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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

The Far Side of Despair

by John Lawson 2003, 2010

    One of the great joys of life lies in participating in the boundless creativity of nature.  From the spinning of the spider’s web to the posing of a child's first question, the signs of a vital force are to be encountered everywhere.  The surging energy of life turns the blank canvas into a work of art and fills the mind of the painter with wonder and with perplexity.  Life, however, is more than creation. As humans, we are aware that the shadow of death lurks in the background of all vital processes.  The spider’s web entraps its prey, just as the child’s questioning ensnares the knowledge of mortality.  The human creature is fated to know that all life is ephemeral. Inhabitants on the worldly stage are not lords of the earth but merely its tenants.  Life’s candle burns for a longer or shorter time, but in the end, we know that the flame will be extinguished.  Such knowledge need not leave us disconsolate.  The awareness of death may draw human beings together.  If the time allotted to each is brief, the shortness of the journey serves to deepen the intensity of living and leads us to share our experience with others.  Unfortunately, however, in human affairs the force of life is all too often attenuated by the ravages of destructiveness wrought by humans themselves.  In the words of Mark Twain: “Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.”  How are we to explain such a misfortune?              

    To answer this question, we must realize that the human animal comes into the world under exceptional circumstances.  As Carl Sagan and others before him have pointed out, the human infant is born an “unfinished” creature.  After birth, the baby exists for many months in what amounts to a state of “extra-uterine gestation”; it undergoes a period of prolonged helplessness and dependency.  Unlike the young wildebeest, which is on its feet and ready to run with the herd only minutes after being born, the human child must be nurtured for an extended time.  The baby’s brain, in the course of the first year of life, grows in size and complexity to a significantly greater extent than is the case with other animals.  This growth takes place under the heightened influence of environmental factors.  There is a consequent decrease in the role of instincts that guide the young human, and there is an increase in the role of learning as a determining factor in the child’s development.  Such learning, as Moshe Feldenkrais has pointed out, is not “intellectual”; rather, it is “organic.  The child requires embodied love, warmth, acknowledgment, and attendance.  It needs to be fed at the breast of the mother for a prolonged period.  It requires healthy sensory stimulation, and it needs protection from the dangers that threaten its well-being.  When the needs of the young human are not satisfactorily met, the experience is one of desolation, and the result is the fostering of destructive tendencies – both toward oneself and others.  These destructive tendencies become more or less firmly set in the character structure of the adult into whom the child grows.

    The effects of childhood deprivation and the scope of its consequences are far-reaching.  How a person thinks, how he moves, and how he breathes are the result of an organic learning process that is inevitably carried out either under favorable or unfavorable circumstances.  If conditions are positive, the force of love in a context of security leads to creativity and a deep sense of humanity.  In the absence of such a context, the organism shrinks and hardens under the influence of chronic, unresolved anxieties.  The result of such accumulated anxieties is destructiveness, the forms of which in the contemporary world are legion.  From the self-torture of chronic feelings of depression to the frenzied flight from reality into a virtual world of fantasy; from the depths of impotence to the surrogate stimuli of pills and pornography, destruction abounds.  The roots of such destructiveness are to be found in the disturbed and disturbing conditions of early development which serve to produce a dysfunctional culture of distraught and alienated adults who pass on their problems to their children.  Not surprisingly, individuals faced with such a situation may find themselves in the grip of despair.  Paradoxically, such despair may itself be a sign of creative stirrings of life within the individual.  More than one school of thought in the Western tradition has advanced such a view.  Perhaps this is most evident in the writings of the existentialists.    

    In the work of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus, one finds a preoccupation with the phenomena of dread, anguish, and despair.  In their writings, these authors focus on the unavoidable challenge which human beings face in taking responsibility for the knowledge of their own mortality.  Only by grappling with the contingency of human existence, they suggest, can one live authentically.  Thus, Sartre proclaims in a well-known passage: “Human existence begins on the far side of despair.”  

    It may be, as the existentialists suggest, that the origins of despair lie in the human condition itself.  The human condition, however, is not an abstraction.   Human beings belong to a species characterized by a prolonged state of early dependency, an increased capacity for self-reflection, and a heightened potential for anxiety.  In his book Cosmic Superimposition, Wilhelm Reich has pondered this situation.  He writes: “To judge from the study of the theories of knowledge, nothing can compare with man’s amazement at his capacity to feel, to reason, to perceive himself, to think about himself and nature around him.”  He goes on to speculate: “There is good reason to assume that in such experience of the Self man somehow became frightened and for the first time in the history of his species began to armor against the inner fright and amazement.” (Italics in the original.)  If Reich’s supposition is correct, the tendency toward despair in human beings - rooted in an awareness of mortality - must be seen as part of the endowment of the species.  It follows that the compulsive avoidance of the experience of despair is at the root of many human social and personal problems.           

    To traverse the depths of despair, as Sartre recommends, in order to arrive at the far side, where authentic existence is possible, is not an easy process.  This is true not simply as a result of the inherent fragility of the human condition.  The generalized social and cultural situation in which human beings find themselves today involves a world where the prevailing emphasis is on the avoidance of true feelings, on the evasion of self-examination, and on the acting-out of destructive impulses rooted in pent-up frustration.  In spite of the difficulty, however, a commitment to self-examination and personal growth may bring great rewards; for life lived in a morass of passivity or in the throes of aimless avoidance is not life at all, but the absence of life. 

    One of the conclusions that follows from a serious consideration of the nature of human despair is that working through such despair involves a practical, emotional task and not simply a labor of the intellect.  The individual who is in despair needs to open up his breathing and to expand his functioning.  Etymologically, the word “despair” means “to contract,” while the word “hope” means “to expand.”  If one is to move through despair to a position of greater hope and identification with life, bio-energetic factors must be addressed. One must deepen one’s breathing in order to increase one’s energy.  At the same time, one must reorganize one’s character structure so that one can accommodate enhanced vitality and give direction and stability to more authentic experience and behavior.  In this task, the verbal level comes into play, for one must comprehend the inner conflicts that stem from the desperate situation of one’s upbringing, and one must understand the tendency in oneself to perpetuate problems by responding unthinkingly to the stresses inherent in the modern world. The interrupted process of organic learning must be reactivated.  Doing so stimulates the evolution of a more positive attitude toward life.

    Jean-Paul Sartre, in his philosophical work Being and Nothingness, draws a distinction between fear and anguish.  He comments: “A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life’s being changed from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own reactions in that situation.”  In the face of life’s adversity, given the fragile nature of the human condition, the essence of a healthy attitude is creativity.  Such an attitude, anchored deeply in the human personality, allows one to participate in the joy as well as the pain of being part of the great, unfolding continuum of life.  To identify with life does not create paradise on earth.  It does not eliminate all problems.  It does not extinguish the reality of death.  It does, however, provide a basis for a more potent and creative experience of oneself in the midst of a dehumanizing cultural and social context obsessed with destruction.

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