Into God’s Light | Hopelessness: Does my life matter? How do I find happiness? - Seton Shrine
Hopelessness: “Does my life matter? How do I find happiness?”

Into God’s Light | Hopelessness: Does my life matter? How do I find happiness?

Week Six | An Easter reflection series with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton on the spiritual and mental health crisis afflicting young people.

Click here to read the Introduction to Into God’s Light.

Nathan has never been a great student, but he’s always been a good student— good enough, apparently, to be accepted at the most popular campus in the state university system, much to the annoyance of his best friend, who has a higher GPA but didn’t get in.

Nathan’s still not sure how this happened, but his parents are so proud of him they can’t stop telling everyone they know. He’s their oldest kid, their first kid to go off to college, and since neither of them got to go themselves (too busy with the family business, a McDonald’s franchise just off the freeway), it’s like he’s living out their dream.

Now that he’s here, though, he already knows he’s in way over his head. He’s okay in math, but he’s never been a good writer or reader. Yet every undergrad has to take four—four!—General Education (GE) courses in English. And the only one he could get into this first quarter was Great Books. The teacher is okay but the required reading is massive. There’s just no way.

So he skips the reading but goes to class every day and sits in the back row and never opens his mouth. And luckily, she never calls on him. Weirdly, he’s actually somewhat interested in the lectures. He wishes he had what it takes to keep up with the work. But ever since he got to campus, it’s gotten harder and harder to focus. He misses his parents. He misses his brother and sister. This is the first time he’s ever been away from home.

There’s this other thing going on too, a black shadow that is following him everywhere. And though at first it kept its distance, it’s starting to edge closer and he feels like it wants to swallow him up. So he can’t sleep, not until he sees his roommate taking a pill at night and he asks him what it is (it’s to calm you down, his roommate tells him) and he begins sneaking the pills out of his roommate’s bottle and taking them himself. Now—except for the lit class—Nathan pretty much stays in bed the whole day.

When he’s really missing home, though, he walks down to the local McDonald’s. To get there, you have to cross the railroad tracks. One day, a thought comes to him: If you lay down at just the right place, on the curve so the conductor can’t see you until it’s too late. . . well, then. Problem’s all solved. He’s never going to pass a course at this university, much less graduate. His parents will be totally devastated when he fails out. His friend who didn’t get in will be even madder at him. If he sticks around much longer, it’s a lose-lose for everyone. They’ll all be better off if he’s just . . . gone.

He decides to do it on the last day of school. He’s got it all planned out. He’ll go to the lit class, then slip out the door and head for the tracks.

Nathan has succumbed to hopelessness, and hopelessness is a killer. Not only does it kill joy, it kills anticipation about the future. When we become hopeless, we believe there is nothing to look forward to. Everything will always be the same. Nothing will ever get better. Thus, hopelessness smothers initiative, particularly the initiative to try and extricate ourselves from a bad situation in order to create a better one.

Hopelessness is particularly dangerous for young people. Recent CDC data says that 42% of Gen Zers report feeling persistent sadness and hopelessness, and of that group, many admit that they think about killing themselves. Sadly, they often do: four times as many kids between the ages of thirteen and eighteen die by their own hand than die by cancer.


Elizabeth Seton comes close to succumbing to hopelessness when she is eighteen. Sick of the turmoil in the Seton home, she dreams of escape. “Fine plans of a little country home to gather all the little children round and teach them their prayers and keep them clean and teach them to be good,” she writes. Or maybe she can find the refuge she longs for in the religious life she reads about in novels, “where people could be shut up from the world, and pray, and be good always—Many thoughts of running away to such a place over the seas, in disguise, working for a living.”

But there is no such sanctuary available to her, and one evening in a particularly dark mood, she transcribes lines from a famous poem called “Night Thoughts”: “No bliss has life to boast, till death can give / Far greater, Life’s a debtor to the grave. . . .” She finds herself weeping over these lines, then contemplating the bottle of laudanum—opium mixed with alcohol—that her father keeps among his medical supplies. There are newspaper reports of suicides by laudanum of unhappy young people—why not her? She reasons that since God has created her, he understands how miserable she is and will not condemn her for her act.

But something stops her at the last minute. When she sets the bottle aside, she is flooded with “praise and thanks of excessive joy not to have done the ‘horrid deed’—thoughts and promise of eternal gratitude.” She feels as though she’s been delivered.

Though Elizabeth never again contemplates suicide in the way she does on the “night of the little bottle,” on occasion she finds herself thinking longingly of death as a blessed release. These moments invariably occur during especially exhausting times, when her burden of responsibility is physically too much for her. Sometimes, instead, she dreams not of death but of a cloistered life with God—solitary, silent, filled with prayer. Even this, however, would demand a kind of death, the end of her noisy, busy, child-centered existence. And she knows she can never abandon her children and the young relatives who depend on her.


Christ’s disciples experience hopelessness too. The crucifixion and death of Jesus leaves them devastated. Yes, he told them that three days after his crucifixion, he would rise from the dead—but this sounds crazy, and for a time, all they know for sure is that he’s gone. Then the women go to the tomb and find that it’s empty. But even so, the disciples cannot allow themselves to believe. Hopelessness is easier than risking having their hopes once again dashed.


In the end, Nathan’s lit teacher ruins his plans. Just as he’s ready to vanish out the back door and head for the tracks, she calls out his name, walks down the row to his desk and stands there with her arms folded. “I need to know why you come to class each day but never turn in any papers. I need to know why you didn’t take the midterms or final,” she says. “You know I have to flunk you, right?”

Mutely, he nods.

But then she peers at him more closely and suddenly, her expression changes. Something about how he looks on this day, his last day on the planet, is apparently setting off alarm bells. She says in a gentler voice, “Will you please come to my office for a few minutes? I think we need to talk.”

He follows her across the hall. She asks him some questions. He tells her how lonely he is, what he’s been planning. She asks him if he’d be willing to see a psychologist at the Student Health Center. He firmly nods his head. She asks him if by any chance he has some kind of faith. He hesitates, then admits his family is Catholic, that he has always gone to Mass but stopped when he got to campus, he doesn’t know why, and yes, he’d be willing to talk with the nun at the Newman Center.

And just like that, the moment has passed. Someone has put out a hand, someone he doesn’t even really know, but it’s enough to stop his head-long flight toward self-destruction. His self-imposed death sentence has been lifted. Flooded with relief, then shaking with shock at what he’s almost done, he vows that whatever it takes to get better, he will do it.


Elizabeth finds her own antidote to the occasional longings for easeful death after she meets Father Simon Brute, a young French priest who’s lived through the horrors of the French Revolution. Brute, who becomes her most insightful mentor, tenderly fills the role of “anam cara,” or soul friend, as she navigates the black months of grieving after her oldest daughter’s death. Urging her to look upward, toward heaven, he points out that everything in the present moment looks entirely different from a distance.

Though we are infinitely precious beings in the eyes of God, he assures her, from the perspective of eternity we are also infinitesimal specks amid a great whirl of atoms. More, it’s possible to see life from this perspective even when we are immersed in the details of our quotidian responsibilities. Not only does the lens of eternity remind us of the brevity of our earthly existence, thereby freeing us from the temptation to attribute ultimate importance to what is both mutable and ephemeral, it limns each passing moment with the beauty of the transcendent.

And a life lived in the transcendent light of eternity cannot help but be a life that shines with meaning, purpose, and limitless hope.

To learn more about this series of seven Easter reflections click here.

PAULA HUSTON is a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow and the author of two novels and eight books of spiritual nonfiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and in the annual Best Spiritual Writing anthology. Like Mother Seton, Huston is a convert to Catholicism. In 1999, she became a Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate and is a lay member of New Camaldoli Hermitage’s community of monks in Big Sur, Calif. She’s also a former president of the Chrysostom Society, a national organization of literary Catholic writers.