I've noticed a certain common ingredient in despair; too much certainty, the presumption of knowledge. We usually define despair as the opposite of hope, but there is also that kind of arrogance in it. It seems that many (though far from all) people who suffer despair assume they know how everything is, or how everything will turn out. True hope, on the contrary, may not know in particular what it hopes for. The truly hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves. It is a kind of trust and love...and courage...and fidelity...that tolerates the anxiety of not knowing.
This is why philosophers have always seen hope as a core virtue. Modern psychological research shows this too. You need hope if you are to be resilient. Such hope does not have to presume knowledge, it simply needs to know how to tolerate and wait, to aim at the as-yet undefined good up ahead.
Let me share a story which is cruel, but which teaches an important lesson. In the 1950s an experiment was conducted on rats. They were dropped into buckets of water and were timed, to see how long they could swim before drowning. It was observed that the rats swam for an average of fifteen minutes before giving up and drowning. Then, on a mere hunch, the experimenter tried something different. Just as a rat was giving up, he took it out of the water, dries it, gave it a short rest, and then put it back in. The result surprised him so much that he replicated the experiment with many other rats and observed the same outcome. The outcome in each case was tha the rats who experienced this break went on to swim, without further rest, for an average of sixty hours before drowning. Yes, from fifteen minutes to sixty hours: two hundred and forty times greater resilience.
What was going on? Well, the researchers surmised that by lifting the rats out that one time, they had been trained to have what we would call hope. And the consequence of that hope was two hundred and forty times greater endurance.
Hope is a mighty powerful thing in our lives. Despair kills us. Hope practically performs miracles.
Like most people I have suffered dark moments in my life, and I once instinctively formulated a question which has at moments guided me. I have shared it with others, for example suicidal clients, and have witnessed it have the same effect on some other people. This is a question to ask yourself whenever you lose your sense of meaning and purpose and are tempted to despair:
Who needs you up ahead?
Let me unpack this question, starting with the opening words of a poem by David Malouf:
Through all those years keeping the present
open to the light of just this moment:
that was the path we found, you might call it
a promise, that starting out among blazed trunks
the track would not lead nowhere, that being set
down here among wild lemons, our bodies were
expected at an occasion up ahead
that would not take place without us.
You are expected at an occasion up ahead that will not take place without you. Others are waiting there, and they need you. So I ask again, who needs you up ahead?
You may have an answer to this: your partner, your children, your wider family or friends or students or clients.... Or maybe you don’t have an answer. In either case you are in walking toward a future which is currently invisible, a track that will not lead nowhere. This is a time to reach down and find that deeper hope. You don’t know everything. You may not know who needs you up ahead or what it is they will need or just how important that will be to you. But they are there, and are no less important just because you are currently ignorant. When the time comes and they are standing before you, will be have become the person they need? To do so you will need. in the meantime, to have endured patiently, building strength through this virtue of waiting.
When my parents divorced my mother took the house and my father the bush property, where he sat through his pain in a lonely caravan in the southern Tasmanian winter. Years later my father told me of how he handed his guns over to his brother, to keep himself safe. No doubt this reflected his fidelity to those whom he loved there and then - not least my brother and I - but I have seen in many suicidal clients how the present is psychologically not enough. I am certain that it was also my father's sense of, his fidelity to, his sons in the future that strengthened that resolve. As I sat in there in the family home he had built, now lorded over by his abusive replacement, I had no idea of this, of how my life would have been coloured very differently he not handed over that gun. From a purely selfish view it makes me shudder to think, knowing what I now know from my work. I, his son, would have been robbed of things I very much needed in the future. Things I needed from him in the months, years, and decades beyond.
What is the world calling for from you? Perhaps you don’t now yet, but you are suffering. Okay, so this is a time of training and preparation. If you endure, you will build the qualities needed from you when the answer becomes clear. Anybody who has suffered greatly in their life and endured knows this. They can give things afterwards, when they have re-found their strength, which they were incapable of giving before. Stop being so short-sighted as though the present moment is the only moment in life. Stop being so arrogant as to imagine you know it all, that you know who and what awaits you in the future. Stop deciding everything and learn to wait and listen.