I took the family to see the latest Bond movie, Spectre, on Friday night.  The film divided opinion amongst us (as I believe it has done nationally).  Personally I thoroughly enjoyed it; there was a throwback feel to the Connery/Moore era where the humour was sharp, the sexual politics dubious, the plot ridiculous and the villains unequivocally evil. 

On the car journey home we discussed our differences of opinion vigorously, citing various scenes to support our views.  From the back seat my son asked what had happened in Paris.  We racked our brains but could not remember any sequences in the French capital.  It became clear in the most distressing way that our conversation about fictional drama was over as the most distressing factual drama took over.

Over the weekend this story occupied most of my attention, as I am guessing it did for many of you.  I veered between anger, sadness, frustration and ultimately what I would best describe as despair.  Unlike in Bond films, where the audience finds catharsis and resolution in a most unambiguous and predictable way, real life drama is complex, ambiguous and ultimately unresolvable.  Hence the despair, ironically a word of French derivation (despoir c1300), meaning the complete absence of hope.

Last time my blog talked about the benefits of paying attention
; but how is it possible to do so without falling into a well of despair?  At the weekend when I paid my fullest attention to Paris it was if my heart was being crushed, like someone had it in their fist and was squeezing it like a rubber a ball.   In my stomach there were knots and spasms.  My head was a dark black void echoing a silent scream.  This is what my despair feels like.

As humans we are conditioned to be attracted to things that we like and to avoid the things we don’t.  It makes sense and it sounds completely obvious.  So why would I willingly pay attention to something that causes so much despair in me?   The answer is often that I don’t, well not fully anyway, because it is just too powerful to handle; or at least that is what I imagine.

What might be available to me if I can abide this feeling of despair just a little longer?  If I can give myself wholeheartedly to the somatic response that despair causes in me?   In order to do this I must first understand more about my instinct to move my attention away.  I guess it is a natural, healthy even, habit that prevents us from fully exposing ourselves to things that we imagine will cause us despair.  If I were to fully witness my own establishment thinking what would I discover about my relationship with despair?  I gave it a go and came up with four narratives: 

  • Deny despair.  Everything is fine really, people die every day.  This just happens to be a lot of people dying in a very public way.   We wouldn’t be getting this much coverage if it was in Africa.
  • Avoid despair (1).  La la la la la.  Do you think Ralph Fiennes is an adequate replacement for Judy Dench as M?  Is Sam Smith trying to invoke Shirley Bassey with that theme tune?
  • Avoid despair (2).  Jump into action.  Better to do something than sit with these awful feelings.  In my case that meant a whole day gardening.
  • Be diminished by despair.   What can I do really?  I’m just a powerless individual.  This is an enormous, complex, global problem and I just can’t help
  • Take the blame for my despair.  The terrorists represent a community that are victims of Western foreign policy and corporate greed.  I am part of a Western democracy and I buy products from those companies.  So it is all my fault. 

Just seeing these constructed narratives written down has helped me see more clearly what is going on.  I then wondered what might be a more helpful relationship with despair.  A relationship that might allow me to more fully and wholeheartedly pay attention to what is going on.  A relationship that would render my habitual defence mechanisms redundant.    Here’s what I came up with:

  • Embrace despair.  Or at least abide it.  I learnt from mindfulness that distinction alone has the power of transformation.  In other words just paying attention to my despair, without judgment or looking to change it, might paradoxically cause a shift.
  • Despair proves I have a heart.  If I could listen to the screams and gunfire coming from the Bataclan theatre without feeling some despair, what would that say about my psychological health?
  • We need despair in order to have hope.  If despair is the complete absence of hope then it is a requirement; a sort of essential shadow.  Without the despair I feel about Paris I wouldn’t know the hope I feel from the expressions of unity and solidarity I’ve witnessed in its wake.
  • There is much to be learned from despair – there is much to be learned from most things we don’t like so why should despair be any different.

It may not be a compelling list – a friend who reviewed this blog described it as desperate – but it’s a start.  If I can allow despair to be less debilitating and more energising what affect will this have on my ability to more fully stay awake and serve?

As I re-read this blog I notice the need to apologise for any offence caused in my exploration of these tragic events for such introspective and self-serving purposes (and also for the potentially crass comparison with Bond at the start).  My hope is that my own learning can somehow be helpful to others who are in the grip of their own despair in the face of events like the Paris attacks or those who are struggling to pay full attention to what’s going on around.

PS.  This last point was made much more eloquently by that same friend:  if we face into the despair, sit with it and all its discomfort and are fully aware of it then we have the freedom to respond. We then have free thought and choice rather than the instinctive reactions that propel us forward most of the time leading to the avoidance and all the other things you mentioned.

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Comment by Tobey Fitch on November 18, 2015 at 21:24

Thank you Nick for the human and personal reflection.  Good to read your words and hear your voice through them.  We had just seen Bond too, just 2 days after.  And I reflected on the difference between the two narratives: One of complex international reality and one of a story with a hero, and a beginning, middle, and end.  

Very best regards to you from across the miles and years

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