“Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved, when our God disappoints, or when our body is carrying profound pain in a way that does not seem to go away.
Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty…Despair is a last protection. To disappear through despair, is to seek a temporary but necessary illusion; a place where we hope nothing can ever find us in the same way again. Despair is a necessary and seasonal state of repair…”
David Whyte from Consolations
This is the house of my adult despair, not my childhood, adolescence or young adult depression. This is where I lived as a late mid-life man for a year in semi-seclusion. This is where I separated from my former wife and life as I had known it. This is where I separated decades of depression from an adult despair. It is in this house where I stared out windows and into some distant pastures, past ponds and pine trees and saw the distinction between happiness and joy.
It was here in these small, simple rooms I signed a contract with myself to sit with, stand up to and sleep with the gaps in my life and the chasm between fear and anxiety. I have searched for a secret self that has played underneath the debris of years of false selves and explored the hidden paths that produced a way into and out of this forest that finally brought me to a clearing, a way of thinking differently about depression as opposed to despair, anxiety and fear, hope and faith and finally some realizations and direct experiences regarding adult love that I have never been able to show or feel.
Here are, then, the fruits of this process that words will barely do justice to, if they will do it justice at all. Here in this house I will write what I know deep in the marrow of my bones what I believe today after a lifetime of searching, teaching, learning and more searching.
I’ve come here to this sweet, Alabama home. It is here that my heart hurts every day. It is here that my heart heals every day. It is on this mountain of tears and longing that has been a sanctuary made of silence, pine trees, crickets, cicadas, and pastures. It is here I sit and look at and feel the gifts of grief and the balm of solitude. It is here that I have time to think in ways I’ve never had the courage or desire to think and feel feelings that have been foreign, frozen or simply forgotten in all the rush to become and it is here that I have entered a stage of existence I am calling, “Unbecoming.”
The poet Rumi says:
I said, “What about my eyes?”
God said, “Keep them on the road.”
I said, “What about my passion?”
God said, “Keep it burning.”
I said, “What about my heart?”
God said, “Tell me what you hold inside it.”
I said, “Pain and sorrow.”
He said, “Stay with it. The wound is the place where the light comes in.”
Here is a spark of light about the differences between depression and despair. First depression is a situational, circumstantial, or biochemical imbalance or a combination of all three. Change the situation, the circumstances for the better the depression should diminish, dissipate or disappear. If it is due to biochemical difficulties then change the biochemistry and the depression should lessen. What we know is that only two out of ten people who are diagnosed with depression get little or no relief from pharmacology or psychotherapy or both. What is the other eight or millions really suffering from? Could it be despair that pills, nor PhDs or psychiatrists cannot cure?
The philosopher Sartre says, “Life begins on the other side of despair.” It is in this house of aloneness that I can sit and listen to you, “tell me about your despair, and I’ll tell you about mine,” says the poet Mary Oliver and this is where I have come and “I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned, if you can know despair or see it in others,” to quote David Whyte again.
Despair is rooted in an existential loneliness that almost everyone is afraid to admit for fear they have done something wrong. Despair is a house we eventually have to sit in until we are ready to reassess our deepest self and our interior world. It is in this house where we must unabashedly and without embarrassment or shame strip away all our false selves. Despair is the first stage of freedom and an entrance into a more genuine and real existence. Despair is the bridge that takes us from “here to there.” Despair is that lonesome valley that we all fear but must be walked through. It is the dissonance or the distance between what we thought we would do with this life and what we have actually done, who we thought we’d be and who we became.
Despair is caused by self-betrayal and giving up on our deepest desires; it is the result of the risks not taken, the love not received or spoken. As John Burnside said, “Nothing I know matters more than what never happened.” Despair is the continual frustration and even anger over the feeling that some unspoken or spoken contract or agreement with our self, each other or the divine has been broken or dishonored. It is very different and from depression and must be treated differently.