In his recent book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, David Whyte holds ordinary words up like prisms before the light of human life, turning them in such a way that both the words and life shimmer with unexpected meaning. When I looked at Whyte’s list of fifty-two words and tried to decide where to start reading, the choice was easy. Too easy.
I hated admitting that to myself. And I hate writing it here. But Despair seemed the only honest place to begin. I had no idea that doing so would lead me to Hope.
At first, Whyte’s words about Despair described a familiar world. As I read them, I began to see the faces of people I love. At times, I saw my own face:
Despair takes us in when we have nowhere to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved, when God disappoints, or when our body is carrying profound pain in a way that does not seem to go away.
His words reminded me of all the things that steal our hope, that tempt us to believe that nothing matters, those things that suck the joy out of life. Specifically, they reminded me of too much from the past two years, years marked by painful times when God disappointed, when hearts around me broke, and when people were forced to endure more pain and grief than anyone should ever suffer.
These are the things, I thought, that give Despair its power to ruin our lives.
I was thinking of Despair as I always had, as the unpleasant and unavoidable consequence of crushed dreams. I imagined all the ways that Despair lies in wait, ready to attach itself to our disappointments and hurts in order to kill our hope. Seen that way, we are unable to resist as Despair moves into us. And Despair becomes another thing to suffer.
But then I looked again at Whyte’s words. “Despair takes us in when we have nowhere to go.” And it suddenly seemed that maybe I had it wrong. Maybe Despair is not some curse that enters us, but rather a gift we are invited to enter.
That’s how it looks when Whyte holds Despair up to life. It shines as gift. It becomes not something to avoid at all costs, but rather “a necessary and seasonal state of repair, a temporary healing absence, an internal physiological and psychological winter when our previous forms of participation in the world take a rest.”
But Despair cannot be the gift that keeps on giving. As Whyte reminds us, the first step out of the place of Despair is to be honest about our wish not to be there. And to let ourselves and the world breathe again.
In this necessary but temporary season of Despair, I wait. “Refusing to despair about despair,” I wait for this season to “change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do, from the beginning.”
And I’ve noticed something surprising about this refusal to despair about despair. It feels a lot like Hope.