I am no stranger to despair; I know what it is to lose all hope.
But my despair is a mere drop in the ocean compared to those who despair because they have nothing; nothing at all. I’m an affluent white, middle-class woman who lives in a large house, who always has enough to eat, who enjoys fresh running water at the turn of a tap, electric light at the flick of a switch or heating when the weather demands it; I have lost no children, I have never lived in a war zone; I am not running in terror for my life…. The list goes on and on and on.
And yet. And yet, despite enjoying all these advantages, when despair has me in its grip I am blind. Everything before is hopeless; I cannot see the point in carrying on. To all intents and purposes I’m lost – to myself and to the world. Attempts to pull myself together are worse than useless. Not least because I am not owning where I am. As Whyte acknowledges in his book, Consolations, the first step when promoting a recovery is to let despair “have its own life, neither holding it nor moving it on before its time.”
However, earlier in his essay, he also says that despair is a last resort. I confess I have never thought about it like this, before. Nor have I ever considered it a haven; a haven is a place of safety and a refuge from the storms of life. I think I can honestly say I would never choose the harbour of despair over life on the open seas, no matter how tempestuous the storm.
But, perhaps I am kidding myself; perhaps I am talking about depression, which Whyte differentiates from despair, “Despair turns to depression … when we try to make it stay beyond its appointed season and start to shape our identity around its frozen disappointments.”
I begin to think I don’t know what despair is - unless we are differentiating between a temporary and a permanent feeling. But who’s to say what’s temporary? If I feel despair for more than three days – and fail to emerge healed and recovered – am I depressed?
Of course not. Grief is a “necessary and seasonal state of repair, a temporary healing absence … the time in which we both endure and heal,” when it takes take time to find a new form of hope. “
Even so, I can’t help but think that Whyte is guilty of romanticising the concept, despair, even though I can resonate with his thinking that despair, “has its own sense of achievement, and despair … needs despair to keep it alive.”
But how can he possibly think that “despair can only stay beyond its appointed time through the forced artificiality of created distance;” that we would ever choose to keep it alive by “freezing our sense of time and the rhythms of time.” I take it as read that “when the season is allowed to turn, despair cannot survive,” but how much of this is down to our own deliberate choice?
Yet, I do know that in order to “keep despair alive” that it “needs a certain tending, reinforcing and isolation;” and as long as we are talking about despair - as Whyte understands it - I think he’s right. And that by “paying a profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath, independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even … to despair itself, and the way we hold it,” we can feel a degree of relief. I remember when I fell upon this strategy, almost by accident, as I lay on my bed feeling crippled by my reaction to bad news. Indeed I took my “first step out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in [my] wish not to be here.” I let my body and the world breathe again. Indeed despair couldn’t do anything, but “change into something else.”
Whyte postulates that despair is but “a waveform passing through the body,” because a season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.” I can’t disagree with this, but I am left wondering about those people who have been traumatised by the effects of unrelenting despair that they can never recover from. Without wishing to refer to specific individuals I can think of several people who, like me, read Whyte’s essay on Despair, and despaired.