Defense Against the Dark: Despair

It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t written any more posts in my planned “series” (consisting so far of a single post) about Defense Against the Dark. As I thought about possible topics, Despair seemed a good one to take on. It’s been a long time since I’ve had feelings that I would classify as despair. But then, the time to formulate a good defense is before you need it.

This blog post addresses the darkness of despair from a Christian perspective. The antidote to despair is hope, which ultimately is found in God. But it also helps our emotional state to get enough rest, eat properly, and talk with trusted friends.

During the summer of 1983 I was at a very low point emotionally. I was a student at the Spanish School at Middlebury College, and was trying to keep my pledge to speak only Spanish. It gets rather difficult when you can’t find the words to express the frustration you are feeling, frustration which often develops because you can’t find the words to ask a question, explain something, or just carry on a casual conversation with classmates.

More than once I broke down in tears, which only made me feel worse. When I entered or left my dorm, I took stairs that passed huge plate-glass windows, and sometimes wondered what would happen if I took a running start and tried to go through the glass. After I wrote a composition for one class on figuring out the best way to commit suicide (recounting the black humor of my undergraduate friends the year earlier), I received an invitation to visit the school counseling offices.

After the summer session ended, I spent a few weeks at home, preparing to spend the next nine months abroad, in Madrid. There wasn’t time enough to get a job, so I simply relaxed, and got all the sleep I needed – something that never happened when I was in college.

When I arrived in Madrid, I was somewhat apprehensive about the coming year, but also excited about the opportunity. (This was my second time going to Spain as a student.) When I met up with other Middlebury students, they were very surprised at how cheerful I was.

I hadn’t thought about it much until then, but I felt none of the depression that had plagued me during the summer. I still had to deal with speaking Spanish most of the time, challenging classes and professors, and now also the day-to-day difficulties of living on my own in a foreign country. But I didn’t feel pushed beyond my limits.

It occurred to me that sleep deprivation had been a large part of emotional problems previously. My class schedule allowed me to sleep until 9 AM most mornings. (Like many Spaniards, I stayed up until about midnight, when the TV stations went off the air for the night.) So long as I got enough sleep, I dealt with the challenges I faced without breaking down and feeling helpless.

If I had had any doubts about the importance of getting enough sleep, my first day of Christmas break took care of them. To save money, I purchased a ticket on a night train, but only for a regular seat, not a sleep car. I had thought I could doze sitting up, but it didn’t work very well. Between the discomfort of my position, noise in the car, and the reek of cigarette smoke, I got very little sleep.

The next morning I arrived in Paris, and as I began to plan my day I found myself feeling very down. I was alone in an unfamiliar city, I wasn’t sure how well I remembered my high school French, I didn’t know where I was going to stay or what I would do, and I wasn’t sure how much I even cared. I was beginning to think my few months of escape from depression had been a fluke. And then it occurred to me – I simply don’t function well without a good night’s sleep.

Another blog post, also written from the perspective of faith, identifies clinical despair (the kind that does not dissipate on its own with time) as “primarily a spiritual crisis.” The author references the insights of concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, who defined despair as “suffering minus meaning.”

In searching to give meaning to one’s suffering, however, the author also points out that it is important to be careful not to encourage false hopes. Not only do they lead to a greater letdown when their promise fails to be fulfilled, but false hope can also become a way to avoid facing the bleak realities of life that need to be acknowledged rather than denied. 

If the year I spent in Spain was one of the best I had ever had, the following was the worst. I taught seventh through tenth grade Spanish in a Christian school, and I did it very poorly. It didn’t help that I injured my leg less than two weeks into the school year and spent the next several weeks on crutches, unable to get around the classroom very well. But I don’t think it would have made all that much difference if that hadn’t happened.

I simply have never been good – or comfortable – at telling people what to do. I tried to maintain classroom discipline, but I never succeeded. By the end of the year, students simply laughed at me. I daydreamed about driving my car into a telephone pole to escape the daily humiliation of standing in front of a students who had no respect for me. If I had been asked to quit I would have, gladly, but I guess the administration figured I was better than no Spanish teacher at all.

Once the awful year was over (a year that included falling in love with a man for the first time, being asked to marry him, and then having him break up with me), I found other work, first doing housekeeping in a hospital, then as a clerk at a manufacturing company. I began to make friends, but I no longer had the sense of purpose I had had when I was preparing to be a Spanish teacher.

One thing that had helped me face whatever challenges I did in Spain was knowing that it was going to make me a better teacher. Everything I did or experienced in Spain would improve my knowledge of the language and culture, and every adversity overcome would help me be a better role model for the young people I would teach.

Once I realized that teaching Spanish was not my future (and for a long time I was too demoralized to consider teaching anything, ever), it was hard to find meaning in whatever difficult experiences I faced. I could quote myself Bible verses about how “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3b-4), but the presumed benefits were too theoretical to be much comfort.

Over the next several years I had a lot of ups and downs, some of the problems being of my own making and others just part of living in a very imperfect world. Getting married helped in some ways but introduced other challenges. Having children introduced a new dimension of meaning into my life – and a whole lot of other new challenges.

One day I went with some other women from church to a seminar on Christian education. The speaker told us a lot of things, but the one I remember best is to view every experience we have had – good and bad – as a gift from God. It’s one thing to think of difficult experiences as an opportunity to develop character, but to think of the experience itself as a gift? How could I think of having been raped as a gift?

I am probably not remembering or explaining very well what the speaker said, but it had to do with the experience being part of the person I have become. It’s not that the rape was in any way a good thing, but if it hadn’t happened, my life would have not gone the same as it did. I am in no position to say that it would be better or worse, but it would certainly be different.

I have struggled with the issue of prayer in ways that I probably would not have if I had not felt that my prayer for safety that night had not be answered very well. I might have been less interested in getting married if I had not desired the safety that marriage entailed (both a protective husband and a new name that would be harder for the man who had raped me to track down). I would likely feel less compassion for those who have suffered sexual assault.

The person I am today was shaped by everything that I have experienced up to this point. I can only wish to reject some part of my experience if I wish to reject some part of who I am. I am certainly not happy with some aspects of who I am, but since hearing that speaker that day, I can’t wish not to be who I am today. What I wish – and work someone inconsistently at – is becoming a better person in the future. 

This article about despair is specifically directed to classroom teachers, but the principles still apply to people in all walks of life. The author suggests three ideas to help prevent despair:

  • Distinguish between the possible and the impossible. Separate problems where you can make a difference from those over which you have no control.
  • Find something that is interesting to you because they you will be able to share it enthusiastically with others.
  • Face, and come to acknowledge in ourselves the very feelings and behaviors that we find so troubling in other people.

The first sounds very much like the Serenity Prayer. My mother found this prayer very meaningful – a fact that for a time made me have very little regard for the prayer. (I can think of positive characteristics my mother had, such as honesty. Serenity was not one of them, however.) As an adult, however – and a mother, I have come to find it meaningful myself.

For many people, humor is an important defense – perhaps the most important – against despair. Despair, Inc. sells a wide array of products that poke fun at the motivational posters so popular at some workplaces. I’m sure the people who make motivational posters mean well, but often the sight of one just makes me feel guilty for not feeling motivated by it.

A poster like this, however, makes me smile instead. And then it reminds me that whatever venture it is that I’m hesitant to try is probably not all that risky after all.

If I were feeling despairing, I’m not sure such humor would help. But a good defense is proactive. Learn to laugh now, and despair may have trouble getting much of a toehold.

One Response to Defense Against the Dark: Despair

  1. modestypress says:

    As a black-humored atheist, I love the Despair site and offerings. I will live up to their expectations by stealing their posters and printing them cheaply at the public library that has a color printer. Then maybe I will feel guilty enough to buy at least one of them.

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