The Promise and Peril of Despair
Last month, I eulogized my brother, Mark, following his unexpected death. Since then, I’ve been forced to reckon with the impact of grief and joy on how I work and show up in the face of heartbreak.
Loss takes many forms: the loss of a job, innocence, death, unmet expectations of the world, marriage, acts of injustice, the organizations we thought we’d build. The list goes on, each one meriting its own eulogy of sorts.
The poet David Whyte writes that “an elegy is always a conversation between grief and celebration: the grief of the loss of the person and the celebration that you were here at all to share the planet with them.”
The eulogy, done well, does not leave one in utter despair nor does it make too light the life of a beloved. It is indeed a sacred dance of words. It does not lie to make someone look good nor does it omit the essence of their virtues.
Whether poetic or plain, all good eulogies represent a simple truth: our world is full of despair and teeming with unbridled joy, in the same breath, in the same moment.
And our lives, however long or short, because they begin with breath and end in death, are elegiac in their very nature.
At our best, I think our work is like a good eulogy: it joyfully celebrates and creates goodness and beauty and grieves the loss of the way the world was intended to be. In a sense, this is the very heart of the social sector in which I’ve worked my entire career.
After all, many of us are driven, at least at first, by despair, driven by the grief of an injustice. Despair steadies us for a time. It’s often the only immediate response to profound disappointment. The experience of despair is proof that we’re feeling the weight of pain and if given proper space and time, it can form us into kinder and more courageous people.
But while despair is meant to be a seasonal visitation, we often lock the door and feed it beyond its welcome. Whyte writes “despair turns to depression and abstraction when we try to make it stay beyond its appointed season and start to shape our identity around its frozen disappointments.”
...“to shape our identity around its frozen disappointments.”
How dangerous a trap: to identify as one who despairs (even for a worthy cause!) No wonder our days can feel scarce and lonely and unfair.
I struggle with this even today. My little brother is dead at age 32 and I feel the pull of despair’s gravity. It begs the questions “will I always be sad?” and “can I live joyfully?”
Good eulogies seem to say “yes” to both and so I remain reluctantly hopeful.
The night of Mark’s memorial service, me, Margaret (Mark’s fiance), and Mark’s five best friends sat in his barn at his farm at dusk and told stories. We drank cheap beer (Mark never bought the “fancy” stuff) and moonshine that we’d discovered in the freezer (we still don’t know its true origins). And in that barn, we were intentionally joyful. We told the good stories, the hilarious stories and tales of Mark that had consequence in our lives.
We searched for cheer and were not disappointed.
If we allow apathy and entropy to have their way, grief abandons its kinder counterpart of joy. I believe this is a real challenge to us all. In our work, despair and grief is fuel for many of us but the only way to maintain it forever is to either disassociate from hard things or be ripped open by more and more of life’s events. In time, we become ever-somber, angry, or perpetually discontent.
For those of us who feel despair in our personal or work lives, we must pursue moments of joy, even fight for it if needed. Be it the birdsong in spring or the way the sun hits the snow or the way a stranger smiles at us unexpectedly, joy is ever-present. Joy is as loud as grief and we must notice its gift to us.
We shake with joy, we shake
with grief. What a time they
have, these two housed as they
are in the same body.
- Mary Oliver
That night in the barn, we ended with a prayer for courage and the surety that we had done our best to honor a man whom we loved. For me, it was all a sort of practice for the months ahead: to allow myself to feel the full weight of grief and intentionally seek joy so that I may, in time, live whole.