When I think about despair I can’t help but hear the words of Marilla Cuthbert’s from Canada’s beloved Anne of Green Gable’s, “to despair is to turn your back on God”. This has never sat right with me. Frankly, I identified more with Anne. Full of wholehearted emotion and declaration of being in “the depths of despair”. I suppose I heard not only her declaration of this, but her allowance of it. The permission given to herself to feel despairing for a time. And in this permission, the Divine, the Sacred, God encompasses us.
I have been mulling over David Whyte’s short essay on Despair in his book titled Consolations. This past week I have been immersing myself in his words, which feel a lot more real and true and robust. Whyte reminds us that Despair is like a living thing, it moves and breathes and lives within us. It is a visitor that greets us and meets us when we have grown too tired, or have been too wounded by the world. It is a sacred canopy that clothes us, for a time, to shelter us from being tossed about by more pain, exhaustion and heaviness.
I like to think of despair as an entity all on its own that has a kind of agency. I like to think of the will of despair as something to help us, strengthen us and move us onward. It is a kind of “visitor” like Whyte says. I have found, the more I fight my despair, desolation, or depression, the more I struggle. The more I welcome him in and listen for what he might be saying to me, the more ease and permission I feel to be as I am with this misfit of a friend.
“Despair is 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; it is a loss of horizon, it is the place we go when we do not want to be found in the same way anymore. We give up hope when certain particular wishes are no longer able to come true and despair is the time in which we both endure and heal, even when we have not yet found the new form of hope.” -David Whyte
When despair comes knocking and I open the door to let him in, I have learnt that this visitation is usually one that looks a bit like a hibernation. I have learnt that within myself I need a lot of solitude, and truthfully I can’t really manage much else. Most recently when thinking about this, I kept getting an image of a bear entering its cave in winter — lots of sleep, nourishing food and an enclosed space to keep warm. This was my image for that time. And hibernation, like despair, is a season, it is for a time. Despair can turn into something much more paralyzing when it’s appointed time of visitation has come to an end and we ourselves have chosen not to emerge from our caves.
This is the invitation. To listen and pay attention to our bodies, to our souls, and to the changing of seasons. Nature reminds us that time never stands still. Despair eventually turns too.
“Despair turns into depression and abstraction when we try to make it stay beyond its appointed season and start to shape our identity around its frozen disappointments. But despair can only stay beyond its appointed time through the forced artificiality of created distance, by abstracting ourselves from bodily feeling, by trapping ourselves in the disappointed mind, by convincing ourselves that the seasons have stopped and can never turn again, and perhaps, most simply and importantly, by refusing to let the body breathe by itself, fully and deeply. Despair is kept alive by freezing our sense of time and the rhythms of time; when we no longer feel imprisoned by time and when the season is allowed to turn, despair cannot survive.” -David Whyte
I don’t know about you, but with this second wave of Covid coming through and the other throws of life that have come, despair and desolation have been more frequent visitors the last month or so. And yet, as I reflect on Whyte’s words and the ways in which despair himself has tended to my own soul lately, I am reminded of the nature of rhythms and the ebbing and flowing of time. That no feeling is final and we must allow for it all. Perhaps we can exist in the space of despair with more love and less fear. I like to believe it possible, in fact I must believe it, and I do. As we let these darker and bleaker times transform us in the mystical and magical way that they do without us even trying, perhaps we will then be aided in meeting those around us who are just entering their caves. Perhaps then, we can be waiting on that horizon line for them when they have lost all sight hope.
“To see and experience despair fully in our body is to begin to see it as a necessary, seasonal visitation, and the first step in letting it have its own life, neither holding it nor moving it on before its time. -David Whyte
What do you need in times of despair? What does your body crave? Perhaps, next time he visits, you can all allow yourselves to ask such questions.