Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.
Elie Weisel, Holocaust survivor
What is Despair?
It isn’t often that you hear someone say, “I am in despair!” A friend is more likely to admit depression than despair. Depression is a very real condition and clinical depression can be debilitating. Despair, however, is different than depression.
One of the main differences is that, while people with depression often have difficulty being motivated to take part in daily activities, those in despair can usually go about day to day tasks. Outwardly, in fact, they function normally, but inwardly they have lost all hope that their life will ever improve. In addition, they have no joy, no passion and usually anxiety and desperation accompany them daily.
According to the American Psychological Association, despair is one of the most negative and destructive of human affects, due to the lack of hopefulness. Furthermore, clinical despair leads to depression.
Clinical despair can be conceptualized as a profound and existential hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness and pessimism about life and the future. Despair is a deep discouragement and loss of faith about one’s ability to find meaning, fulfillment, and happiness, to create a satisfactory future for oneself.
Memory and Despair
Many of us have painful, even traumatic memories from our past. Some may have taken place in the not-so-distant past and the pain is still fresh. Moreover, current situations or events may ignite triggers for you, taking you immediately back there, emotionally or even physically. Unfortunately, if this occurs repeatedly, it may all serve to create a sense of despair in your heart.
Famed psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, published Man’s Search for Meaning, two years after after being freed from Auschwitz. He had begun the book before his arrest, but the Nazis had destroyed the manuscript. Frankl based his school of therapy, (called Logotherapy,) on the idea that man could survive most anything if he had meaning in his life. After observing other prisoners in the camps, he saw that his theory was true.
The prisoners who had meaning, and something to live for, fared better even in the horrific conditions of the concentration camps.
At times, we find ourselves in situations, whether emotionally, mentally or physically, when we begin to believe that things will never change for us. The pain will always be quaking through your body. The fog of depression will never lift. Your abusive husband will forever hurt you.
Our thoughts become black and white, either/or, never/always.
And for what reason does this suffering continue? This is the point when hopelessness seeps in. Despair follows closely behind.
But…despair doesn’t have to be the last word.
Practical Steps for Despair
There are several ways to deal with despair, ways we can help ourselves. First, as Sean Grover, LCSW said in an article for Psychology Today, take your despair for a walk each day. The fresh air and vitamin D will not only be good for you, but studies have proven that being outside is beneficial for our mental health.
Secondly, don’t isolate, despite the temptation to do so. Isolation feeds despair. Seek out fellowship with a friend or two. Our burdens feel lighter when we are with a friend.
Third, give voice to your pain. I have found that painful things seem much bigger when I hold them inside. Very often, when I tell it to someone, or even write it out on paper, what caused the despair doesn’t feel so overwhelming.
Fourth, this aligns with three – don’t pretend it isn’t there. Denying or masquerading your despair delays your healing. Be honest with yourself and your loved ones about what you are experiencing.
Fifth, avoid people who want to minimize your pain with super-syrupy or super-spiritual quips. For example: “Oh, you’re just having a bad day. You’ll be just fine!” A long time ago I knew a man who loved to tell people he was too blessed to be depressed. UGH. Those words successfully shut the door for anyone to ever share genuine pain with him.
Disciples and Despair
If you look for folks in the Bible who dealt with despair, it might surprise you to discover that the apostle Paul was one of them. I continually appreciate his honesty about the perilous situations in which he found himself at times.
8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our [a]trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead,
2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NKJV
Have you ever felt that way – burdened beyond measure? So overwhelmed with fear and care that you had no strength left? And you wondered if you would even live?…Paul and those with him did.
Furthermore, that was not the only time. There were numerous times Paul and the disciples were persecuted for their faith in Jesus, but they were not driven to despair.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
2 Corinthians 4:7-10, ESV
Paul serves as a great model for us today.
Hope – The Cure for Despair
I believe Viktor Frankl was right about man searching for meaning and that meaning gives us purpose in life. I also believe finding that meaning helps us overcome hardships and trials in life. However, like Paul, I believe our only hope and purpose is given to us through Jesus Christ.
From the end of the earth I will cry to You,
When my heart is overwhelmed;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
Psalm 61:2. NKJV
David knew what it was to be overwhelmed by life’s circumstances. Many times he had to flee from enemies, once from his own son. He consistently placed his hope in God.
Psalm 27, especially verses 13-14, has been my companion through many years. These words offer me comfort and hope. Verses 13-14 describe exactly my feelings when I feel discouraged.
13 I would have lost heart, unless I had believed
That I would see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.
14 Wait on the Lord;
Be of good courage,
And He shall strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, on the Lord!
Be of good courage, my sisters. We have a hope much greater than despair.
13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13, NKJV