What is despair?

A formal dictionary definition of despair might be "an utter loss of hope." But what do we mean when we talk of despair or despairing, or when we say, "Don't despair"? If we are in Gippsland at the moment (January 2020) the word despair may be describing terror and shock and the numbness which follows.

I've been mulling this issue because when I broach the issue of climate catastrophe I hear some common responses.

One person said to me recently that they could see no hope for our survival— "I despair for our survival." At the other end of things people very quickly tell me not to lose hope because humanity has seen off other things like the Black Death. Or I am pointed to the little ice age as another example of our adaptability, although I'd suggest that was a very different thing to global warming.  Or the Bomb... which seems to forget that nuclear war is still a real threat to our survival.

Because I am defensive and combative by nature I have to bite my tongue at such moments and listen.  (Key question: What drives me to want to argue at this point?) When I listen,

I detect the wise counsel that to give up hope is often to determine the outcome.

But I often wonder if people have grasped the difference between the Black Death where isolated communities had a degree of safety in a situation where the biosphere was not being devastated on a massive scale,  and this current situation, where everyone's climate is changing and where the massive ecosystems and weather patterns which buffer the biosphere are being destabilised. Buffered systems can reach a tipping point where the buffer can absorb no more and then things change dramatically.

I also wonder if I am hearing denial in the guise of being "reasonable," and even a warning not to fall into "apocalyptic thinking."  It sometimes borders on criticism for "giving up," and I wonder if it has a hint of some kind of "moral failure" about it.

Denial is a useful defence mechanism when it is a kind of wait, let me think about this... response to new and frightening information. It protects us from panic. But it becomes dangerous when we use it as a  way of avoiding action, or of avoiding even thinking about things.

In the context of this summer's fires, the impulse to despair seems really important. It is a sign of how serious a situation is. Here, despair is a tool used by our deep self or subterranean self, which "knows before we know," to alert us to our danger. Not to own such feelings is to deny what is happening within us, and if we constantly deny such feelings we are not being positive, but being neurotic.

Despair also implies a question: Despair over what?  Or, to put it another way, is despair an unreasonable response? If it were the case that our extinction appeared certain, would acceptance of that signify a despair which is some kind of moral failure, or would it be simple hard-nosed and emotionally mature acceptance of reality? The despair=utter-loss-of-hope which would terrify me is that which could see no point in life at all.  Even if we know we will die, that does not mean life has no meaning. We have already decided this haven't we? If we have not, then the fear climate catastrophe raises in our soul is not first of all about climate at all, but an unpleasant reminder of our own mortality which probes how our "death work" is progressing.

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All of this is relevant to religious responses to the climate catastrophe.  The idea that there is nothing to worry about because "God will save us," is not only superstitious, it is denial. From a Christian perspective it is also a profound denial of the Hebrew intuition that the creation is holy and valued by God.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Andrew Prior



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