Is Despair More of a Threat Than Covid-19?

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I hear despair in the voices of my neighbors, and when I see them at the mailbox in my senior building, whose common rooms are closed and dark, it’s not their masks I notice, but the slump of their shoulders.

Even the most normally chipper among us is uncharacteristically subdued. We range in age from 62 to nearly 90, living independently and mostly healthily (minus the details) in a pleasant, affordable, middle class community; for the most part we’re not close friends but friendly acquaintances.

One of them, a woman who used to come to the weekly yoga class before it was suspended commented that it feels like what Jimmy Carter called a national malaise, which, she added darkly, cost him the election. There’s no doubt that a daily diet of terrible news about the pandemic attenuates the feeling of helplessness that’s central to despair, especially when we reflect on what the post-pandemic world will look like and how our descendants will live in it.

Despair was described by Erik Erikson, the psychological developmentalist whose theories about crises or turning points in adult life inform life stage studies, as one of the two choices with which we confront later life; the other is integrity.

I don’t sense or hear despair among millennials, who are restless, which is not surprising since the pandemic has limited their academic and social lives. Like their parents, mostly middle-agers, they’re outraged and angry about the epidemic of police brutality and government overreach which boiled over into protests and demonstrations that have wracked the nation for the last two weeks, and they’ve flooded the streets to make their feelings known.

They’re not hopeless, or they’d be giving up the fight. Hopelessness is a symptom of despair, which doesn’t have the same resonance or presence in young lives that it does in what Erikson described as the eighth and final stage of life. As The New York Times noted last week, for older people, “Despair, as well as Covid-19, is costing lives.” According to the author, Dr. Louise Aronson, a professor of medicine at UCSF, this epidemic is the result of “lives stripped of human contact, meaningful activity, purpose and hope that things will get better in a time frame that is relevant to people in the last decades or years of life.” 

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o clock in the morning, day after day. And when I awake in the middle of the night, day after day, it usually is, but it’s despair that makes it so hard to fall asleep again or, sometimes, make me want to wake up in the morning. “It feels like it did after my husband died,” said a client. “You wake up in the morning and you forget, and for a few seconds it’s like it was before.”

Despair is sometimes difficult to distinguish from all those other sad words that begin with a D like depression, despondency and desolation. It’s all of these and none of these, omnipresent in this doubly difficult time that stresses the physical, mental and emotional health of our institutions as well as our individual selves to their limits. If despair is one axis on which late life development turns, integrity is the other. Integrity by definition is wholeness, completeness. It requires us to pose the question of whether we’ve lived a meaningful life; that is, have we lived by our core values?

When we bend toward integrity, we come away from this deep reflection with a sense of fulfillment. That promotes not only satisfaction with a life well lived, with few regrets, but a sense of contentment and the wisdom to face death with equanimity and completion. Despair is the absence of this wholeness, this integrity, this fulfillment; as we age, despair is marked by bitterness and regret.

According to Erikson, neither integrity nor despair is a steady state. Most of us experience a balance of both as we begin to make sense of our lives. What particularly challenges integrity at this moment in time is the hollowness revealed when the core values that give the self a sense of coherence — of wholeness — are shaken by what’s going on  in our national life. We are forced into confronting the shadows of racism, the flawed assumptions beneath some of our most cherished American beliefs and ideals, the corruption at the heart of our politics.

Overwhelmed, I seek a remedy for those moments of despair, and commend it to you; the sight of hundreds, thousands, even millions of marchers of all ages and all colors, demonstrating their faith in a better future. So at three in the morning, in the dark night of the soul, I replay the videos of the marchers, not just in the big cities but the small towns of America, the entire globe. As they light up the screen, they light up my soul and banish the despair.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I’d add desuetude, a state of disuse which the old are being asked to embrace. The virus is more dangerous to old people, so we are urged to take the greatest precautions–to withdraw sooner and farther, to stay away longer, and, as it turns out, maybe never return to the in-person tumble of daily urban life, as this virus may haunt us for some time to come. Planners believe that a partially-reopened economy will depend more on the young, and will politely insist that the old do their bit for the community by not choking up the hospitals. Our contribution to the commonweal is to stay home, stay off of the gurneys, and steer clear of the ventilators. Integrity comes in strange forms when there’s a plague on. Nice piece, Jane.

  2. I too use the videos of the people coming together in such great numbers to protest racism, institutional violence, and economic injustice, as a way to cheer myself up in these crazy times. The best part of watching them is seeing marchers celebrate together and support each other. Talk about an outbreak of integrity! Let’s hope it’s as contagious as the other virus.
    Thanks for this story.

  3. These abstract nouns–despair, hope. Pick any one you like. They’re troublesome to me. And many of them are verbs as well. We all use them. We all know what they mean, sort of, but in discourse I’m never sure I’m talking about the same thing that the other person is. The old guy in despair may also have hope for eternal reward, or maybe enlightenment. The hopeful young demonstrator may actually be in despair about flunking a Physics exam. Tossing these abstractions around may make us feel smart, or maybe sound smart. But when we become too certain, our linguistic constructs start to crumble.

    Right now I’m hopeful for one more Mai Tai at the Halekulani before I die. In the sun, no straw. Three kinds of rum, fresh-squeezed lime juice, a dash of despair. In Samoan, Mai Tai is an adjective (sort of). Certainly not a noun. It means something like “really, really good.”

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