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Despair: The Ultimate Taboo

Written by Zoe Weil | 2 Comments | Published on September 7, 2009 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2009/09/07/despair-the-ultimate-taboo/

One of the readers of my Human Overpopulation: The Taboo Topic post sent me an email which launched an interesting exchange about despair. He wondered whether despair was the ultimate taboo topic, especially for activists.

In my years as an activist there has been a profound shift among those who work for change. Instead of indulging our rage against, and even hatred towards, those who exploit, oppress, and destroy, many of us make a spiritual practice of our changemaking efforts, with Gandhian non-violence, Mother Teresa love, and Dalai Lama compassion as guides. We may be angry, but we channel that anger toward action that is positive, healthy, and productive. We may seethe inside, but we practice compassion even toward others who are cruel, until we truly feel the kindness we know it is best to express.

But then there is despair. We work for change, knowing through our own experience that Joan Baez was right, at least much of the time, when she said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” But sometimes, despite our action, we still despair.

But we dare not admit it.

If we admitted that we thought it was hopeless to work tirelessly for change, how would we inspire others to join our efforts? Why would they? If we even admitted it to ourselves, we, too, might stop trying to heal this tattered world. Where would that leave us? With despair and apathy – a soul-destroying combination.

But I believe it’s time to break the despair taboo and see what else might happen when we acknowledge our hopelessness.

I’ll go first.

I sometimes, even often, feel despair.

And then I keep on working. And the reason I do so is because I still have to live with myself, and giving up on my commitment to make a difference and play a role in trying to solve our problems would leave my life bereft of meaning — perhaps even of the capacity for real joy. I suspect I wouldn’t try so hard to be good. And maybe that means I would cause greater harm and suffering, creating a tragic negative feedback loop.

So while I admit to sometimes feeling despair, I refuse to indulge it, because doing so serves nothing and no one. And I imagine that if I did indulge my despair, it could balloon into unremitting depression and hopelessness. If instead I carry on, doing the work I am compelled to do, whether or not it amounts to anything of ultimate value, I keep despair at bay. And I don’t give up on all those who are also striving to make a difference and all those whom our combined efforts do, in fact, affect positively.

Like rage and hatred, despair is a feeling we need to channel, not feed. So if you feel despair, admit it. Express it with those you trust. Then keep on working for a better world despite it.

~ Zoe

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About Zoe Weil

Zoe is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education She's the author of several books, including Most Good, Least Harm; Above All, Be Kind; and The Power and Promise of Humane Education. See her TEDx talk, "The World Becomes What You Teach": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5HEV96dIuY

Contact Zoe View all articles by Zoe Weil

2 Comments

Elizabeth says:

Hi Zoe, What a great post about an often neglected topic. Here’s a parody to hopefully help cheer you up during such times of despair. :) Vegan greetings from downunder,ElizabethActivist Burnout (to the tune of ‘Beauty School Dropout’)Activist burnout, no celebration day for you,Activist burnout, ain’t got the heart to see it through.You’ve done too much, You’re out of touch, You don’t want to go on;All of the fire and passion you used to feel are gone.Activist burnout, believe me, I’ve been where you are,Activist burnout, feels like you always reach too far,Like it’s just too hard To stay on guardAgainst all cruelty,Well, it’s time you took some sage advice from me.Activist burnout, feels like you’re stretched out to the max,Activist burnout, you need to learn how to relax!You need some timeTo clear your mindAnd gain some clarity,Or you’ll ‘suffer a nervous breakdown’ needlessly.Activist burnout, why do you make yourself feel bad?Activist burnout, there’s just no point in staying sad.Don’t make your goal To change the wholeWide world in just one day – Set yourself smaller steps along the way!Activist burnout, can’t see the forest for the trees,Activist burnout, oh won’t you pay attention, please!Yes most of all Please hear my call – To yourself be kind!Try to maintain a positive frame of mind.Activist burnout, you’ve got to look after your health;Activist burnout, both your mental and physical self!Take time each dayFor rest and play – And joy and laughter, too!That’s the secret to a happier point of view.In for the long haul, that’s what you’ve got to choose to be;In for the long haul, not just a month, or two, or three!If what I’ve said Stays in your headAs you go along from here,You’ll remain an activist for many a year! (from The VOCAL Project: a Vision Of Compassion for All Life – pp37-38 – (c)2004.)

Zoe Weil says:

Thanks for this great parody song!