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Renowned Psychotherapist and author of A New Approach to Women and Therapy (bio)
Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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Chapter Six - From Despair to Faith
For almost three decades, I’ve listened to people in despair. Despair is the most common dark emotion that people bring to psychotherapy, in the form now known as “clinical depression.” This is how they describe their emotional state: I’ve descended into a dark abyss. There’s an empty hole inside me. I’m trapped in this dark place. I don’t feel I’m really alive. I’m wandering through a desert. Nothing makes sense. The imagery of descent, stasis, emptiness, captivity, sterility, and darkness vividly communicates the interior landscape of despair as a place of inner paralysis, abject loneliness, spiritual barrenness, and existential meaninglessness.
The word despair comes from the Latin root sperare meaning “hope.” To despair is to lose all hope; to feel empty and desolate, adrift in a lonely sea, to exist without a sense of purpose or faith, to be disconnected from the flow of life, exiled from a universe of meaning. Despair is a dark weight that will not lift, a deadness at the core. In its stark bleakness, despair is hard to miss; it dominates mind and body, heart and soul. And yet, like the other dark emotions, it can be submerged from awareness for long periods of time and become the emotional substratum of a life or even a culture. Milder despair can be lifted to some extent by a pleasurable or exciting activity or person; relieved, temporarily, by alcohol and other substances that in the long run only intensify it. But in its more extreme manifestations, despair is not easily distracted. People in despair find it difficult, if not impossible, to soothe themselves. The wretched self-loathing of despair, one of its hallmarks, is inconsolable. I’m a failure, I’m a bad person, I’m nothing. These self-hating thoughts both breed despair and fuel it.
Despair is a profound dispiritedness, a fatiguing emotion that saps the life force. The smallest action may seem to require a gargantuan effort. When despair is in full sway, there is an overwhelming sense of futility. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus, with great effort, rolls a large rock up a mountain. At the top, the rock, of its own inertia, rolls back down again. Doomed to roll the rock up the mountain over and over again to no avail—this is what life often feels like to those in extreme despair.
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” said Camus in the famous first sentence of his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “and that is suicide.” When life is without meaning and all effort feels futile, suicide is an ever-present possibility, beckoning as a way out of the no-exit pain and emptiness. “To be or not to be?” is the question that many people in despair ask themselves at the lowest point of their descent. In the midst of despair, death has its allure, but it is a cold exit from an unredemptive universe.
Wracked with self-loathing and hopelessness, the spirit in despair has gone down to the underworld where existence is a state of death-in-life.
When my daughter Anna was a little girl, she loved all kinds of animals. Our home was a menagerie. We had two caged rats, Blackie and Bozo, eyed with much interest by our two cats, Zuckie and Mojo. Our amphibian was a frog named Froggie, and our reptile population included Max the turtle and a garter snake named Sam.
The most fascinating of these creatures for both me and Anna was the snake. Sam was a bright green with darker markings. We never did find a way to detect snake gender and decided, by fiat, to make Sam a girl and give her a masculine-sounding name that could also pass as a nickname for Samantha. Sam (whose gender identity was no doubt terribly confused) slid around her cage gracefully, looping in and out of the holes in the wooden structure in her fish-tank home. She slept a lot but always seemed interested in being taken out to have a look around. Every few days, Sam ate three to five small guppies for dinner. We’d watch in amazed, horrified fascination as she swallowed each fish whole and the bulge slid down her throat. (Do snakes have throats?) Sam was active and energetic. She loved to be touched and enjoyed circling herself around Anna’s neck like an emerald necklace as Anna did her chores.
Then, one day, Sam became more subdued than usual. She wasn’t swooshing around in her snake house. She seemed sluggish, and her appetite was suppressed. She ate poorly and then not at all, the fish lying belly up in Sam’s water dish. We worried and watched over her.
After more than a week of this depressed behavior, Sam seemed on her last snake-legs. Her bright green skin, so alive and vibrant, had turned brown and dull. She lay on the floor of the cage, motionless. “She’s dead,” I thought. Feeling a pang of sorrow that deepened as I thought about announcing the news to Anna, I rushed off to work.
Several hours later, I returned—and Sam was gone! There on the cage bottom was a perfectly formed snakeskin, its zigzag design intact but hollow. The snakeskin lay there, a translucent sculpture—but where was Sam? Taking the top off the cage, I picked up the wooden snake house with its circular holes in which Sam did her morning exercises, and gasped as Sam jutted out of a hole, leaping and slithering around the cage at breakneck speed—more vital and full of energy than when we first took her home from the pet shop. Sam’s little red tongue darted in and out of her jaws. Her eyes sparkled. Her skin was a brighter hue of green. Having shed her skin, she was more lively, beautiful, and alert than ever. She was a born-again snake.
Despair’s alchemy is this kind of transformation. There is a descent to a state of death in life. We look and feel dead, but something is happening under the skin—if we let it. The mask of the old self’s dying—a harbinger of resurrection.
When we’re in the throes of despair, a metamorphic process is at work. The call to spiritual death and rebirth in despair can be easily mistaken for a call to suicide. This is when we’re likely to reach for a pill—to ease the pain or to do ourselves in. Imagine if the snake thought it was dying when it sloughed off its skin. Imagine if the caterpillar was relieved of its cocoon before it had completed its metamorphic process. The transformation would be aborted.
The dark, enclosed place of the cocoon is necessary for metamorphosis to complete itself.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan