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On Grief and Despair

07/20/2012

Quick thought – as I was driving home today, I was thinking about the awful shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and considering how the sad things in my life cannot even begin to compare to what those families must be going through.  As I was considering the ways that we as human beings react when such events occur, I was struck by the idea that grief and despair are two related yet essentially discrete forms of emotional fallout.

Grief is our natural reaction – it is visceral, a creation of sheer emotion.  It can be felt physically, as it seems that our hearts ache, our breathing tightens, and we spend sleepless nights in tearful anxiety.  In its physical immediacy and reactionary qualities, grief also has temporal dimensions.  Cultures since our cave-dwelling days have had a ritualized “time to mourn,” as the famous saying in Ecclesiastes tells us.  The most awful parts of its toll on our bodies fade naturally (even slowly), or may pass entirely given enough time.

Despair, on the other hand, is, at some level, the product of a reasoned discourse.  Despair seeks rescue for the object of grief, but inevitably finds it hopeless.  It gathers context from the event and infers, rationally or not, that the preceding grief-causing consequences were inevitable, thus holding the despairing person powerless against them.  There are certainly situations where despair is not only understandable, but in a factual sense, accurate – for the victims of random, senseless violence like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado,  it would be cruel to admonish them for despairing in a situation truly beyond their control.

Yet, I feel that in many situations in which our grief turns to despair, our assumption of helplessness creates an insidious conceit.  For despair of a certain common kind it seems to me not only holds us powerless against the forces of ill will in our lives, but simultaneously convinces us that, given the right circumstances, we alone are, with enough time and forethought, capable of “making it right”, of correcting wrongs and preventing misfortune.

In other words, despair destroys our sense of individual agency by forcing us to submit to its matched pair of absolute judgments.  In truth, it seems to me that situations that cause us grief often involve subtler and complicated missteps that involve not only us personally, but those around us as well, in an alchemy of circumstantial misunderstandings and failures that are often difficult to understand.

Thus, the archetypal inducement, “Do not despair!” also becomes an admonition.  When we despair, we are often not only giving up hope and forsaking our own power as individuals, but we also, in some ways, may be privileging our own power to change the world around us in a way that treads dangerously close to hubris.  For situations that are not truly hopeless or randomly circumstantial, it is thus doubly important that we do not despair. 

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