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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