Walk With Me (#31): The Opposite of Despair

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

Talk to me about despair. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the despair that people, including me, felt after the impeachment acquittal. Not the despair of “Oh, my god, the country is going to hell.” It’s more “The country is in hell”, and this is where we really are and have been for a long time. And, of course, white, privileged folks are seeing that for the first time and BIPOC have known that for a long time, but still…here we are.

Is despair the opposite of love, rather than hatred? Despair and powerlessness. And in the face of this despair, how do we stay active, engaged, and stick with love when big portions of the world wish we wouldn’t?

MEA

Dear MEA,

When I first started to think about your question I immediately flashed in my memory to a bumper sticker that has been stuck to a closet door in my parent’s house since the early ’70s. It reads in red, white, and blue, Our Politicians Are The Best Money Can Buy.

It was a sarcastic commentary on political corruption that predated Ronald Reagan by nearly a decade and Citizens United, the SCOTUS decision that allowed corporate spending to flood our political landscape, by nearly forty years. As you say, this country is in hell, and it has been for a long time. Racism, sexism, and all the other ways that access to resources are systematically denied to anyone who is not rich, white, and male have been wedded to wholesale greed and corruption since the genocide of Native Americans and the arrival of the first African slaves.

It is a testament to the power of white supremacy and unbridled capitalism to so distort and commandeer reality that many white people have managed until now to avoid being confronted with this history or grappling with how the present moment is a natural consequence of it and not some unanticipated aberration.

You asked if despair was the opposite of love. I would say no, though the opposite of love certainly also afflicts us. The opposite of love is apathy, and damn if the powers-that-be in this country don’t love encouraging us not to care about anything.

Apathy breeds disconnection and can lead to despair, but the opposite of despair isn’t love, it's hope. As evidenced by my parent’s idea of home decor (which I am not knocking because I am right there with them) I’ve spent all my life around people with no illusions about the challenges before us, but who still stubbornly act out of hope.

Hope is a belief in possibility, and the stubborn commitment to act in service of the possible despite how impossible it may seem. If hope is related to love then it is like this: hope witnesses unflinchingly the world in all of its brokenness and still loves what it can become.

Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope In The Dark:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

Hope is not the end of the story, any more than a wedding is the end of a love story. Hope is the commitment, the underlying promise — to love the world’s potential and to fight for it, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. We are not raised in this country to know how to effectively commit to hope for the world any more than we are raised to understand the work that follows after the “Happily Ever After” of the wedding day, but the work is only dissimilar in scope. You show up with integrity no matter what comes and act as if all the best things are possible, over and over and over again.

There is always so much work to do. Dr. King may have been right, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Still, feeling like your whole life is chasing a carrot on a stick just beyond the horizon is a recipe for hopelessness. When despair looms, instead of giving up we must adjust our focus, as poet David Whyte writes, and “start close in”:

Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t

want to take.

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way to begin

the conversation.

When the pace of change in the world or the enormity of the work before us to climb out of the hole we’ve willfully dug ourselves into tempts me to succumb to feelings of powerlessness I turn to the things I can touch directly. Is my household a safe haven for hope — an incubator for vulnerability, authenticity, love, and justice? When was the last time I spoke to my neighbors? If they were in distress, would they find hope through my hands? What are the challenges facing my community? How can I offer myself to help nurture hope right here, right now?

I don’t have to do everything. I just have to do something. The Talmud admonishes, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

It is also worth remembering that how you’re feeling on any given day is not necessarily the best way to guide action or gauge success in how you engage with the world any more than how you engage with the people that you love. I don’t walk away from my partner because today we had an enormous fight and I can’t see how we’ll make our way back to each other. I don’t give up on my kids because today I don’t know how we’re going to get through this next phase of their lives. Our commitments are the raft that carries us when our emotional seas are stormy. Hope is a commitment as much as a feeling. Sometimes you just have to act hopefully and trust that your heart will be revived by your action.

Despair is the absence of hope. It is feeling that every day will be exactly like today. It is forgetting that change is inevitable, and change is the doorway to possibility. Undeniably, not all change is positive. The horrific is on the list of the possible, and bad things happen as often as not. Horrible decisions get made. Wars are waged. Innocent people are sacrificed. But hope argues that we — you and me and all of us together — can affect change, can direct it through our actions for the better.

We need a very deep healing in this country. Folks who have been largely asleep for a long time are going to be sorely disillusioned if they think one election or piece of legislation is going to fix our systemic sickness. But our national sickness is only fatal if we look away and cease to act because the work of hope is not immediately gratifying. James Baldwin wrote, “not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

I believe we can face the work before us. I believe more love, more equity, and more justice are always possible. I believe that hope is our work and our offering, the plow we put our shoulders to in order to cultivate the world we need.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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