In Praise of Despair

Bear with me here. When I look back on the changes that have helped me become a better person (still a work in progress), nearly every period of growth was preceded by a period of despair. I'm using despair here as an umbrella term to cover a range from unpleasantness to utter destruction. That despair can manifest in a myriad of ways: a gnawing loneliness, existential anxiety, destructive relationships, disordered eating, overspending, or other self-harmful behaviors. These are the symptoms of despair, the ways it demands to be seen or, more often, attempts to relieve it. It was only in eventually turning to face the despair, to explore it, to excavate it that I was able to change. This is why one of my favorite quotes is from Carl Rogers, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as just I am, then I can change.”

The trick here is not to confuse acceptance with affinity. I can accept things I don’t like. When I accept my role in creating some sources of that despair as well as my role in rising above it (or at least learning to live with it more peacefully), then I can make steps toward change. I see this play out in big and small ways in my life and in the lives of the brave souls I have the privilege to explore this with. Despair, like pain in the body, is a signal, a helper, telling us things are not right. If we listen, we have an opportunity to give ourselves what we need to heal. Like knee pain can drive us to the couch to rest and avoid further injury, emotional pain can drive us to retreat, reduce stress, reevaluate, and repair.

As we surrender, whether willingly or kicking and screaming, to this process, despair can somewhat be welcomed as a friend, a signal to pause, to take stock, and empowers us to change. After all, if something caused me no distress or despair whatsoever, why would I be motivated to change? In this way, despair is a catalyst for growth and healing, a part of the process. Now, that’s not to say you will magically start loving being in despair or the unexpected destruction that befalls us all from time to time, but it can provide it some much needed balance. If in the midst of my lament I remember that I can grow grit, self knowledge, or have a chance to treat myself more kindly through it, then it is not all destruction. 

In what ways have your struggles made you more resilient?