Helplessness, despair, smallness, weariness – what we feel when our awareness of evil’s banality collapses on its knees in front of some vast systemic problem (inefficiency or misdirected efficiency in hospitals, the government’s bureaucratic suctioning of time and funding, the agricultural monoculture and the death of bees…) – these feelings are in fact almost always subjective realities which rest their very appearance of reality on a confusion between the subjective and objective. What makes this sort of despair so pungent and heavy is that it mistakes itself for having an external existence in [insert object of despair]; this is what allows it to thrive. The fact is, it is not in Nike sweatshops or Apple production factories that my despair over them exists (however many human rights horrors occur there), but in me, the one despairing.
This commonplace insight has a singularly misleading consequence, for one could, perhaps, think that to silence or overcome despair one must set upon it with intensive introspective work or bombard it with meditative regimes or Mozart sonatas. But this most certainly does not follow. To say despair is in oneself, “subjective,” is not to say it is “not real,” only some phantasm of the mind to be shooed away through the purely willed mental action of ignoring or covering it up – as though it would go away if one only recognized it was “not actually there.” This amounts to saying that nothing at all need be changed to combat despair. On the contrary – to say despair is “in oneself” means that it is real only in relation to oneself, what one does and thinks, and so it is these things that must be changed.
The question might be asked, “Isn’t it the very fact that one cannot change anything that leads to despair?” But the question might just as well be reversed. Despair causes inaction and changelessness more than vice versa, and it helps nothing to protest these arguments with claims that despair is “justified,” as that is to speak already out of despair.
To elaborate on this just briefly: though this cannot be determined or “verified” by the person in despair, let him just assume for a moment that most despair is only subjectively real (as posited in the first paragraph). Well, such subjective despair is by definition not despair – for, if the despair is subjective, the outward, objective situation can be changed after all and therefore does not necessarily entail despair in itself. Thus we can say: “subjective despair is not true despair.” Rightly understood, such despair is literally and logically impossible, and the despair that exists in the world is the very ignorance of this fact, the very willful or inadvertent self-obscuring of the non-necessity of despair. Of course, there are some cases where indeed nothing can be done to change the objective reality. Thus the despair here is in fact objective. It is interesting to note, however, that in such situations, where it is precisely the case that despair is real and objective, there is absolutely no point in despairing! From this we can derive an aphorism: true despair is only possible where nothing can be done, at which point it becomes superfluous…
The point in all this is to discern not only that despair cannot be “verified” as a certainty (i.e. objectively justified) without playing into the hands of despair itself, but also that in despair there is a deeply embedded kernel of hope. Despair is a contradiction subjectively and it is the ignorance of this contradiction which allows despair to thrive, to continue confusing the subjective and the objective and so sustain itself. Herein is the hope, for, despair being a confusion, the situation can be changed after all – though not the original situation that was despaired over (e.g. sweat shops, to keep the thread going) but the personal subjective situation that led in the first place to the despairing itself. It is not some oppressive objective reality that must change (at least, not at first), nor simply our “attitude” to objective reality (“well, I guess sweat shops aren’t so bad now that I think about it more positively…”), but our action within objective reality, the very participation of changing reality itself – since it was this lack of participation which led to the very confusion that despair feeds upon.
To summarize: in most cases there is no “objective” reality of despair; it is something built up in the individual through a mistaken conflation of the subjective with the objective. That which dismantles this conflation is the doing of things in the objective, as opposed to the doing of things in the subjective (simply thinking, meditating, reinterpreting reality, etc.). Despair thinks it comes from the inability to make a difference, from helplessness against forces bigger than one – really, though, it does not come from but is the inability; it comes from the (non-necessary) inaction. Importantly for the sake of argument, this is indeed empirically observable fact: despair is only felt when one is not an agent of change, even though one desires to be (because one desires to be). Despair is only felt vis-à-vis one’s personal inconsequentiality, not vis-à-vis the impersonal hegemony of a corrupt/malfunctioning system – though this is precisely what it feels one is despairing against.
And, to repeat, therein is the hope. One does not feel hopeless when one is an agent of change, and especially when one is an agent of change amidst a community of agents. Though one faces an immense, intractable order of oppression and destruction, one does not feel hopeless. This is the key, the crux, the reason we can hope, and even hope outside of hope: because hope begets hope, because the feeling of hope begets objective reason to hope (just as the confidence that something can be done leads to the doing), one will find that the reality of hope rests on increasingly surer ground. It was one’s smallness, not the system’s bigness, that one despaired over – however it felt at the time.
Therefore the important step is the step towards being an agent, not towards reasons for hope. Concerned about ecology and the health of the planet? Buy a low-flow shower head. Not satisfied? Buy a pot (from a local potter) and plant a tomato on the porch. Clearly these things are small steps, but the point is to let them snowball. There is no point in being cynical in advance, for that attitude misses the crucial insight above. So, concerned about world hunger and our massive exploitation of third-world resources? Do some research – find out the worst exploiters and avoid them, buy local – just do something! Just remember, the worst thing you can do is to search around wildly for signs of hope, for people making a difference, for some grassroots collective or critical mass that you can be absorbed into. This is to mistake the objective and subjective.
Because action, not hope, is the opposite of despair, and therefore action, not hope, is the remedy.