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Befriending Despair
Published on Friday, December 9, 2005 by
Befriending Despair
by Donna Glee Williams

Recently I’ve been re-thinking despair as a viable lifestyle choice. I used to have some pretty negative stereotypes about it: slug-like people, paralyzed by hopelessness, sitting around doing nothing, not even fiddling while our Rome burns. It’s natural, I guess: I’m a white American. I’m the daughter generations of optimism. I’m here, literally, because my ancestors believed that there was always something better waiting just over the horizon. Follow the rainbow, etc. But since Katrina wiped out my hometown and caused my government to do exactly nothing about global warming, I guess I’m more open to the whole despair thing. Désespoir, desesperanza, desperation, dis-hope. An idea whose time has come.

Matthew Fox, the theologian who (during his Catholic phase) was once silenced by the present Pope, points back through the deep history of religious traditions to something called the Via Negativa. The Via Negativa is a spiritual “path” of emptying and being emptied, letting darkness be darkness, letting pain be pain, and letting despair be despair. Anything with a Latin name must have some intellectual heft to it, but Fox is concerned that Western Civ has denied and disowned the Via Negativa because it clashes with our busy materialist/consumerist plaid. So those of us with Via Negativa tendencies go underground: solitary, secretive, and faintly ashamed. We aren’t fashionable and we aren’t good company. Perhaps Prozac…?

But if we keep despair in the closet, what do we lose?

In Nazi-occupied Europe, the misinformation machine exerted itself to deceive Jews into believing there was hope that they might survive. The final railroad journey to extermination was sometimes advertised as “resettlement in the East.” Families were told to write their names on their luggage so they could reclaim it later. A swindle of reassuring postcards sent by relatives who had gone before, postcards written by order of guards at the very threshold of the death camp, was meant to hoodwink the Jewish population into climbing tamely onto the trains. And in the last moments: “Remember where you left your clothes, so you can find them again after your shower.”

Hope sedates, distracts, makes pliant. It was usually when all hope was lost that armed resistance crystallized: when they learned that the ghettoes were to be “liquidated,” or learned what that foul smell and fine ash meant. Once they plugged in to despair, victims fought back. Lacking weapons, food, refuge, information, medical care, and allies. Lacking hope, they fought.

Of course, hope keeps people alive too. Holocaust survivors tell us about hanging on just one more day, just one more step, because they could hear the Russian artillery so near, holding on to hope that they might live to tell their story or find their family. It is hope that drives Search-and-Rescue teams to keep going past all reason. And doctors measure out hope like medicine, knowing that it may make all the difference when life is hanging in the balance. Bernie Siegal says that if he has ten cancer patients, each with a one-in-ten chance to live, and he tells them that truth, then they are all likely to die.

But I keep feeling like something precious is being attacked, something vital to survival, when people tell me everything is going to be okay because a.) it always is, and b.) they can’t imagine it won’t be. It’s okay to blow out the ozone layer and heat up the planet, the argument goes, because “we can deal with any problems this causes. We always have in the past.”

The reason we can say “we always have in the past” is because those of us who are around to say anything at all are the descendants of people that paid attention to the signals and did the right thing while there was still time. The ones who could speak for how it feels to watch their culture die aren’t saying anything. Nada. They are gone. Jared Diamond brings them back into the conversation in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed. He introduces us to these silent ghost-civilizations: the Greenland Norse, the Anasazi, the Easter Islanders. Diamond’s` fine-grained sketches of how their actions cost them their existence should help us with that little problem of imagination. We disrespect their memory and we surrender our own creative urgency when we pretend that any culture comes with a “Survival Guaranteed” tag stitched into its seams.

The “you shall surely die” business holds true for cultures and species as well as for individuals. Every form that comes together also comes apart, from molecules to galaxies. That’s one of The Rules. Brian Swimme, the British cosmologist, says that it is the prospect of extinction, “of a world gone black,” that has the potential to liberate the social energy we need to pull our world out of its nose-dive into environmental and political ruin. That is, unless mindless complacency steals our motivation to learn and change.

In his analysis of environmental tipping points, the ecologist Gerald Marten tells us that we’re frittering away our energies until we identify and reverse the vicious cycles that are degrading the ecosystem. We’re swimming upstream against the current of natural forces that are too strong to fight. But, he says, once we discern a vicious cycle, a feedback loop of self-amplifying cause and effect, we begin to make headway. Once we see that the stampede is really a merry-go-round gone mad, we stop wasting time trying to lasso the ponies and start looking for the switch. Human intelligence, creativity, skill, and intuition can find that switch, that critical small action that will have big consequences. Then we go with the flow, working with natural processes instead of against them. That’s when environmental restoration gets easy and starts reinforcing itself as each good change leads to the next.

And what Geiger counter will we use to sniff around for these mean little cycles (they aren’t called “vicious” for nothing), so easy to understand once somebody sketches them out on paper, but so hard to diagnose in what we laughingly call “The Real World”?

Despair is perfect for the job. When we are in the presence of a vicious cycle, no matter how obscure, we just naturally get that sick, overwhelmed sense that nothing we can do will make a difference. Hopelessness is practically a bioassay for vicious cycles; we can put it to work, make little maps with “There Bee Monsters” to mark the whirlpools.

In psychology there’s a phenomenon called “depressive realism.” It means that by some measures depressed people do better than mentally healthy people at judging how much control they have over a situation. This really muddies up the definition of “sanity” because, on the mental-health report card, one of the things you get graded on is “Plays well with reality.” But it turns out that in this case the folks we call mentally healthy actually have more illusions, not less, than the folks wearing the diagnosis. And the thing they have illusions about is control. Researchers find that the illusion of control may keep you cheerful and keep you trying, but it also may cause you to “escalate commitment to a failing course of action” (the gambler throwing good money after bad), make bad decisions, take risks, ignore feedback, and fail to learn from experience. Is it just me, or does that sound familiar, somehow?

Thoreau talked about the mass of men leading “lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe we shouldn’t read this so much as a critique of desperation, but of quietness. As our dear, departed Delta can tell us, silence is not a good thing when you are the canary in the mine.

Donna Glee Williams is a registered nurse and writer.


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