William Cowper was a hymnodist who suffered the most terrible anguish. Unlike many other people, his encounters with God left him crippled. He spent his days barely functional and disturbed. I’m no William Cowper, and I don’t know what he went through, but I’ve known the deepest religious pain too. I’ve known what it’s like to be in hell on earth. I’ve spent so many nights distraught and clutching onto a semblance of sanity. I’ve made a fool out of myself because of the horrors I’ve endured.
You might now ask me what religious turmoil is. I can say that it’s worse than ordinary depression. It’s torture. It’s an iron maiden of fear. It’s an oubliette of despair. But even these crude medieval metaphors don’t adequately describe the condition. It’s harrowing and debilitating. It crushes you completely. People lose all their respect for you and think you’re this unstable, useless layabout who has wasted his life and will amount to nothing. You become a spectacle. You’re the laughingstock. People on social media wait for the next stupid thing you’re going to say.
Last night I wept and wept for the years I’ve lost trying to fight this battle. But even as I cried, scruples harassed me. They created a loud cacophony in my mind, and accused me, judged me and criticized me. Karl Marx was wrong. Religion is not the opium of the people. It is not the sigh of the oppressed people. Some of us would do better without ever meeting it. It only adds to our burdens; unsettles us and leaves us in a spiritual nihilism that eventually leads to an emotional, psychological, and physical death.
The fear of hell is something a lot of people don’t understand. But I do. I can empathize with a person who fears hell. In Christianity, the notions of hell vary. Some say it’s eternal separation from God; others that it’s a place where God is very much prevalent, but only as wrath. The Bible is full of images of fire, and the angels chopping you into pieces, and agony, and weeping, and darkness, and gnashing of teeth. But none of these words frighten me as much as the word ‘eternity.’ For some of us, life on earth isn’t pleasant. It’s full of grief and sorrow. And the very thought of going to eternal damnation after this only destroys the soul. Imagine suffering all your life emotionally and physically, and then being thrown in unimaginable torment. All you can do is cry out and say: “This is not fair!” But here’s the disturbing truth: You’re not going to say that. You’ll only gnash your teeth while God sets your tongue on fire and agree that it’s just. Why? Because humanity is evil, and one sin is enough to displease God. And we’re born depraved, which means that even infants who die aren’t safe.
And here’s the best part about escaping hell: You can’t unless God has elected you. Many people (me included) come to a deep understanding of theology and even have Christian experiences, but we’re damned. So, what’s the point of living? These were the thoughts that bombarded me while I sat on my balcony and smoked my twentieth cigarette yesterday. Then a deep sorrow overwhelmed me, and I realized that I’m not going to heaven. My feelings and my religious ‘experiences’ don’t count. I’m not one of the elect. And then I wondered what I should do with my life. Must I eat, laugh, sing, and rejoice? Must I live like a reckless hedonist giving into every impulse and passion? The problem is that as much as we cannot escape God, we cannot escape our moral compass. Even if we don’t acknowledge it, we all feel guilty when we do something wrong. And we’re all tied up in these vicious cycles that involve sinning, regretting it, and sinning again to escape the guilt. Take an alcoholic, for example. He beats his wife after drinking and then hates himself for it, and then to assuage the guilt, drinks again, knowing it’s the thing that causes him the most suffering.
These days everything is a disorder, and moral responsibility doesn’t count. But regardless of what DSM says, I don’t believe that we can ever escape ourselves. I’ve often had people telling me that I’m too hard on myself. They tell me that I need to lighten up. But they don’t realize that I can’t. They don’t understand the gravity of my situation. I want to flee from wickedness and guilt, but there’s no way out. I’m John Bunyan’s man in the iron cage.
I’m like Esau who begged futilely for repentance with tears. So, God is going to judge every second I spend on earth along with my apostasy. So, what’s the bloody point of being here! People ignore me. Most think I’m a psycho. I once walked up the university stairs and heard an old professor tell another just that. I’m friendless, lonely, and on a copious amount of medication to help me clutch onto sanity like a man who stumbled from a cliff clutches onto a branch. And I doubt my psychological state is going to improve anytime soon. And I don’t want to try some form of therapy. So please don’t jump in here and say ERP. I don’t even want advise. And the worst part of all of this is that I’m going to hell. Nothing gives me pleasure here on earth, and there’s no beatific vision at the end of all of this.
I’m the Kierkegaardian demon of despair. What that means is I’m the tortured poet with some terrible, raw inner wound who lashes out now and then because the pain is unendurable. If you read Kierkegaard’s ‘The Sickness unto Death,’ you’ll find him progressing from one stage of misery to another greater one before ending with the demonic poet. He then progresses from one stage of sin that causes misery to another greater one before ending with the unpardonable sin caused by the apostate. If you read his other book, ‘Fear and Trembling,’ you’ll find him talking about the knight of faith who’s Abraham and the knight of resignation who’s me. The first grasps God; the second comes close before retiring in defeat, and in doing so, becomes worthless.
I think I’ve bored you enough with this essay, dear reader. I’m going to conclude by saying that I’m tired. I want to disappear. And if God was to grant me the impossible, I’d tell him that I want my name erased from fate’s Gazette. I want the pictures removed; the dates blotted out.
© Nitin Lalit Murali (2019)