The Virtue of Despair

by Scott Barry Kaufman, April 8, 2017 in Blog

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“Out of such abysses, from such severe sickness one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a more tender tongue for all good things, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childhood and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever seen before.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Like most writers and artists, I sometimes feel the dark knight of the soul. I felt it tonight, struggling to express the ideas I wanted to express, to flesh out the outline that once seemed so clear. I’ve experienced this feeling enough now to know that it is a necessity to creative birth. Indeed, despair allows the opportunity for rebirth. When one has hit rock bottom, the only thing that remains is possibility.

I’ve found, over and over again, that the key to overcoming despair is to embrace the experience, and discover its meaning. Often despair is a sign that one is fighting against reality, and this realization is essential to growth. Indeed, the existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed that the worst condition of them all was to brag about never having experienced despair, as he believed that that is a signal that one has never actually been authentically conscious of one’s self.

We are taught in our society to strive for optimism, that optimism is hope, and that we must escape the demon of despair. But what if despair was really what gives birth to joy? That the optimism and happiness we are so often pressured to attain or at the very least display to others, is really us living an inauthentic existence?

Tonight, as I so often do when feeling despair, I consulted one of my favorite humanistic thinkers, Rollo May. In his delightful book Freedom and Destiny, he argues that despair has great value. May refers to genuine despair, not the sort of despair that we put on to impress others or express resentment:

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. The ‘letting go’ that we noted in despair is a letting go of false hopes, of pretended loves, of infantilizing dependency, of empty comformism which serves only to make one behave like sheep huddling in a flock because they fear the wolves outside the circle… Despair is not freedom itself, but is a necessary preparation for freedom… But there is no denying destiny or fate, and 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.”

According to May, freedom begins only when we confront destiny. This is why embracing despair is so important, because despair is a refusal to confront oneself. But we must not resist despair, for the process of confronting oneself and one’s situation honestly and openly allows us to discover new meanings, interpretations, and possibilities. It is precisely this process which gives us the possibility for joy. May is clear to point out, however, that joy is not the same thing as happiness:

“Happiness relaxes one; joy challenges one with new levels of experience. Happiness depends generally on one’s outer state; joy is an overflowing of inner energies and leads to awe and wonderment. Joy is a release, an opening up; it is what comes when one is able genuinely to ‘let go.’ Happiness is associated with contentment; joy with freedom and abundance of human spirit… Joy is new possibilities; it points toward the future. Joy is living on the razor’s edge; happiness promises satisfaction of one’s present state, a fulfillment of old longings. Joy is the thrill of new continents to explore; it is an unfolding of life.

I particularly love this: “joy is the welcoming of discord as the basis of higher harmonies.” From studying the lives of many creators, it is obvious that the best creative works involve the authentic resolving of tensions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we must banish happiness from our lives! As May notes, the good life includes both joy and happiness. There is nothing wrong with happiness, nor the desire for happiness. But our constant search or happiness, and our immediate impulse to resort to optimism at the slightest hint of despair, robs of us a deeper, richer opportunity for joy. When fully embraced, and honestly accepted, despair often leads to joy. As May notes, “we all stand on the edge of life, each moment comprising that edge. Before us is only possibility.”

Do not close yourself to the infinite. Open yourself to despair, thus opening yourself up to joy.


5 Responses to “The Virtue of Despair”

  1. Scott,
    congratulations for this above beautiful and painful matter!
    Every human guy looks for reborn and can’t wait for, without the rule that in reborn one must die… B]
    These are things that are just like arrows AFTER start to fly.
    Humans are proud to be causative, but very stupid when dealing consequences… ignorance will never forgive us… My scars have scars… that have callus… all them covered of scars… and more and more…
    I use to call me an specialist in pain and suffering, even if I ‘deserve’ all these uncontrolled facts and consequences of liberating the arrow. I should be a great coward and I am almost a coward…
    Many times I think on the sphinx and the great ‘impossible’ wise philosophic equilibrium for antagonist and complimentary duet.
    One must be specialist in dieing without any morbid living… inside an ocean of impatience… B]]
    If you accept a good wise, be sure: NOBODY MAY BE EFFECTIVELY A SOLVER FOR ANY OTHER!
    Good luck, Scott!
    Best regards!
    Murilo
    muarilou@uol.com.br

  2. Great blog, but I sure need to read it again, possibly many times, to really grasp it. We just finished a Lenten discipline where our priest pretty much taught us the same thing, but with a more Christian spin.

    I saw you speak at the Learning and the Brain conference in New York a few years ago, and your story blew me away. Problem is, I wasn’t very good at telling it. Maybe you told your story in an earlier blog. Or maybe I should buy your book. As a middle school educator, I look for creative genius in all kids, regardless of their labels. If you ever get to Dallas or Fort Worth in Texas for any reason, especially to speak somewhere, please let me know. Keep up the GREAT work!

  3. Hi Scott, this is a great post. Anyone, especially those who experienced despair and thought there is no more hope left would really appreciate this. I totally agree that when reaching rock bottom, the only option WE SHOULD take is to move up. I think there is always something good that can come out in every misfortune in our lives. It’s just a matter of looking at it, accepting it, and dealing with it.

  4. Howard says:

    Dear Scott:

    Quite easy to taste death a little in the midst of a delicious meal of a life. It’s like the boy scouts recommend a RDA of death as part of a healthy life. Maybe you would benefit by sitting on the couch and reading The Denial of Death.
    Kierkegaard is no hobby and we are all lost. There is a truce with death but in the end a huge loss.

  5. Adam Radziszewski says:

    Just amazingly deep yet hitting me in the face.
    Scott, you were speaking at our Innovation Collision in NYC 🙂 Thanks

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