An old friend of mine and I used to joke about levels of discouragement like they were circles in Dante’s Inferno. The absolute lowest level, we decided, was resignation, not despair. With despair, one still looks back at what is lost to us. Resignation even quits looking back. We will never have what we want, so we stop wanting.
There are many ways woven into our daily lives that reflect resignation. In psychology, for example, we held a belief in personality disorders for decades. These were seen as constellations of deeply held human traits that would not give way to therapy or medication. I recall in my graduate classes and in my internship being told that my hope that things could shift for someone who acted in narcissistic or passive-aggressive ways a sign of my naiveté. Even when I would observe these changes in a client and report them in a supervision session, I was assured by my supervisor that my diagnosis must have been wrong. It was like being told that it had not stopped raining; it never had rained.
In the classes I teach at the University, I sometimes challenge students when I hear them say, “I am competitive by nature,” or “It’s just who I am.” In those moments I ask them if that is the way they want to be. If not, why not change? I confess it is difficult for me to hear resignation from a 20 year old.
The class I teach is an upper level psychology class focused on LGBT development and the consequences of oppression. The class attracts students for many reasons; there is always a waiting list to enroll. Some take the course because they need an upper-level course and this one fits their schedule. Others have a gay or lesbian parent, a transgender sibling, or want to be a great counselor for anyone who comes their way. Each semester, a few students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender themselves.
Every year or two, the course will attract a lesbian or gay student who is resigned to having the life they were told they could have. Generally, these young men or women will exhibit poor academic skills, irregular attendance, and a pained sense of being put upon by life in general and by me in particular. They don’t identify as students, but say they are “in school.” One or two times these students have filed complaints with my school about my refusal to let them be. Fortunately, more often they tolerate or even accept what I have to offer as an alternative – namely hope.
Gay oppression, commonly called homophobia, can contribute to resignation. So can racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, ethnocentrism, and so on. To the degree that we believe that these tools will always keep a lid on our lives, they control us. However, when we pronounce that they have won, we are resigned.
Class systems are so old and so egregious that even Jesus is reported to have become resigned to them. He said, “The poor will always be with us.”