Friday, April 24, 2009

The Value of Despair

Here is a reprint of a article I wrote in Nov of 2007, before I had a blog. Parts of it have been reprinted in various places since then. I've been meaning to repost it up here for a while, and someone at The Automatic Earth asked about it, so here it is.


The most optimistic person I have ever encountered admitted yesterday that he is sad and scared. Beth Terry wrote a guest blog today entitled “Caring Without Despairing.” Her solution is to just not think about how big the problems are, but to focus on the little bit she can effect, as she calls it, “selective attention.” Smart people who look at America and our world today feel the emotion of despair, and then have to decide what to do about it.

My position on despair is an odd one. I think that despair is, or at least can be, a good thing. Despair is a virtue, a habit of the correct functioning of the human spirit. Despair is not a meaningless blackness, nor a simple lack of hope, it is a more complex psychological state, and one that has a role to play in the healthy mind, not just in an unhealthy mind. Not all despair is valuable despair, properly functioning despair; just as not all humor, or passion, or resoluteness is valuable. Resoluteness can be a form of courage or stubbornness depending on the situation. In moral talk, we say that resoluteness can be a virtue or a vice depending on the situation. In just the same way, I hold that despair can be a vice, a counter-productive mental or spiritual tendency (as pretty much everyone else holds). But unlike everyone else, I hold that despair can also be a virtue, a productive, helpful, right-functioning mental or spiritual tendency.

Many virtues, called moral virtues, exist as the mean between two extremes, the balancing point between opposite errors. Courage is the classic example. Too much fear of danger and one acts cowardly, and fails to take advantage of manageable risks. Too little fear of danger and one acts foolhardy, and takes risks that ought not to be taken. Fear of danger has a useful role to play in our psyches or spirits, but so does resistance to fear of danger. When these two are in proper balance, and we feel the right amount of fear, and the right amount of resistance to fear, we are experiencing the virtue of courage. Similar things could be said about overeating and undereating, or indeed any appetite, or about anger or many other psychological factors. Anger and fear are not bad things simply; they are proper and healthy adaptations to a world that includes injustice and risk. Injustice ought to make us angry, and risks ought to make us fearful. Just not too angry or fearful. And of course, both emotions would have no useful role left in a world without injustice or risk.

But not every virtue works this way. Physical strength, for example, is a virtue (it helps us to act well in the world), and one that a rational person should want as much of as they could get without giving up some other valuable good. Weightlifting takes time that we could be using for other good things, like community service or enjoying our friendships. But if someone invented a way to become stronger without giving up some other good thing, we should take it. Similar things could be said about intelligence or health or beauty or friendship.

Christian philosophers took this rough position on virtue from the Greeks and Romans, and noted that there was one more category of virtues which they called theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. In the Gnostic Tradition of Valentinius gnosis – that is direct mystical experience or knowledge by acquaintance is also a theological virtue. In the Catholic tradition, the theological virtues are ones which can be developed only by the grace of God, not by any human effort. More importantly they are not the mean between two extremes of vice. You can have insufficient faith, but there is no such thing to the Catholic theologians as having too much faith. Likewise, you can never have too much love. You can love the wrong objects (the sinful act, rather than the sinner who does it), you can have too much passion in your loving, but love itself can never be excessive.

My position is that the opposite of a theological virtue is not a vice, but another competing theological virtue. Love has a valuable role to play in the human psyche, but indifference does too. Indifference is the root of detachment, of accepting the good and the bad alike with equanimity. Indifference is the root of justice, of logic, of many kinds of discursive knowledge. Our science works, in part because we can detach our observations, from what we want to happen. We can observe how things ARE quite apart from how we would LOVE for them to be. Indifference is the heart of accepting reality, just as love is the heart of transforming reality. We are beings of power, but not infinite power, and thus we need love to guide our use of our power, and indifference to tailor our use of power to our limits. I am of the opinion that indifference is the true opposite of love, however some think of hate as the opposite of love. I don’t really know anyway for hate to be a virtue, although closely related ideas like anger, or detesting, can be in the right circumstances.

In a being of infinite knowledge and power, faith, hope, love, and gnosis would be virtues without any opposition. There would be no such thing as too much love, or insufficient indifference. But virtues do not work the same way for humans as they do for unlimited beings. For one thing, a being of infinite power has no virtue of courage at all, because it cannot experience genuine risk. Likewise, it has no virtue of moderation in eating, because it doesn’t need to eat or refrain from eating at all. For humans, courage and moderation in eating are virtues. Likewise, so is indifference, the opposite number of love. The opposite of a theological virtue is, for humans at least, is another virtue in dialectical tension with it. Love and Indifference are both good things, even though they sometimes oppose each other. Heraclitus calls this “opposing coherence.” The two work together in tension to create a more powerful effect like the ends of a bow straining against each other to keep the bowstring taut and propel the arrow more strongly,
or the lawyers arguing against each other to try to produce thoughtful justice.

Similarly, the opposite of faith is doubt, and both are virtues for fallible humans. William James has a great discussion of when and why faith is a virtue, a position that is now called Fideism among epistemologists. Sometimes believing something, despite lack of decisive evidence, makes us more able to act well within the world. Optimism is one of James’s favorite examples, we have little evidence that things are going to be alright, but assuming they are anyway helps some people to cope. But the same point can be made in reverse on skepticism. Sometimes refraining from believing something, when the evidence is undecisive, makes us more able to act well in the world.

Even at the level of theology, faith and doubt are both virtues functioning together. Faith allows us to place trust in an imperfect image of the Divine, say our own faltering picture of what an ideal shepherd or an ideal father would be like. Imperfect images are the best images that humans can conjure up, and our own limitations pervade the image. When I imagine the perfect father, I am likely to frame the image as a human of my own race, rather than of some other race, or say a heron. But my images are flawed. Doubt helps me to see that the Divine is unlikely to be of my race or even human in a normal sense. Perhaps I instead use more glorious images (light, rock of ages, etc), or refrain from images entirely and use conceptions. Still my flaws pervade, and doubt calls on me to refine these images and concepts or to do without image and concept entirely. Faith is the cornerstone of positive theology, of saying flawed but still helpful and beautiful things about the Divine. But doubt is the cornerstone of negative theology, of pointing out the flaws in our formulations, and pushing us to improve our understanding of the Divine. Like my favorite theologian Pseudo-Dionysius, I firmly believe that negative theology and positive theology need to work together, and thus (perhaps unlike him) that faith and doubt are both virtues in dialectical tension, properly working together to push us upward.

In the Gnostic tradition, gnosis or direct experience is a virtue. But the opposite of gnosis is innocence. Not knowing, at least not knowing directly via primary experience, is the root of the possibility of learning or discovery. Innocence allows experience to be a source of wonder, and I know of no better paean to the joint values of innocence and experience than Blake’s famous sets of poems, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

But the hardest of the virtues to understand is despair. I believe that a time of great despair is coming for my people and my generation. That the question of the meaning and value of despair will become more pressing and will not go away soon. And this experience will be hard and bitter, painful even. Further, I think that the research is clear that pain which seems meaningless or counter-productive is experienced as being worse than pain which is perceived as valuable or helpful. If we can find what is good and right about despair, that will simply help us to bear it with far less suffering.

Despair clears the way for the possibility of new hope, of better, more realistic hope. Just as indifferent objectivity clears the way for more realistic love, and doubting skepticism clears the way for more realistic beliefs, (and true Blakean innocence clears the way for more wondrous experiences), so despair clears the way for humbler and more realistic hopes. Despair kills hopes, but only so that other smaller hopes can have a chance to flourish. When we despair properly, we give up an old hope as out of reach of our powers, and we let it go, but we do so, so that we may set our sights on a new hope that is hopefully within the reach of our powers. Proper despair is root of the virtue of humility. It is all about not over-estimating our power in this world. When despair functions properly, its job is to help us let for of a goal that we cannot reach because we have over-estimated our power, even though we badly want to reach this glorious goal.

A despair that left us without anything worth reaching for would be a vice rather than a virtue. And indeed, we may feel like that for a time, while we adjust to the new possibilities that are left over, after we have given up on a long-term goal. But there will always be other, smaller humbler thing that we can reach for instead, after we have despaired of a great hope. No matter how bad things are, or how weak our power is, there are still gradations of better and worse, once we can bear to look carefully. It is always possible to make things a little better, if not for yourself then others. A person dying of a terminal disease, with only a few weeks left to live, who has despaired of survival, can still set lower, smaller goals and work towards them and hope towards them. A society that is addicted to cheap energy and cheap credit which is passing away, and cannot hope to maintain its lifestyle, can still set other humbler goals and try to reach them while watching its lifestyle pass away.

We cannot save our society from the troubles that are coming. It is too late to save the icecaps from melting, the ocean levels from rising. Many of our cities can probably no longer be saved. Our financial system is probably already doomed to collapse soon regardless of what we do. Our way of life cannot be sustained much longer regardless of what we do. In our arrogance, we thought we could spend forever and let the future decide how to pay the bill. We thought that someone later would figure out how to clear up our messes of carbon and methane and debt and oil-dependence. A time of humbling is coming quickly. No one can honestly look at the big picture of where our society and our globe are without feeling despair. Beth Terry can accomplish caring without despairing, only by carefully not-looking, and not-thinking. But “caring without despairing” is the wrong goal! I care, and then I despair. And despair tells me to give up and let go. But despair also tells me to clear a space for new and humbler hopes. I cannot save my society, but perhaps I can save my family, or even my community. And if my strength gives out at that task too, perhaps I can help a few people prepare, or feed themselves, or comfort them in their distress.

A time of black despair is coming, and if you feel like you are drowning in despair be comforted. Despair is a GOOD thing, when it functions properly. Swim in your despair, master it, use it for what it is good for. Use your despair to let go, and set new humbler goals. You are less rich, and less powerful than you think you are, than you are used to being. But you are not without any wealth; you are not without any power. Each breath is riches; each moment is wealth; each choice is power. All work is using our power. Do what work you can, plan, set new goals, and do what good you can. Despair, but do not drown in it, despair to clear a place for humbler goals. Your despair is in reality a valuable friend, helping you to re-prioritize your life, even when doing so is painful and difficult. Despair hurts, but it is a virtue in disguise. The pain of despair is the pain of healing, and adapting to humbler circumstances. All Americans will soon become acquainted with despair. Be assured, despair is a gloomy ally, but it is not in the end your enemy.


  1. Such a Pollyanna! :-)

    It's all nice- but I greatly fear you have simply abandoned the generally accepted understanding of despair, which is something like: "the complete loss of all hope."

    You're replacing that with: "If you're thinking about losing all hope; don't."

    Good advice; but- not actually making true despair into a virtue.

  2. To despair is to be without hope. Hope being in expectation of something, looking forward to something, and is related to 'to hop'.

    If we are not 'leaping in expectation' of what is to come, if we are not wishing and desiring, then I can see how we are more open to possibilities. Makes sense to me.

    Thanks for the article.

  3. I looked up dictionary definitions of despair and some said "to lose all hope" and others just said "to lose hope" (or "to give up, to be despondent, to be dejected.") Certainly the etymology is from the Latin desperare, which means to give up hope but not necessarily to give up all hope. The site I checked also pointed out that we frequently use it in the sense of "to lose hope of something specific" as in "I despair of every teaching my son to mind his manners." I suspect we just use the word both ways, sometimes to indicate giving up all hopes, and other times to indicate just giving up some of our hopes.

    If you think despair means "giving up all hope" well that's a bad thing I agree.

    But if despair just means "giving up hope" well that CAN be a good thing. That's my point.

    Perhaps we simply need terminology that can make the distinction better. Maybe despair vs hopelessness, or proper despair vs total despair, or specific despair vs general despair.

  4. Love your take on this. I agree with much/most of it. And love the metaphor of the "gloomy ally!" Beautiful.