I have come to recognize a deep despair that resides in the shadow part of myself, the shadow being of course those things about ourselves we don’t want to embrace. And yet the journey toward our own wholeness is precisely about naming our shadows, welcoming them into the inner rooms of our being, and listening for what they have to say to us.
Those of you who have been reading along here for a while know that I am engaging in some family systems work as a part of my spiritual journey. My father was someone who let despair consume him, his whole life he ran from his own darkness. In addition to whatever pain he experienced within his own family, his youth was layered against the backdrop of World War II, and the trauma and despair of that experience is something he never spoke of to me. I have found that resisting the despair only magnifies the weight of it.
In some ways, in saying these things, I feel like my paint is peeling, I am revealing the more difficult surfaces of my soul. I think part of my reluctance to share these struggles is my fear that others will try to step in to offer me hope as an antidote. I have an ambivalent relationship to the word “hope” — too often I think we use that term as a way of trying to circumvent the necessary process of facing our own dark emotions, we do violence to others by trying to move them to a place where we feel much more comfortable.
I am blessed with a spiritual director who does not ask me to cheer up or have hope. He asks me to walk right into the despair, to name the darkness and pain and suffering that weighs on me at times. He invites me to dwell there and imagine the pain my father struggled with so that I might cultivate more compassion and forgiveness for him.
I want to resist the despair, as many of us would. I sometimes spend a lot of energy doing precisely that. I don’t want to leap into the dark abyss where I must come to terms with the fact that this next moment could be my last, that those I love deeply will one day be gone, that we are waging a terrible war thousands of miles away whose trauma will ripple through generations to come, that we continue to wreak havoc on our planet and much of the damage is simply irreversible. When I contemplate the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust I come to the conclusion that there is simply no consolation for that devastation. For some despair there simply is no tidy redemption offered in response, it simply is the horror that it is. Not that there weren’t stories of tremendous courage and love that rose from the ashes of that event, but the millions of crushed and broken bodies cannot be changed.
And yet, when I give myself space to walk right into that place of feeling utterly undone, of naming the things that give me reason for despair, I feel the crushing weight of sorrow and sometimes something quite remarkable happens. Sometimes when I am truly able to release my resistance to the places of darkness I am reminded of birdsong as Levertov writes, I come to treasure the simplest kindness, my heart begins to open in wonder at my own capacity for love.
These things do not outweigh the despair, as though the universe were some kind of cosmic scale. The despair and the beauty dwell together in the same space, not competing, but offering to us the full experience of soulfulness. Poetry and art help us to hold these in tension.
I come to realize that the opposite of despair for me is not hope, but precisely this experience of wonder. Wonder that there is anything at all, wonder that in the presence of great darkness there is also so much beauty, so much love.
As you read these words, I invite you to notice what stirs in you. Do you want to rush and reassure me that everything will indeed be alright? Do you want to say that the beauty of the world really does outweigh the darkness in some sort of ultimate battle?
Or can you rest here in this space with me, holding the profound paradox of the world as best as you can. Can you join me in making room within you for the full spectrum of the emotional landscape we contain within us, responding to the call to be fully present to this wondrous and despairing moment?
(photos: above taken over the Hood Canal, below taken at a sheep farm in Arlington, WA)
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts.