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Calm • Perspective

A Place for Despair

There is a good deal of pride in our societies about how broad minded we all are, at least compared with previous generations. Yet how stubbornly intolerant we remain in one particular area: in relation to the despair that is locked inside us and that struggles ever to be properly seen or explored, so much does it conflict with the purposefulness, vigour and activity of our times.

We try so hard, of course, to fight this despair. We strive repeatedly to be upbeat, to look at things positively and to look forward to better days. But occasionally, especially if we are tired, or on the verge of an illness or on an extended very quiet Sunday afternoon, we may find ourselves unable any longer to withstand the darkness that has long been within us – and perhaps always will be.

Our defences give way – and we come face to face with a layer of the most profound sorrow about:

– How much of a mess we have made of everything.

– How many people we have hurt.

– How bad we have been at saying what mattered.

– How much we’ve misunderstood.

– How many opportunities we’ve wasted.

– How furious we have been.

– How cowardly we are.

– How much we keep getting wrong.

– How vast are our regrets.

– What demented and damned fools we are.

Where could any of this emotional slurry possibly go? In previous ages, we might have climbed up the steps of an ancient temple and whispered some of it to a hugely understanding god or (more likely) goddess at a candle-lit altar.

Youth Mourning, George-Clausen, 1916, Wikimedia-Commons

But we’ve likely said goodbye to such sources of consolation long ago. We’ve said we didn’t ‘believe’ and now have cope alone with the cold certainties of science and the puzzles and pretensions of art. 

We couldn’t possibly tell our children, our parents, our friends or even our therapist or spouse. How could we share with them that we have ended up here (again)? We don’t want to keep hurting those who have lodged their hopes in us. Their desire to believe in us can – inadvertently – leave us feeling very lonely.

How rare it is to find anyone who can receive despair without giving way to the temptation to say something encouraging – who can be reconciled enough to their darkness simply to respond with quiet understanding and fellow feeling to our own.

But whatever the difficulties of interpersonal connection, we should never compound our misery by thinking we are not allowed to come here in the privacy of our minds. We have the right to despair even if no one else in the vicinity can bear our sadness; even if we are competent in many areas, even if we are no longer young, even if people depend on us, even if we are for the most part interested in being brave. The right to be forlorn is universal and inalienable.

If we can find nowhere else, let this be the place to come: a small house of words, a modest shrine to dark times, a place mature enough not to force us to be hopeful, a place that can bear to simply try to understand and sit beside us.

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