This blog post is for those of us who have a tender soul at the moment. If life is fully incredible right now, you might want to park this week’s offering in a place where you can pull out for another time. You see today I want to touch on the feeling of despair, and spend a little time in its uncomfortable, agonising, but necessary embrace.
This might surprise some of you, because I know I come across as positive, robust and optimistic. Yes I am these things, but I am because I have sat with despair. Facing our despair is critical to developing the leadership we need for the 21st century.
Despair is defined as ‘the complete loss or absence of hope’, and a lot of us are feeling this right now. It could be from a broken relationship, an illness, the loss of a loved one, or from broader triggers like climate change, poverty, or social injustice. And to be honest, despair could be considered a pretty normal response to what’s happening in our lives and our world right now. For me, I despair when I look at the political decisions being made, and the misplaced priorities. At times I despair for our future, and it fills me with grief because we are so much better than this.
Despair is uncomfortable to be around. Friends might encourage you to put on a happy face. ‘We have to keep fighting!’ ‘No room for moping’. At other times, we distract ourselves from our feelings – through shopping, or drinking, or zoning out – and this is a form of denial. We feel we can’t face our despair, but denying it doesn’t help either.
I think we spend a lot of our time collectively in denial, and not enough time authentically despairing. In our culture, despair is seen as indulgent and not strong. It contradicts our belief of upward mobility. We believe that only the weak despair. It’s as though despair is a badge of victimhood. Yet I disagree.
I think so many of us are drowning in unacknowledged despair. We operate over the top of it. We pretend. And in doing so we lose the gift that hides within despair. You see despair is an acknowledgment of deep and profound love. It is the ache of loss. It is honest and needs to be validated. In not acknowledging despair, we deny an aspect of our humanity, and access to the deeper strength available to us to rise.
Dr Joanna Macy pioneered ‘despair and empowerment’ work in the 1980s, in response to the Chernobyl disaster. In her experience, when you fully own despair, transformation into compassionate action is possible. I studied with her many years ago, and her work helped me when I saw things in Africa or India and Bangladesh that were devastating. I remember holding a baby who had died and the mum pleading with me to make her well. Or talking to a woman who was so sick, coughing her lungs out. She cooked in her hut and this was the equivalent of 10-20 packs of cigarettes a day. She was a widow with a young child.
I was overwhelmed with feelings of despair. But I was able to see that these feelings were ultimately a good thing. It meant I cared. It meant that none of this had become normalised. It burned something within me and I used this pain to take action.
When we open ourselves to feelings of despair, and allow them to move through us, something unfurls. A spark. New life – ideas, possibilities, openings for action become available.
How to be with despair:
1. Acknowledge its presence and its validity. It has a right to show up and be heard.
2. Name your despair. Thank your despair. It is here because you love so deeply.
3. Ritualise your despair. Maybe light a candle and sit with it. Go to your favourite tree or space in nature. Feel what you are feeling.
4. Share with others. Find commonality and solace from people who feel similar.
5. Allow others the grace to show up as they really feel. Hold space for what’s truly present for another. The only way out is through, and we can’t get through if we are constantly pretending otherwise with everyone.
Through harnessing the power of despair we can transform heart ache into whole heartedness.