against it. Only static self-gratification that serves as an opaque screen to what’s next (what’s coming) is what we’re given. “Don’t despair,” we’re counseled. “Life has meaning.” Which is a lie. A damnable lie. A lie that damns.

The Preacher knew this. Kierkegaard got close.

Movement is. Is, just IS. And Life only has the meaning of its end, the movement’s telos.

Our temporal existence will give way to the eternal. That should cause all of us to despair.

No matter what we accomplish in the here and now, we will never fail to serve self. For those who fail to grasp that they worship self, their temporal will yield to an eternal of God’s wrath. For those who repent and believe in Jesus, the only one who’s temporal was in complete synch with the eternal, their temporal is a constant reminder of how far short we fall. We fail. Our temporal would be an eternal failure if it weren’t for the grace of God. But how do we now live?

We shouldn’t live in the pauses, the stops. The moments of triumph. Our triumph. The building of the Crystal Palace, no matter the blueprints, will be revealed to be hay and stubble. A Walter Mitty faith is no faith. It’s a refusal to see how desperately we need. Everything. Life.

True faith, faith that watches the movement towards the eternal, is a faith of despair. A despair bathed by hope, to be sure, but despair, nonetheless. A faith that reorients our entire being away from self and towards Him. Life only has meaning when viewed from the End.

Our foolish dancing in the pauses will not find glorified parallels in the eschaton. Look ahead, watch the ever-changing stasis, and despair. Despair is the path to eschatological life.

Soli Deo Gloria

(Read part 2 by clicking here.)

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 22.

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