Using Despair

I woke up early three days ago and sat outside with my coffee, quietly watching the dawn. As the sun rose, so did my spirits.

My New Year’s goal for 2022 was to find a way to make peace with the reality of looming losses—of the democracy I’ve revered and served and of the health of the ecosystem on which our very lives depend. My frustration and anger was helping no one as I howled at the moon to make things right again, while seeing more clearly by the day that those corrections were not coming, that things were not going to be “right” again. Democracy as we knew it almost certainly will not be restored and the planet will not be spared catastrophic warming. As I began giving voice to these conclusions I could see responsible people worrying about them causing despair.

Brene Brown and others describe despair as a depressing and potentially paralyzing condition that can result from a complete loss of hope that something we desperately need or long for is not going to happen. It feels like a death, the end of belief that things will get better. Whether we rail against it or sink into it, the futility of even trying can leave us bereft and depressed.  

But failed hopes needn’t end there. Despair as a recognition of reality can be a catalyst that liberates us from the exhausting frustration of wanting and working for something that will not happen, from the pain of beating our head against a wall that cannot move. Myths tell us with enough hope anything is possible, but even the most fervent hope must yield to stubborn facts. Insistence on unreality is crazy, and perseverance in the pursuit of the impossible can become pathological. Despair, like disillusionment, can release us from unrealistic expectations that will never be fulfilled. Whether it’s the death of an ideal or the dead-end of a long hard road, it tells us it’s time to stop.

So it was for me when I accepted that the chances of restoring the democratic processes I spent my life working for were somewhere between unlikely and very unlikely. So it was, too, when I realized that global warming would wreak (is wreaking) catastrophic destruction whether we all recycle or not, and that we will not give up the lifestyles we revere and worked so hard to achieve that are accelerating global devastation that can no longer be prevented.

We are naturally repulsed by and rebel against deeply unwanted facts, and resist them with great vigor. That takes work. When the challenges keep coming that resistance is exhausting. It feels good to stop beating one’s head against the wall, but while accepting reality can be comforting it also brings with it a new challenge: if I cannot prevent it, how do I cope and where do I stand in the midst of destruction that includes the likely loss of freedom to authoritarians and literal death for large portions of life on Earth?

In short, how do I reconcile my loss of hope for success with a compelling desire to help, especially when the stakes are so high? How do I hold space for the possibility of solutions when I don’t think there are any?

The answer that dawned on me that morning was love. I will recycle and plant native species because it’s respectful of the Earth and is the right thing to do. That is reason enough and maybe the best reason of all. I will hold a space of compassion for all whose actions are bringing us to these ignoble ends as well as all who will suffer from them because I know I too can be greedy, and selfish, and lazy, and willfully ignorant–I am them and they are me. I will do what I can to protect the planet’s living inhabitants, even as they suffer and die, not because I think I can save them–I don’t, but because I care about them. I will continue to advocate for self-governance and the common good because inaction is not an option and this is what I believe is right and where I choose to put my energy, even if it cannot succeed.  

I see despair now not as an end, but as a transition, a new beginning without the baggage of resentment, failure-anxiety, and anger. Might such a beginning without preconceptions and pressing expectations lead to fresh, creative thinking and unforeseen possibilities? It seems possible. In any event I am grateful for some peace of mind and a softer heart.