Despair is an aching, a longing. It is the hopeless longing of being thirsty in a desert. It is a pain that doubles back upon itself. A subtle nausea in the stomach or aching in the bones. Like restless leg syndrome. It is at the cellular level. It insists itself. And we wish it away, but can’t escape it. Like how you can’t escape your body in a hangover. But what is most discouraging about it is that it is often undetectable with the sober eye. One cannot isolate its source because he does not even know he walks through the valley of despair. A despaired soul is in denial- that is despair’s defining characteristic. Especially when society tells him that the jewels he adorns himself with should make him happy. His subconscious wonders, “I have gorged myself on everything I am told I should want, and yet, why do I still feel empty?”
I would see these men waltz into the restaurant with a particular air of entitlement. And it was the fresh-pressedness of their custom-made suits and the jewel-studded rings on their sausagey fingers that gave them away. From the condescension with which they ordered from the Polynesian waitress, I knew they were in despair. And from then on I recognized the silk ties and the polished shoes, the Rolls-Royce’s, the heated driveways, and the property gates as emblems of despair. He erects an empire within which he can hide from nature- where he can try to escape it and deny its oppressive existence. My friend asked me if in going to South America I was fleeing from something. “Quite the opposite! Think about it… I am going down there with nothing but myself. I am facing nature head-on. If there is anything that I don’t like about myself, anything about myself that I fear, I have nothing to hide behind.
And indeed mansions estrange their owners from nature. From the nature that bluntly and instantaneously reflects our actions back onto ourselves. As the arena of Karma, nature has no shock absorbers; no storage compartments for the repercussions of our actions that we are not prepared to bear. It does not transform the input of our actions into a tamed-down or distorted output to lessen the blow. It has no regard for our delicate sensibility. It is simply a backboard, like the back wall of a cave that echoes what we send its way. Barricaded behind layers of drywall and drapes, artificially conditioned air, winding passageways, appliances, and a liquor-induced languidness we distract and muddle our minds. Suddenly the causality of our actions is deflected and recast by all of these things… Cause-and-effect become lost on us. This bounty of material possessions estranges us from understanding the formula of nature. We lose our perception for karma. Behind gaudy robes, professional titles, and glasses of scotch we elongate the rebound rate between action and reverberation- trying futily to escape it altogether.
When the song on the i-pod ends, some are flooded with a sense of dread. When the night infiltrates through the closed windows like a transcendent serpent, and there is nothing to distract the passenger… When the meal is over between two people or the fridge is out of beer, panic arrests those who do not know themselves, or who do not have confidence in the benevolence of nature. Indeed I have known this type of fear: ransacking cabinets to find the narcotics in the nighttime. Now every time I see how big someone’s house is, all I can think about is how much despair they have. The bigger the house, the bigger the despair. (Although I think there is a line marking biological needs. But once those needs are met, the farther one treads above the line, the more despair he exhibits. The farther one falls below that line, the more despair he has also, but a different kind of despair. I will talk about this in a later post). Think about it… if you were completely at peace with yourself, you would need nothing more than the basics. But every article of luxury seems to be compensating for some discontent. It is the modestly-dressed, and modestly-living that I trust the most, that I believe the most, that I admire the most, and presume to be the most stable.
Let us think of this line (that demarks biological needs) as reality. The more one accumulates extraneous material luxuries or exploits things like his job title, marital status, etc to derive a sense of entitlement, the further he diverges from this line and estranges himself from reality. I’d like to use an example and another image to further illustrate this phenomenon. Let’s say I feel a buzz because some condition of my life is going favorably (I have an amazing boyfriend, for example) and then I lose him (he breaks up with me), I can respond in one of two ways. Life has its ups and downs. Think of a mountainous skyline with its peaks and valleys. As I traverse the ridge, I can either fall with its natural decline, thus staying grounded. Or, I can try to sustain that “high” by building a structure in the valley that is flush with the peak so that I can walk straight across: thus staying “high” yet being ungrounded so that when the artificiality of that structure betrays itself, I will have far to fall back to Earth… Ouch! In terms of our example, I can either listen to the reasons my boyfriend dumped me, reexamine myself and identify what I need to change, and use this as grounds to improve. Or I can make my ex out to be crazy, tell all my friends he doesn’t know what he’s missing, and spend my life hating and blaming him. But if I take the latter course of action, I will be living in resistance of the truth and will opt out of an opportunity for intense growth. If and when it is revealed to me that I am in fact a degenerate, the fall from my pride will be much harder to bear than if I had been honest with myself all along. This is I guess the crux of my argument about despair– that it arises from a disparity between what one projects to the outside world and to oneself, and the reality of one’s internal condition.
From where does despair derive? I believe it derives from fear. Fear of not surviving in this cut-throat world. It derives from believing there is a fixed amount of resources to go around- and not enough for everyone. Like a game of musical chairs where there are less chairs than people, and SOMEONE is going to get cut, and it better not be me! This fear arises from a scarcity mindset where if I have something, it leaves less for you, whether that be physical resources, eligible potential spouses, or professional success. We try desperately to hoard all of these bounties for ourselves, and fear that if we share them, our allies will turn on us and ransack them all, leaving us to rot away. We will sink like a Titanic lifeboat into the ocean that let on too many passengers.
Despair has to do with an unattainable public standard of perfection- a perfection so sterile and devoid of raw human emotion that my organs cringe to think of it. Questions that rattle the solid structure of heteronormative reality- like about whether sexuality is fluid, or gender is a construct, or race is arbitrary or or god exists are too taboo for polite conversation and are in fact completely off the table. Dare we speak of death or of grave loss or these tragedies happening all around us? But given that these questions revolve around inside each of us, we end up repressing them and casting a publicly acceptable image completely at odds with our insides. Ever seen Revolutionary Road? We project picture-perfect marriages even as they are crumbling from within. We are afraid others won’t understand us. We hardly even confide in neighbors or friends our perceived “failures,” shortcomings, or “perverse” desires.
I have a friend who I knew for the longest time as hyper-reactive, vulgar, and just plain angry. It wasn’t until she admitted to herself that she was gay and came out that all the pressure deflated from within her, and she transformed into the peaceful, perceptive, and inspired person that always awaited her. This coming-out phenomenon is all-too-familiar. But the pattern extends to all aspects of our lives. Despair goes hand-in-hand with believing that Planet Earth is a shark tank rather than a garden. That if I say what is really on my mind at the dinner party, rather than talking about the weather I will face the dead-pan of appalled faces, and be ex-communicated from the family. That if I come out, the universe will drop me.
Despair also arises from dehumanization- not recognizing others as three-dimensional human beings who are, despite being misunderstood, trying to be the best versions of themselves. We can call this lack of compassion. It is related to the above paragraph (not believing that others will understand us), but involves not trying to understand others. Despair comes from reducing others to objects with agendas oriented against us, “What is this asshole doing? Can’t he drive?? Can’t he speak English? Is he trying to make me late!?” To reducing people to non-feeling, non-complex two-dimensional objects obstructing our personalized agendas. And I think of a story my friend Joe told me, about a man who was sitting at his bar alone, watching the female bartender. And at one point the man asks her aloud, “Is that blue streak in your hair because your father doesn’t love you?” This he said to someone he didn’t even know, and who had never crossed him. What would I have said if I were a bystander like Joe? Ideally I would have said, “The only person I feel more bad for in this moment than the bartender is you. Because you must have so much pain in order to say something so hurtful.” What he said had nothing to do with her. It had everything to do with him, and his pain. He desperately needed to get a leg up on somebody else to feel validated. We can come back to the analogy of the mountain skyline. That man threw someone down in the trenches below him so he could walk straight ahead, suspended on that platform of self-righteousness. God forbid we acknowledge the level of repugnance to which we have fallen!
But rock-bottom (the sight and admission of our own misery) is the holy grail of virtue! (Virtue being that righteousness that in egotism we presume to possess.) If we want to be truly righteous and worthy of high regard, that is where we must dwell- on the line that graphs biological needs, on the line that graphs honest truth and reality… along the mountain ridge. A friend of mine enlightened me to a little irony the other day …The more one acts in opposition to his ego… that is to say, the more he withdraws himself from the public eye, the more people will be attracted to him. This attention from others is precisely what the ego seeks. Yet if someone is performing the truly virtuous thing, “the look” of others has no bearing on his self-worth, or on his motivation for performing his actions. Devine communion is private. But if and as and as soon as we let our egos delight in the admiration this egolessness brings us, we have displaced the objective, and our virtue has eluded us. We fall instantly back into delusion, false pride, and unworthiness of said admiration. The point is, if we are doing it right, the attention of others is inconsequential.
Whether we are throwing someone else under the bus to get a promotion at work, or whether we are posting pictures of our abs on Facebook, we must understand that our ranking against other people is not the determinant of happiness. It is displaced to think that the way to gain any ground is to manipulate someone else’s playing field. It is mislead to believe that peace of mind derives from how others regard us. Because we will never know how others regard us. That is outside the realm of our human capacity. We are bound to the framework of our own bodies. Every judgment of ourselves is a projection from within ourselves. So to absolve ourselves we must work to correct our own faculty of judgment. Every feeling we hold: jealousy, loss of control, insecurity, appear as if they are about someone else. But they tell us only about ourselves. They are all flaws of our own character. We can only know our own karma: our own motivations, our own goodwill, or ill will. This is what we must work with. This is the only substance that is ours to deal with and purify.
The despair that I saw so much of in my upbringing among the privileged and the wealthy seemed to derive from a disparity between one’s state of being within, and the state of being he upholds to the public and to himself. I guess that’s what I’m getting at. I keep coming back to the mountain ridge and that structure made of sand that sustains us at the height of our delusion. Why does this disparity cause us despair? Because we are lying. Even if we succeed at deceiving ourselves on a conscious level, our subconscious knows we are lying, and lying creates impurities on our hearts. And that restlessness, that yearning, that pining that I talked about in the beginning I believe is a desire to get back. To get back to our homeostasis. To get back to the truth. It is like a charged agitated atom that wants to fall back to neutral stability. Where we don’t have to resist omnipresent reality, but can surrender to it. And thereby we can finally take advantage of this gift of our humanity that has been awaiting us: feeling the thrill of unpredictability and the things we can’t control. Appreciating imperfections. Acknowledging the “forbidden” parts of our psyche that prove their realness in our ability to dream them. Not pretending to understand something we do not understand, but reaping an opportunity for enlightenment by admitting our ignorance, and then listening eagerly. Letting ourselves be vulnerable… so that the universe may draw her mosaic upon us and reveal a completely alien identity.