I wrote this many years ago, in response to a question from a dear friend of mine.
The question was asked after an evening spent drinking red wine to the point
that we’d got a bit morose. As you do.
I’ve just been lying back in a nice hot bath having a good soak and taking a break from writing my book, and I suddenly started thinking about something you asked me a couple of weeks ago in the wine bar. You asked me what I thought despair was. I wasn’t being flippant at the time when I said that I thought it was a feeling. However, I think I could have been more specific. I believe it to be an old feeling. It’s old in a historical sense in that all human beings throughout history have suffered it both individually and collectively at some point, but I also believe it to be an old feeling for each person in present time. That is, it has its roots firmly in the individual past of each person.
As far back as we care to remember ie, infancy or maybe even before that, there was a time when we were small, naked, vulnerable and dependent to a large extent on bigger creatures. These creatures were similar to ourselves but not quite as bright! We had a particular set of needs that had to be met. Very simple and basic needs to us, and we had a perfectly natural sense that they would be met by the bigger creatures who were similar to ourselves.
However, for some reason that we didn’t understand, the bigger creatures (who weren’t very bright remember) didn’t respond to our needs in the right ways. This became very frustrating for us, so we protested in the only way we could. Since, at that time, we didn’t know the language these bigger creatures were using we did the next best thing, we SCREAMED!!!!!!! And boy were we good at that!
Now unfortunately, because these creatures weren’t very bright, they very often didn’t understand what we needed at the time. Mostly they made some pretty accurate guesses, but they got it wrong just often enough for us to begin to feel that nothing was going to happen. We may, even as we screamed, have looked into the faces of these bigger creatures who weren’t very bright, and seen in their eyes and expressions the echoes of their own despair that they learned in their own infancy in similar ways. This must have been a very frightening experience if we think about it, because if we couldn’t help ourselves and these big creatures we were dependent on looked stumped too, then we probably felt that there wasn’t much down for us.
My own view (currently) is that despair is powerlessness by another name. We even learn, when we feel despairing or powerless, to look for evidence that will confirm this as the reality. And we are provided with plenty of information, via TV, Radio, Newspapers etc, to keep this vicious circle (or should I say downward spiral!) going.
Looked at in a social context, despair could be viewed as a pretty neat means of social control. If you can get people to the point of telling themselves over and over again that everything is hopeless and that there is nothing they can do to change anything, then you can do pretty much what you like with society. Nobody is going to stand in your way if they are convincing themselves that it’s useless to try. And what better time to start planting that misinformation in people’s minds than in infancy when they are at their most vulnerable.
I realise this makes it sound like a deliberate and rather cynical process, and I don’t mean to paint that sort of picture. It may be like this for some people, but for most of us I believe it to be more down to a sort of emotional contagion passed on from generation to generation.
On a good day I can probably think of a dozen or more solutions to one particular problem, and feel motivated to choose the one I consider to be the best option and act upon it. Whereas the day before, in my despair, I couldn’t even think, let alone act.
To sum up, and this is a personal viewpoint, despair is an old feeling triggered by current events in an individuals life, that are just similar enough to the initial event that laid down the feeling that we call despair. It’s an echo from the past that actually has very little to do with the current event other than the event has the right smell or taste or feel about it. Its effect is to dis-able and dis-empower the individual.
Put simply (or simplistically!) it’s a feeling that blocks thinking and inhibits action.
A wonderful thing, a hot bath!