The newest WWF Living Planet Report gives reason for alarm. Within two generations, the population size of vertebrate species (other than human) has dropped by 52%. We need 1.5 Earths to regenerate the natural resources we currently use. Reading these hard facts, it is very difficult not to despair. My cognitive brain refuses to see a solution that will work fast enough to keep the human race, my human race, from destroying life on this planet, including our own lives. Not in my lifetime, perhaps, but I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to live and enjoy the beauty of life on earth as much as I do.
I try to push that feeling of despair away. I like to be as positive and solution-oriented as possible. Despair immobilizes me, saps my energy. So I think of all the large and small-scale successes we have had in re-wilding parts of nature, bringing back species that were seriously endangered. I read about new initiatives, working with multinational businesses to find innovative solutions. I look for ways to raise awareness of the problem and to help people find their own answers. But the sheer numbers are overwhelming and I do feel pain, anger, and despair.
Yes, we should acknowledge that feeling of despair, says Joanna Macy in her book Active Hope. Only by honoring our pain for the world, will we be capable of breaking the spell of business as usual.
And so the challenge emerges: where to find the balance between honoring the pain and despair and letting it drag us into depression, futile anger, or stubborn denial.
Despair can also rise on an individual level. I worked with a client recently whose entire life had collapsed around his ears: his job gone, his marriage falling apart, his health threatened. And it seemed to me that the first step was to acknowledge the intense despair that he felt, acknowledge that feeling that nothing made sense any more. Feeling the pain instead of trying to escape from it through cognitive reasoning, hard work, or spiritual approaches emphasizing peace of mind.
Pain, grief, and sorrow are a gateway to empowerment, to finding new depths and new horizons in yourself. For my client, it meant accepting that this crisis in his life would bring him closer to the essence of who he is and what his life is about.
In the legend of Pandora’s Box, she opened the box, in spite of being warned not to. All the misfortune, wickedness, sickness, and terror was released into the world. But at the bottom of the box lay Hope. If the box had never been opened, Hope would not have found its way into the world.
And so I honor my pain and despair for the world. And, by doing so, I find new empowerment, hope, and energy to do all that I can to help.