Despair: Every hour offers a choice

man sitting in despair

Photo: phillip.bitnar/Flickr.

PART 4 OF 5. This article is the fourth part of a five-part series by Carolyn Baker on dealing with the emotions aroused by the collapse of industrial civilization, “What Collapse Feels Like.” Read the entire series here as it becomes available.

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

– Victor Frankl

Similar to our siblings in the animal kingdom, we humans react instinctively to stimuli that we perceive as threatening. The heartbeat speeds up, blood pressure elevates, muscles contract, and we are poised for fight or flight. If we are bombarded with this kind of stimuli repeatedly over time, such recurring stress pummels the nervous system, and we are usually worn down into depression, despair, or both. While our physiology is similar to that of other animals, our nervous systems are more sophisticated, and in spite of the plethora of ways in which we have reprehensibly applied it, we do possess more complex consciousness than other mammals. While other life forms experience despair as unequivocally as humans do, in most cases, humans have the capacity to choose how they will manage despair, and other living beings do not.

But what is despair? Most dictionary definitions offer “the loss of hope” as the ultimate answer to this question.  As I have written many times in many places, “hope” is one of the most seductive and loathsome soporifics of modern culture. In a majority of instances, hope is the last holdout of the human ego which says, “Oh, I don’t have to stare reality fully in the face. I can hold onto ‘hope.’” Clinging to hope is indicative of abdicating agency and is often one of the most perilous bulwarks of the denial infrastructure.

Why we need despair

However, when we consider issues such as the collapse of industrial civilization or Near-Term extinction resulting from catastrophic climate change—our role in it and how we might want to respond it, the first order of business is that we lose all hope. In the context of collapse, hope is personified in things like the notion of technology as our ultimate savior, shale oil as the antidote for peak oil, Bill McKibben as the answer to climate change, Barack Obama as Messiah (with “The Audacity of Hope” in tow), the agenda of Progressive Democratic politics as a feasible alternative to Tea Party politics, and geo-engineering as a panacea for global warming. If we prefer to keep one foot in Disneyland denial, then any or all of these are an option. If, however, we are committed to facing and telling the unmitigated truth of our predicament, then all hope must be eviscerated and as quickly as possible. Hope serves to prevent our descent into the only state of mind that offers any possibility of making sense of our predicament, namely despair.

Notice that I am purposefully reviling the word “hope.” Hope, that waiting-for-Santa-Claus chimera of the subservient subjects of industrial civilization, is, however, very different from “options,” “responses,” or “resilience.” The latter result not from civilization’s refusal to come to terms with a tragic sense of life, namely, that all things have a beginning, middle, and end. Rather authentic options, responses, and resilience embrace the tragic sense of life alongside utter hopelessness.

When we engage in exercising options, considering possible responses, and creating for ourselves and our communities a state of resilience, we are doing something besides allowing despair to kill us on a variety of levels. We clearly understand that longevity is not the ultimate objective. Our bodies are guaranteed to die, but choosing to develop resilience is choosing not to die just yet. And why would we want to do that? Because despite how it feels, despite the suffocating, cloying blackness of despair, some part of us knows that there is some possibility of meaning in it. In that regard, we are not alone; we stand alongside millions of other human beings throughout history who have written, spoken, composed songs, and made all manner of art—and meaning, in the face of their despair.

So if you want to insist that life is meaningless, which by the way even Nietzsche did not believe, you probably should stop reading right here. If you want me to convince you that life isn’t meaningless, well, I can’t do that, nor do I want to. It’s really none of my business, but if you have some inkling that it’s possible to find/make meaning in the throes of despair and that doing so matters in any way, you may want to continue reading.

My ultimate heroes and she-roes are the men and women who survived the holocaust and were able to write about their experiences afterward. One of those is Victor Frankl who gave us a treasure-trove of insight and inspiration as a result of his hellish ordeal. For Frankl it was all about discovering the rich and wrenching textures of his inner life. In fact, he considered “the intensification of inner life” to be one of the principal gifts in the nightmare he endured.

All human beings are victimized at some time or countless times in their lives. Repeated victimization carries with it not only the emotional pain of the victimizing experience but conditions the nervous system and psyche to expect and become tragically familiar, even comfortable with, being victimized. Over time, people can develop a victim consciousness in which they may become incapable of discerning their personal adult responsibility, that is to say, “one’s part” in a particular situation. Or conversely, one can become so enculturated in victimhood that one begins to despise humanity in general and one’s own humanity in particular.

Despair and victim consciousness often travel together, and it takes a great deal of self-love and commitment to one’s own inherent value to avoid the pitfalls of self-loathing and humanity-hating vitriol. If one intends to weather the storms of planetary demise, this perspective will not serve. Nor will the commitment to meaninglessness as one’s true north. Says Frankl, reflecting on his Auschwitz experience, “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”

What will serve (which is not synonymous with staying alive) is a commitment to finding/making meaning in one’s predicament.

Victor Frankl repeatedly emphasized our capacity to choose how we want to meet suffering. Specifically, he wrote:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Frankl recognized suffering as an “essential piece not only of existence but of the meaningful life.” If there is meaning in life at all, he wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

As you know, dear reader, industrial civilization does not prepare us for adopting this perspective. It fosters Victim-Tyrant relationships and constantly sends us beautifully engraved invitations to claim one or both roles, and sometimes we find ourselves alternating roles from moment to moment. But real suffering—the kind produced in holocausts, the collapse of empires, and extinction events compels the people weathering those to choose whether or not they will find meaning in their suffering or not.

Or as Frankl writes: “Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.” The “something” that we have a chance of achieving is to be found in whatever “something” we choose to live for. Frankl tells us that in the camp, the people who were the most resilient were those who found some very small thing to live for each day. And yes, it was our friend Nietzsche who said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

But in fact, according to Frankl, the years in Auschwitz taught him something more fundamental than the meaning of life:

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

As I sit with the possibility of Near-Term Extinction (NTE) and Frankl’s words, I am driven to fall on my knees and make a conscious, heartfelt amends to the earth community—not once but many times. I prefer this practice to berating and beating up myself and my fellow earthlings for our multitude of sins against Gaia. If this feels like an absurdly useless activity to you, ask yourself if generalized contempt for the human race is any more useful.

Yes, our species has collectively participated in murdering the planet, but that is not all of who we are. According to Frankl, “Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.” Indeed there is a Goldman Sachs CEO and a greedy fracker in all of us. Until we accept that, we are still ingesting “hopium” into our veins. There is also within us a Beethoven, a Van Gogh, a Joan of Arc, and a Helen Keller.

To embrace unbridled nihilism or eschew those who speak of creating joy, beauty, humor, and moments of caring community is to enlist in the armies of the high priests of religious fundamentalism who flagellate themselves with whips of caustic cynicism and grandiose self-censure. If you think I’m talking about “feeling good” or “being happy,” you’re absolutely not hearing me. None of this is about being happy in hell, but it is all about working to keep one’s heart open in hell.

Anyone committed to nihilism and reveling in cynicism has not done the work explained in the last segment of this series of articles on “What Collapse Feels Like,” entitled “All Roads Lead To Grief.” In fact, grief work is one of many tools for living with and through our despair.

While none of us welcomes despair and most of us seek to dispel it as quickly as possible, let us learn from people like Frankl and his death camp peers. I believe that on the one hand, we need to open to being taught by our despair and at the same time, we must alleviate it by taking action. Edward Abbey declared that action is an antidote to despair. Indeed, let us take action, but at the same time understand that the horrific experiences of Frankl and others are sublime “teachers” bearing “lesson plans” for exquisitely facilitating our wholeness and spiritual evolution.

Are we willing to be taught by our despair? Taught what exactly? From Frankl’s perspective, not so much what the meaning of one’s life is, but who is asking the question. “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Two things sustained Frankl and tens of thousands of others in death camps: Love and humor. Love expands far beyond the physical being of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in the inner self of the other, whether or not that person is actually present, or even if that person is not alive at all.

Frankl’s love for his wife gave him an invaluable sense of meaning:

We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.

Most people reading this article are not living with hardship even remotely approaching the hell of Auschwitz which Frankl describes. Yet we live daily in the emotional and spiritual hell of empire and the concentration camp of Near-Term Extinction where, as Guy McPherson writes, “Only Love Remains”:

The privilege to be here, on this life-giving planet at this astonishing time in human history, is sufficient to inspire awe in the most uncaring of individuals. At this late juncture in the age of industry, at the dawn of our day on Earth, we still have love: love for each other, love for our children and grandchildren, love for nature. One could argue it is all we have left.

Frankl speaks of humor as “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation” because it allows us to rise above any situation if only for a few seconds.

Indeed it is possible, according to Frankl, to practice the art of living in a concentration camp even though suffering is omnipresent. In his poem, “Peace Of The Wild Things,” Wendell Berry famously reminds us of the most profound antidote to despair, intimate connection with nature:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

What does it mean to “come into the presence” of these members of the earth community? I believe that it means developing an intimate relationship with them by allowing ourselves to feel them, listen to them, witness them, smell, taste, and touch them. I also believe, as Berry assures us in the last line of the poem, that in moments when we experience this level of intimacy with these beings, it is impossible to be engulfed in despair

Die before you die

An adage attributed to Mohammed and also to the mystical poet, Rumi, “die before you die,” is an essential perspective for the human species that is most likely living in a hospice situation at this moment as we confront catastrophic climate change and the horrifying repercussions of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. All resistance to facing the deepest truths of our predicament results from an unwillingness to grapple with our own mortality. Modern humanity refuses to confront the likelihood of Near-Term Extinction (NTE) produced by human-produced climate change. More recently, humanity cannot bear to own the frightening realities of Fukushima and what that tragedy ultimately means for the termination of life on this planet.

Nearly all non-industrial cultures in the world, and many industrial ones, are willing to deal with death. Overwhelmingly, this culture is not. Yet I notice that when people are able to do so, their capacity for confronting the larger issues of our predicament is expanded. In my work with groups and individuals, I sometimes invite people to participate in a “die before you die” exercise in which I slowly and carefully accompany them through the fantasy of their own death. The experience is profound on many levels, and without exception, I have never witnessed a person who after the exercise was not more capable of addressing the myriad catastrophes confronting the earth community. In fact, what people essentially report is that after they have consciously pondered their own demise, they feel freed up to mindfully deal with what is. At the conclusion of a “die before you die” experience, one man said, “I’ve deeply confronted what my own death might be like, and after that, I can talk about anything because in full awakeness I have confronted the worst that can happen.”

Many Buddhist monastic communities practice contemplation of dead or decaying bodies. The purpose of the practice is to instill a profound consciousness of one’s own mortality and allow that awareness to inform how we live our lives. Absent a deep awareness of death, we are less likely to make sense of our lives, nor are we likely to offer love and service to other beings. Buddha suggested that we think of death with every breath and that contemplating a dead body teaches us that when we look at another person, we are seeing only externals and that the essential person is eternal and beneath the outward appearance.

The principal task of anyone residing in hospice is preparation for death, and paradoxically, that may include living more fully, mindfully, and generously than one has ever lived before. It often means savoring every human connection and every physical sensation with more awareness and appreciation than one has ever experienced in one’s life. Living in hospice means that because we are so attuned to where we’re headed, so poignantly conscious of our ultimate fate, we cherish every experience on a cellular level and take nothing for granted. Often in hospice, people discover the full spectrum of their aliveness for the first time.

Few human beings understand how deeply the fear of death runs in us. On the one hand, we live in a culture that refuses to deal with death, but at the same time, for the human ego, anything that does not allow it to remain in control of life, directly or indirectly represents the threat of death. The losses of our lives, from the most frivolous to the most momentous stir in us a fear of death because with each one, the ego diminishes a bit. Thus, in order to actually discuss and consciously prepare for one’s own literal death, the ego is required to surrender more territory than it prefers. For this reason, spiritual practices that teach us how to surrender or temper the ego in deference to the deeper or sacred self are profoundly useful in emboldening us to confront our mortality.

In addition, allowing ourselves to balance our left-brain tendencies with what our hearts and emotions naturally seek in times of both ego and literal death is crucial. Now is the time for reading and writing poetry, speaking it to another person, composing and sharing music, creating works of art, dancing, drumming, cooking a nourishing meal for a friend, and engaging in all manner of ritual, whether spiritually-based or rituals of our daily routine that we savor with unprecedented gratitude.

Thus, as we confront catastrophic climate change and planetary game-changers such as the ever-widening implications of the Fukushima disaster, it is increasingly likely that humanity is already inhabiting hospice. As tempting as it may be to leap into the left brain and begin arguing that we are not inhabiting hospice and that the notion is absurd, it may actually be more useful to notice the potential benefits of imagining such a scenario.

While hospice may be a place of profound grief and mourning of losses and missed opportunities, it may also be the context for plumbing the depths of one’s own soul as well as discovering for the first time one’s full capacity for generosity, giving, and service to others. Hospice patients often report an enhanced quality of relationships, an unprecedented savoring of even the most mundane experiences, a previously-unimagined depth of love, the capacity to appreciate humor in the face of their demise, and an aura of gratitude unlike any they have ever known.  In other words, hospice may be, not unlike Frankl’s description of his time in Auschwitz, a convergence of both heaven and hell in the same moment—an energy field in which abject suffering and ineffable joy co-exist and illuminate the innermost regions of our humanity. Perhaps the poet Rumi asked the most compelling question: “What have I ever lost by dying?”

– Carolyn Baker, Transition Voice

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Comments

  1. James R. Martin says

    Every day I read and study–and engage in informed conversation–about the climate crisis…, and lately about Fukushima. I spend hours at it each day. Most of my day is spent this way, most days.

    I’ve concluded a few things.

    (a) Our situation is dire.

    Dire is defined in this way by Merriam-Webster.:

    : very bad : causing great fear or worry

    : warning of disaster : showing a very bad future

    : requiring immediate action : very urgent

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dire

    (b) We are living out the consequences of self-fulfilling prophesy.

    I’ll stop the lettered list with these two. I can go on to c, d, e and f… but that’d be too long a post. So let me talk about self-fulfilling prophesy.

    Far too many informed and educated people have looked at the climate crisis, Fukushima, etc., and concluded that the world is caught up in a Juggernaut situation in which, essentially, nothing can be done to avert utter and total catastrophic destruction of the world. So they choose to do nothing. And that creates the self-fulfilling prophesy. And in my experience this has been going on for far longer than these most recent years when things have come to look even more dire.

    The truth is that there is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether current greenhouse gas concentratoins must inevitably result in worst case runaway climate change leading to the demise of most Earth species (as Guy McPherson says). And the truth is that it’s NOT impossible that humanity could awaken from its slumber and precipitously decrease greenhouse gas emissions. And the truth is that many things could be done to repair Earth’s natural carbon sequestration capacity. And there’s some chance that Fukushima could be handled in such a way as to avert worst case scenarios.

    Should we despair of some things? Of course! We should despair of the possibilty that conventional politics can save the day. It won’t. It can’t. It’s too much influenced or controlled by monied interests of a sort which behaves sociopathically — whether the persons or the institutions. So there is work to be done to create real democracy in place of the faux version. Grassroots, people’s democracy …, of the kind David Greaber speaks in his book, The Democracy Project. We should despair of the hope that foxes can be trained to look after the chickens. We should despair of the notion that the master’s tools can be used to dismantle the master’s house.

    But this is not a time for generalized despair. It’s a time for a very honest look at ourselves, how we are living, and what options we might have which would enable us not to feed the Juggernaut anymore. And one of the main foodstuffs of our Juggernaut is despair itself, and the self-fulfilling prophesy it entails.

    Yes, yes. The situation is dire. Which is precisely why we cannot afford generalized despair.

  2. Debra Cronenwett says

    I ‘hope’ that readers note your phrase ‘in the context of collapse’ before you imply that the Progressive Democratic agenda is not a feasible alternative to Tea Party politics, because in the context of human rights, it is far superior. We may only have 10 years left, or 50, but each of us should have the same right as any other to control our own bodies and personal relationships during that time. I would hate to think that before humans go extinct, any of us would have to live in a world like the one described in ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood. Yet, the Tea Party has us on track for something very much like it. I don’t expect the Democrats to rescue us from climate chaos or nuclear disaster, but I will continue to vote for them every chance I get, and fight the Tea Party at every opportunity.

  3. says

    Deborah.. Obviously a left agenda is preferable to one from the right, but history weighs in on the likelihood of fascism winning out. That is the trajectory of almost all empires as they collapse. Right now, public opinion is against the Tea Party, but as collapse intensifies, don’t be surprised if the masses wildly embrace them if they offer the “control” that will mitigate chaos and total breakdown. As for me, I will vote for Democrats or Green Party candidates locally, but I will never vote for a so-called President as long as I live. The only President this nation will ever have is the corporatocracy.

    • Debra Cronenwett says

      I agree that we live in a corporatocracy, and voting for President is somewhat futile in regard to financial policies. However, we have the privilege of living in a time and place in which women and minorities have the right to vote and control their own bodies, at least to a greater extent than was true in the past. People died to secure these rights. Therefore, I think it is irresponsible to not vote against federal candidates who spend all their waking hours devising ways to take these rights away. There may well come a time when we don’t have that privilege anymore, but I, for one, will not go down without a fight.

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