The pit of despair

Mel Smith in The Princess Bride

Many fans of The Princess Bride (okay, yes, another Princess Bride reference — I can’t help myself) will read that title and immediately see and hear the scene in your head. Westley, The Man in Black, was knocked unconscious by the evil Count Rugen (PB nerds may already know that actor Cary Elwes actually was knocked out by accident while filming that scene — talk about immersing yourself in the role). He awakes to find himself strapped to a table in a dungeon. An odd-looking albino stands over him, tending to his wounds. “Where am I?” Westley demands. “The Pit of Despair,” the albino replies in a raspy, menacing voice — before forcefully clearing his throat and continuing the conversation in a perfectly normal British accent.

In this long season of pandemic, tropes from The Princess Bride have surfaced again and again in Internet memes. With COVID and its variants continuing to rage, these memes suggest, we are still in the Pit of Despair. It’s an attempt to bring a bit of ironic humor to a dark situation, perhaps even invoking the idea that the heroic happy ending is yet to come.

COVID or otherwise, many of us know the feeling of despair, of the emotional quicksand of hopelessness. That’s another common movie trope: people unwittingly step into quicksand and vainly struggle to free themselves. The more they struggle, the faster and deeper they sink. What they need is for someone to throw them a rope or lower a tree branch before their heads slip forever below the surface.

They can only be saved, in other words, if someone pulls them up from the outside.

. . .

Many psalms, as we’ve seen, begin with a complaint and plea and end with “Thank you.” But Psalm 40 has it the other way around: praise first, then a cry for help. The opening praise, however, is a graphic image of rescue:

I put all my hope in the Lord.
    He leaned down to me;
    he listened to my cry for help.
He lifted me out of the pit of death,
    out of the mud and filth,
    and set my feet on solid rock.
        He steadied my legs
. (vss. 1-2, CEB)

Cary Elwes (and Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride

Where the Common English Bible translates “mud and filth,” the New Revised Standard has “miry bog.” Both are attempts to translate two Hebrew words, used in succession, which can both be rendered “mire.” The miry mire? The mucky muck? The words convey an image of being helplessly stuck.

I picture the psalmist in “the pit of death,” sinking in the quicksand of despair. He cries out for help. Who will save him?

God is portrayed not only as hearing the psalmist’s cry, but bending down to listen. God does what the psalmist can’t do for himself: God pulls him out of the muck. Whereas the psalmist had been sinking in the mire, his legs flailing, his feet finding nowhere to stand, God plucks him from the pit and sets him down on a secure and solid rock.

Personally, I have no experience whatsoever with quicksand. But I do know the feeling of hopelessness. I know what it means to ruminate endlessly on things I’m powerless to change. My thoughts don’t just churn in circles; the circles spiral downward.

I need someone to pull me out.

. . .

Psalm 40, as mentioned, will end on an unresolved note. Crying out for help, the psalmist will plead, “My God, don’t wait any longer!” (vs. 17). When you find yourself sinking in the mire once again, every moment counts. But here at the beginning, the psalmist begins with the remembrance of God’s faithfulness. This is the God who can save me. This is the God who has saved me in the past.

Despair pulls us down; God pulls us up.

The psalmists teach us how to bring our desperation to God. And in so doing, they also remind us of what we should do as we wait — remember what God has already done, and tell the story to others. More on that in the next post.