There is Power in Despair

GLS 1997

GLS 1997

This morning I had to get out for a walk in the woods. It was a cold, blustery morning in New England and I wanted that cold wind to blow the despair out of my brain and out of my heart. The despair from another terrible terrorist attack. This time in Paris. But the despair was that it happened again. And that it has been happening for a long time. Beirut, Boston, London, Madrid, Mumbai. Newtown, Virginia Tech, Charleston, Chattanooga, Roseburg. 

Despair is defined as the complete loss or absence of hope and it is one of the human emotions that can feel the most painful and dark because despair knocks the light right out of you. It leaves you without a compass, without the energy to get up, without a reason to. Despair begins to tell you that there is no point to anything, that you might as well lay there, not get up. Nothing matters.

As someone who is wired as an optimist I find despair one of the most intolerable emotions. I am usually not just a glass is half-full person, I usually imagine an additional glass entirely. I have wielded hope as a massive source of energy and protection against despair. But eventually it doesn’t work: you find yourself face to face with the endless of fight against violence or injustice—against something so very wrong—and whether that injustice or wrong happened just to you, or someone you love, to a group you belong to or all of humanity—you see it for what it is and you can’t imagine how you are going to live in a world and know, really take in, that injustice. That wrong. That level of sorrow for knowing that you couldn’t change it and knowing the size of it now, not knowing how it can be changed. You believe it is impossible. You are brought to your knees.

And paradoxically that is often the turning point of despair. At my most despairing I have gone in to talk to my therapist and chosen to sit on the floor, instead of the chair. I wanted to sit on the floor because I wanted to be where I was—the bottom—the place ‘you can’t fall below.’  And in admitting I was at the lowest place possible, I found the ground. I found something that felt real and solid. The healing part of despair is that it can actually be incredibly grounding: you know where you are, you see the world as it is, and you can get some clarity about what is wrong—what is really wrong at the root of it all.

In despair we find the most pessimistic and hardened parts of ourselves. And in despair we find the most pessimistic and hardened parts of our communities. In finding our darker sides we can be, ironically, more whole.

John Lederach who has worked with communities post-conflict on peacebuilding talks about the fact that the pessimism of the people who have lived through the worst cycles of violence may be one the biggest sources of true change. He calls their pessimism a gift, not an obstacle. Lederach calls pessimism grounded realism: “grounded realism constantly explores and questions what constitutes genuine change. For people who have lived for long periods in settings of violence, change poses this challenge: How do we create something that does not yet exist in a context where our legacy and lived history are alive and live before us?”

Despair brings us in contact with our most authentic selves and it compels us to demand that authenticity from the relationships around us. When we are feeling despair we cannot in any way tolerate fakeness, clichés or bullshit. When we are despairing we need authentic, we need real. We need it from ourselves and we need it from others. Hope is the fuel that helps us keep moving toward healing, toward the better imagined state. But hope often keeps us from being able to see and take in the trauma that has occurred- and it keeps us from seeing how we protect ourselves from knowing this—hope can keep us from becoming whole. You can’t do surgery in rose-colored glasses.

Despair is a turning point. In a state of despair you see the bigness of it all—and because of that you are freed from a world of simplistic duality—of there being an easy answer, of it being this-or-that. Despair helps you hold the complexity, which is the only real hope of healing. So we need to sit with our despair, sit on the ground if necessary, and we need to be able to sit with other’s despair as well. We need to trust that the ground that has been burned by despair is preparing for the seeds of change, the seeds of growth. And we must be the faithful gardeners of this growth by holding our pessimism and distrust and risking our hope again. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015