Refusing to despair: Constructive action in the midst of overwhelm

In an age drowning in gratitude slogans on the one side and cynical knowingness on the other, many of us are struggling to find our voices when it comes to optimism, hope, and the sheer necessity to carry on. As our national catastrophe continues to blossom like blood in a swimming pool, we are called upon repeatedly to turn and face it — for the sake of ourselves, our students, and our world — in ways that are constructive and authentic. It’s a challenge that has many of us rethinking our usual commitments to realism, positive thinking, and social responsibility.

And so I have joined those who insist that despair is not an option, though some have been troubled by this directive. One annoyed Virtual Pedagogue reader wrote to me explaining that, when it comes to depression, “one cannot simply choose to be happy.” I know about depression, but she helped me clarify that the sort of despair I have in mind is mainly of the political and ethical variety, rather than one’s individual, affective life. And if we conflate our individual emotional reactions with the political and ethical responses we choose to enact, then we may well be doomed. So many of us, after all, whether clinically depressed or not, are teetering on the edge of emotional overwhelm.

But isn’t it cheap, unconvincing and dishonest to present a social face that is anything other than an accurate reflection of my private, individual feelings? If I am a bundle of hopeless misery, then doesn’t authenticity require me to move and respond from that place? In a world that has paved over individuals’ feelings of sadness, anger, and grief, especially those of women and people of color, recovering the ability to name and express such emotions is undeniably powerful. And individual feelings bravely shared have, of course, helped foment social change.

But this is obviously only part of the story, and we are no better off fetishizing individual feelings — as if they were sacred and infallible—than we are squelching them. The simple fact that I feel something, even over a long period of time, does not mean that that is the Truth of the situation, or even that it is the fullest picture of my truth. An overemphasis on individual experience, then, especially one suggesting that such feelings are somehow beyond my own cognitive scrutiny, makes slogans like “refuse to despair” sound invasive and false.

But refusing to choose the road of despair is not the same as choosing to be cheerful or to be inattentive to one’s own emotions. I can have many quite unhappy times as an individual but still remain firmly committed to constructive action. I can also choose whether to share my individual feelings so as to encourage isolation or to build connections that help galvanize social resolve. Refusing political despair, as I see it, means refusing to commit to a path of quietistic, narcissistic sadness to whatever degree I am able. And while some aspects of our individual emotional lives may well be beyond our control, for many of us, it is perhaps not so much as we sometimes imagine. Our quite appropriate respect for mental health challenges — our own and those of others — shouldn’t obscure the (sometimes small) ways we can cultivate socially and politically constructive emotional responses.

I recognize the power and integrity of emotions — I love that we are biological and affective creatures — but I think we also have a responsibility to do what we can to shape and influence our own emotional responses, especially habitual ones, to misfortunate and difficulty. We are, after all, social creatures who, like antelope in a herd, respond to and rely on cues from one another. I may hole up from time to time to wail and weep, then, but, even so, I will continue to insist that despair is not an option. Not now. Not ever.

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