I picked up the bottle of iodine, focusing on the skull and crossbones symbol. I did not have a cut that needed disinfecting. I was hurt on the inside. I had just returned to my hotel room from a meeting. A long time friend had said something that cut deep. Holding the bottle, the thought that came to my mind was, “I could drink this!”

The thought was serious, but just for a moment. I was hurt, tired, and so discouraged that despair seemed to rush in. I’ve never forgotten that moment, and have never told anyone until now. Maybe it is so vivid because my normal view of life is optimistic. I often tell people, “I don’t have problems, I have opportunities…”

Despair can have many sources and can be more profound combined with other factors. A friend’s 18-year-old daughter attempted to take her life. The devastating combination for her was the knee operation that took her out of her last year of high school sports, the friend who had criticized her harshly, a broken relationship, alcohol, and physical/emotional tiredness. Late one night, after everyone went to bed, she picked up her pain medication and downed the whole bottle. Fortunately for her and my friend, despair did not win. Others are not so fortunate.

Despair is dangerous and can be deadly. I remember reading once, “People can live weeks without food, days without water, minutes without oxygen, but not a moment without hope.” On a personal level, I have found it helpful to identify factors that contribute to despair, and also to cling to the things that give me hope. Some of these factors may seem insignificant. But they can combine to the point that despair explodes inside me.

Despair is swift and can be suffocating.

I have found that when I’m hungry and tired I’m more prone to lose perspective. The best thing I can do is eat and sleep.

I know that when I have emotional highs from lots of people contact or events, this can result in my emotional bank account being over extended. When that happens, I can expect an emotional low to follow. I find I’m much more able to deal with it when I know and anticipate this cycle. Then despair is more easily held at bay.

Another warning signal of emotional tiredness can be emotions edging closer to the surface. This can show up through angry “blow ups” or tears. You might even think, “Wow! Where did that come from?” These all give despair a foothold.

Another fertile soil for despair to take root in is the words of trusted friends. Words of close friends — either good or bad — can be so powerful. I don’t care much about what people say who do not know me, but the words of those who know me well carry significant weight. This is why divorce can be so profound. The person who knows you the best has just said, “I do not value or want you.” Wow! That is painful! Despair is swift and can be suffocating.

Hope becomes an antidote to despair. A variety of things can bring hope. Perspective can also bring hope. The following story illustrates this point. On a foggy morning in July 1952, Florence Chadwick waded into the chilly waters off Catalina Island. Her goal was to swim the Channel to the coast of California. The numbing coldness of the water hit her right away, and she could barely see the boat that accompanied her in the dense fog. Several times during her swim, a rifle was fired to keep sharks away. She swam for 15 hours before she asked to be taken out of the water. Her trainer encouraged her to keep going, saying she was very close to land.

Florence was no stranger to long distance swimming. She had been the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. But this day, as she neared the coast of California, all she could see was the fog. She was exhausted, and began to feel discouraged, thinking she was not going to be able to make it. Florence gave up, just a half mile from her goal! In the interview after the swim, she was quoted as saying, “I’m not excusing myself, but if I had only been able to see the land, I might have been able to make it.”

A person cannot live long with despair.

What was it that caused Florence to give up that day? Was it the cold water, exhaustion, or fear? No. The reason she failed to reach her goal was the fog. Two months later, she swam that same Catalina channel and set a new speed record in the process.

I need fog-clearing moments, times when I take stock of my life and circumstances. Sometimes this comes through stopping activity and taking stock or it might involve finding an objective listener who can help you clear the fog. This might mean a trip or two to a councilor or a wise, trusted friend.

A person cannot live long with despair. Dealing with despair takes two forms, prevention and long term cure. Prevention is the strategy of dealing with conditions that lead to despair which can include simple things like enough rest or talking out discouragement with a trusted friend. Prevention involves finding a foundation that gives hope, especially in the midst of circumstances that produce despair. Many people find such a foundation through re-examining their spiritual roots in order to discover meaning and purpose beyond themselves.

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This article was written by: M. Woodard

Photo Credit: Christina Gottardi