Despair is a common human experience. We have all felt despair during difficult periods in our lives.
The dictionary defines despair as: ‘to no longer have any hope or belief that a situation will improve or change.’
Despair refers to a state of mind caused by circumstances that seem too much to cope with. It suggests a total loss of hope, usually accompanied by apathy and low spirits.
Often elite athletes experience feelings of despair when their career draws to a close. Lauren Jackson is a former Australian basketball player and arguably the finest women’s basketballer of all-time. She was voted the most valuable player in America’s WNBA league, brought home medals from four consecutive Olympics, and carried the Australian flag into the stadium at the London Games. She retired in 2016.
Throughout her career, Jackson was under constant pressure to perform at the highest level even through injury. This meant she was dependent on a cocktail of prescription painkillers.
Jackson said coming off the high of being a champion athlete is incredibly difficult. Not only is there the pressure to recreate yourself, there is also the nightmare of coming off the drugs.
Sports psychologist Gayelene Clews said when elite athletes stopped playing sport they experienced a drop in the levels of neurochemicals such as dopamine, which could contribute to a feeling of despair.
There are many circumstances in life that can lead to despair. Frederick Buechner, in his book ‘Whistling in the Dark,’ makes this observation of people who ‘pound the pavement.’ He says,
“Jogging is supposed to be good for the heart, the lungs, the muscles, and physical well-being generally. It is also said to produce a kind of euphoria known as joggers’ high.
The look of anguish and despair that contorts the faces of most of the people you see huffing and puffing away at it by the side of the road, however, is striking. If you didn’t know directly from them that they are having the time of their lives, the chances are you wouldn’t be likely to guess it.”
Drivers of motor vehicles know what it’s like to despair. Being stuck in traffic is enough to increase your heart rate and elevate your stress levels. Traffic jams are becoming an unwanted addition to the daily commute. They are caused by accidents and breakdowns, road construction and repair, or harsh weather conditions. Recent studies have found that Australia ranks second in the world for traffic congestion, a situation fueled by urban growth.
Keeping calm and relaxed when corralled by other vehicles is a skill few drivers have mastered.
In his poem ‘Summer Traffic Jam,’ Jamie Grant captures the sense of desperation and despair experienced by those caught in a traffic snarl.
Held in the traffic, his car hemmed in by heat,
he notices that every lane and driveway,
each garage entrance and side street, seems to secrete
more cars, like shining beads of sweat. It is the day
of the appointment which must reverse a decline
in his life, and his mind has transformed the city’s
road system into pores. Time leaks away in fine
portions, relentless as traffic fines. For pity’s
sake, he prays, let this now be untied…
Social fragmentation is also a cause of despair. We are currently experiencing a period of social and economic upheaval. We have seen the loss of manufacturing jobs, changing roles and expectations for women, increasingly unstable family structures, isolated suburban living, and the growing influence of social media. At such times people lose their communal moorings and often drift toward despair.
In a recent article ‘Dying of Despair,’ Aaron Kheriaty says,
“Social networks help form our identities and give our lives a strong sense of purpose and belonging… Too many people today have lost these moorings. Social bonds are weakening, and the social fabric is fraying. We are at risk of losing a solid identity, a clear orientation, and the coherent narratives that give meaning to our individual and shared lives.”
Researchers have found that rising rates of suicide can be traced to increased social fragmentation. Studies in Australia have found that social isolation is among the most common risk factors identified by Australian men who attempt suicide. The loss of a job or a failed relationship can mean the loss of a whole set of social connections. Without that tangible support of work colleagues, friends of family there is a sense of aloneness and despair about the future.
Ron Rolheiser reflects on how despair shapes our view of the future. He says,
“Despair is the death of our sense of surprise, the belief that nothing new can happen to us. We despair at that precise moment when, consciously or unconsciously, we say in resignation: “That is the way I am, that is the way things have always been for me, that is the way it will always be!”
Clinical and forensic psychologist, Stephen A. Diamond, says,
“Despair is a deep discouragement and loss of faith in one’s ability to find meaning, fulfilment and happiness, to create a satisfactory future for oneself.”
Despair is feeling destitute of positive expectations. If you’re in despair, you can’t see anything good in your future. You may be tempted to give up.
Tim Costello was the former head of World Vision Australia. In his book ‘Hope: Moments of Inspiration in a Challenging World,’ he says,
“If there is no hope, we as humans can become fatalistic with despair or cynicism.”
Long-term studies of individuals at high risk for suicide have found that the one factor most strongly predictive of suicide is not how sick the person is, nor how many symptoms he exhibits, nor how much physical pain he is suffering, nor whether he is rich or poor. The most dangerous factor is a person’s sense of hopelessness. The man without hope is the likeliest candidate for suicide.
Tim Costello reminds us of the importance of believing hope will return. He says,
“The symphony of anyone’s life can have some loud and calamitous parts. It takes discernment, patience and deep listening to hear the soothing refrain of hope return.”