We bring our whole selves to our writing. Whether we are writing poetry in another persona, a story set a thousand years ago or an article about beetles, we are in there. Who we are and how and what we write are of a piece. So in a world where cynicism is plentiful and fear is rife it’s not an unreasonable instinct to want to spread some joy and hope. And yet, as Albert Camus tells us
There is no love of life without despair of life.
And Jean-Paul Sartre agrees:
Human life begins on the far side of despair.
Are we heading into Nietszchean territory?
Of hardship and joy
Nietzsche certainly thought that hardship was essential to joy.
You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.
He reached this conclusion by observing the great and productive lives of some deeply unhappy and unfortunate people. But is a life of abundance and joy only possible for those who have known terrible suffering or torment? As writers, do we have to endure untold misery to hone and deepen our writing, to make it worthwhile?
I don’t think it’s as simplistic as this. But there are truths here to be gleaned:
- What we certainly need is experience. We need to be courageous enough to enter the world, to have humility, to make ourselves vulnerable.
- We need to stop thinking that writing is easy and something we can learn quickly or that slick ‘content’ without substance can stand in the place of crafting and honing.
To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald
Nothing any good isn’t hard.
Of proving grounds and ill-wishing
And yet I also want caveats. In The Will to Power Nietzsche writes:
To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.
I can’t follow him to this place. Quite honestly, I want to wrap those who are my concern in warm blankets, and wish them health, nourishing lives, every shade of joy surrounded by others they delight in and who delight in them.
Yes, I want my loved ones to be brave and bold and to have wide and rich experiences.
Yes, I want them to have lives of passionately and deeply pursuing their skills and their art.
But no, I won’t wish my loved ones sickness and torture. Why would I need to? We all know that life is tumultuous and brings a mixture of pain and joy to all of us. And we all know that some have dire misfortune of every kind. Endurance and resilience will come simply by living, we don’t have to wish horrors on people for all of us to learn this.
I’m much more persuaded by Anne Lamott who considers that in such an uncertain world what we need to give is love, not ill-wishing to make our loved ones toughen up.
Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.
So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?
We just do.
To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.
And yet there will be despair. If we do not cocoon ourselves and those we love. If we dare to make art or care about the planet or seek justice or value mercy and humanity there will be periods of great bleakness.
The point is not that despair should be courted. There is no bullish call to ‘bring it on’ here. But to ask: how do we respond when we are ravaged by hopelessness?
Of responding with freedom and joy
To this question, the philosopher, Rollo May has some intriguing and hopeful answers in his book, Freedom and Destiny. May sees despair not as something to seek out, but something that, when it comes we use in our journey to freedom.
May begins by setting out freedom as not merely a value but as fundamental to having values:
The capacity to experience awe and wonder, to imagine and to write poetry, to conceive of scientific theories and great works of art presupposes freedom. All of these are essential to the human capacity to reflect. […] Freedom is also unique in that it is the mother of all values. If we consider such values as honesty, love, or courage, we find, strangely enough, that they cannot be placed parallel to the value of freedom. For the other values derive their value from being free; they are dependent on freedom.
And May defines freedom in this way:
Freedom consists of how you confront your limits, how you engage your destiny in day-to-day living. […] Human dignity is based upon freedom and freedom upon human dignity. The one presupposes the other.
In other words, freedom isn’t just a ‘right’ but also a way to live. Freedom is what we make of life and how we respond to whatever life brings. It’s the choices we make even in those circumstances when we seem to have hardly any choice at all.
And in those circumstances we often know despair. Faced with a terminal diagnosis, an oppressive government, planetary destruction, financial ruin, grief and a thousand other conditions of life, despair is human, but May adds a note of hope. It is also:
often a necessary prelude to the greatest achievement.
When despair scoops us out and makes us question everything, then we are also ready to be reborn.
May sees this as a fertile despair:
I am speaking of despair not as a “cosmic pout” nor as any kind of intellectual posture. If it is a mood put on to impress somebody or to express resentment toward anybody, it is not genuine despair.
Authentic despair is that emotion which forces one to come to terms with one’s destiny. It is the great enemy of pretense, the foe of playing ostrich. It is a demand to face the reality of one’s life… Despair is the smelting furnace which melts out the impurities in the ore. Despair is not freedom itself, but is a necessary preparation for freedom… Reality comes marching up to require that we drop all halfway measures and temporary exigencies and ways of being dishonest with ourselves and confront our naked lives.
This is powerful and doesn’t only apply to individual lives but to how we live as societies or connect to the planet. He goes on:
The function of despair is to wipe away our superficial ideas, our delusionary hopes, our simplistic morality… It is important to remind ourselves of these points since there are a number of signs that we in America may be on the threshold of a period as a nation when we shall no longer be able to camouflage or repress our despair.
(As an interesting aside this was first published in 1981!)
Of the secret of joy
So where does abundance and joy come into all this despair? The best metaphor is a perhaps a natural one. All through the winter nothing grows, the earth seems barren and bleak, but if there are seeds …
Of course not all despair leads to rebirth, rejuvenation and growth. Some become so fearful and shrunk that they can only see themselves. Some become cynical and wallow in the damage.
This is not a judgement. Life can bring extraordinary suffering and it’s much easier to believe that we can remake life again and again and again when we are not the ones suffering.
But we also all know people who are facing a terminal diagnosis or parents who’ve lost children or refugees who’ve lost home and family and identity who have transformed despair. Some of you are those people.
And it’s also worth noting that we are thinking about joy, not mere happiness. Happiness and contentment are elusive and yet simpler conditions and often more passive. Joy is more energetic, more related to awe and new experiences.
And despair, if it doesn’t grind us into submissive fear or drive us wayward into a state of cynicism, is likely to be met at some point with an energetic: No. A refusal to be crushed that leads to new possibilities.
May puts it like this:
… joy is stimulating, it is the discovery of new continents emerging within oneself. … Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers. […] Joy … follows rightly confronted despair. Joy is the experience of possibility, the consciousness of one’s freedom as one confronts one’s destiny. In this sense despair, when it is directly faced, can lead to joy. After despair, the one thing left is possibility. We all stand on the edge of life, each moment comprising that edge. Before us is only possibility. This means the future is open.
I cannot join Nietzsche in wishing my loved ones, or indeed anyone, illness, suffering and mistreatment, but I wish them the capacity for despair. I hope more and more of us will be people of empathy, so moved by the plight of the planet, by injustice, by suffering that we feel it keenly and rise against it.
And I hope writers will be those who witness to the despair of the world and help to write the story of joy and abundance that comes from resisting it. In the extraordinary novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, a sequel to The Color Purple (and not for the faint-hearted), Alice Walker has a fantastic line that comes when despair has been faced:
Resistance is the secret of joy.
Every writer should repeat this before writing.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re there, download my free course, Giving yourself time to become a different story.
Robert Namushi says
I have enjoyed reading this thought-provoking blog. Joy, despair, freedom, and possibilities seem to be in short supply nowadays. Reading the blog, I saw a connecting thread between the wars of liberation in Africa, Latin America, and Asia as desperate desires of humankind to become free of the despairs of colonialism and lack of opportunities of possibilities. A question that one can ask is: Can despair come after becoming free?
Virginia Woolf found freedom in writing and despair with severe depression on completion of her writing. The paradox of standing at the edge or living on the edge.
“Resistance is the secret of joy” by Alice Walker is equal to Resilience is the secret of joy, happiness, self-awareness, mindfulness, and freedom.
The world is in desperate need of shared opportunities in order for its citizens to see opportunities at moments of despair.
Thanks for the post. I look forward to your next post/blog.
Thank you Robert
And really interesting points. The need to find opportunities is so vital – I read a depressing post a few days ago with maps of the countries that have most contributed to ecological disaster and those who will most suffer from climate change – not the same places at all – another form of colonialism, sadly.
Teffy Wrightson says
What a wonderful line from Rollo May – “Before us is only possibility”. My sticker note to self for the week.
I pray whatever disaster you’re facing will have a silver lining.
Thanks you Teffy
It is a wonderful line – there’s a short hand used in improvisational theatre that is similar – everything is an offer.
It’s a good thought in life too 🙂
Carolyn O'Connell says
A beautiful and insightful piece that is comforting but yet inspirational. We all know those dark places but you have shown that, properly used, experienced and felt can be turned into success whether personal or professional, whether or not one is a writer, but is a special tool if you are.
One of the best articles you have given us Jan.
Thank you Carolyn
Really appreciate that x
Diane Woodrow says
I have been reading things recently by a couple from NZ and they talk of “being fully involved in … ” whatever the despair, tragedy, etc is rather than hoping for it to be gone. To acknowledge the hurt, the grieve, the anger, the confusion, but to be fully present with it.
They are Christians and interestingly they say this is it what it means in Isaiah 6 when he says “here I am Lord”. It doesn’t mean pick me but that he is fully present and fully aware of what is going on. Mindfulness to the nth degree 🙂
Thank you Diane
Yes – I think presence is crucial – our attention is so fragmented often – simply to be present – even when we can do very little – is a power of its own.