Our Existential Predicament:
Loneliness, Depression, Anxiety & Death

by James Park


Outline for Chapter 10:

Existential Despair:
Floating Down the River of Despair

The River of Despair

I. PSYCHOLOGICAL DESPAIR

Five Dimensions of Psychological Despair
II. EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR
Five Dimensions of Existential Despair
III. HOW EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR LEAKS INTO THE BOAT

IV. SINKING INTO EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR

V. TRYING TO SWIM AGAINST THE CURRENT OF DESPAIR

A. Distracting Ourselves.
B. Turning to Something Hopeful.
C. Living One Day at a Time.
D. Succumbing to Despair.
VI. HARNESSING THE RIVER FOR AUTHENTIC EXISTENCE

VII. DIVING THRU DESPAIR TO EXISTENTIAL FREEDOM

VIII. CRITERIA FOR EVALUATION


Chapter 10

Existential Despair:
Floating Down the River of Despair

     We are all floating down the River of Despair, drifting toward death.
Some of us live in elaborate house-boats;
some bob along in smaller motorboats and rowboats;
others are lying on rafts or even struggling in the water, clinging to driftwood.
We all proceed at about the same speed toward the same destiny.
But some of us are enjoying the trip more than others.
Some of us feel the wetness of existential despair against our own skins;
while others of us are protected from the river by our mode of floating.
If we are among the house-boat dwellers,
we can completely ignore the river:  We live as if we were on dry land.

     The little waves in this River of Despair
represent our small disappointments and particular losses of hope.
These little disillusionments remind some of us
—if we live in close contact with the hopeless current under all life—
of the ceaseless flow of existential despair.
But if our protective boats remain intact,
we are able to ride over the little waves without paying much attention.

I. PSYCHOLOGICAL DESPAIR

     Many situations in human life can lead us to despair.
Whenever we dare to dream, our hopes can be dashed.
Whatever we long for, we can be disappointed.

     If we trust in love and marriage to bring ultimate fulfillment,
the collapse of those hopes can lead to despair.

     If we put major efforts into raising a family,
we can be very disappointed if our children go 'wrong':
         The children will never achieve what we wanted.
         Our last hope for them has been crushed.

     Or we can give up hope for our parents:
         Our parents are hopelessly enmeshed in the old way of life;
         their blind value system is forever set.
Despair.  Resignation.  Reconstruction.

     Or we may invest our hopes in money and possessions.
But usually making money does not come as easily as we had dreamed:
         There never seems to be enough money to go around.
         Our debts just keep piling higher and higher.
If we are overwhelmed by financial problems, we may despair.

Ch. 10    EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR: FLOATING DOWN THE RIVER    by JAMES PARK     253


     If we are not promoted in our occupations as we had hoped,
we may despair of ever getting out of our present jobs.
Or we may despair of finding work that suits our interests and abilities.
We may even feel ourselves caught in dead-end jobs
—from which the only promotion is death.  Despair.  Hopelessness.

     Whatever goals we set for ourselves
—personal, financial, athletic, sexual, artistic, social, spiritual—
our hopes can be smashed in several possible ways.
We all know how it feels to see the last shred of hope disappear:
The project, the grant, the book, the relationship, the contest has been lost.

     Politics is another area of human endeavor that can lead us to despair.
We vote regularly, but how much difference does it make?
The people who win elections are usually partisans,
who lead the human race into further tribal conflict.
One group is pitted against another; one side wins, the other loses.
Powerful leaders of some nations commit war against other nations,
often pointless wars nobody wants, which drag on meaninglessly for years.
A hundred years later, nothing is fundamentally improved.
There seems to be nothing the average citizen can do.
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

     Death is the final occasion for despair.
We may hope that someone we love who is terminally ill will not die,
but at some point we realize that our longing is hopeless,
that death will inevitably claim the person we love.

     And finally we must confront our own deaths.
We will probably resist dying as much as we can,
but when we feel ourselves beginning the inevitable decline,
we may release our grip on life.
This final despair over having to die
is very close to comprehensive, total, existential despair.
Confronting our fear of ceasing-to-be may disclose our ontological anxiety.
(See "An Existential Understanding of Death"—Chapter 9 of this book.)
"Despair all ye who enter here" the sign says over the gate to Dante's hell.
There is no hope of return.  Those who enter are eternally damned.

     If we examine our lives—past, present, and future—
we know some of the problems that can cause us to lose hope.
Do we despair about our work, our relationships,
our communication with people close to us, our looks,
our health, our parents, our children, our overweight, our smoking?

     From these several examples of loss of ordinary hopes and dreams,
we can create a general description of all psychological despair:

254      OUR EXISTENTIAL PREDICAMENT: LONELINESS, DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, & DEATH


F i v e   D i m e n s i o n s   o f   P s y c h o l o g i c a l   D e s p a i r

     1. Psychological despair arises from definite life-situations.
We despair when we encounter circumstances
that prevent us from achieving specific goals or realizing certain values.

     2. When such despair strikes, we already understand it.
We know why the dream will never come true,
why, for instance, there is no hope that someone we love will survive.
The cause, reason, or source of the hopelessness is well known to us.

     3. But most hopeless situations (except death) eventually pass;
after a time we become reconciled to the loss, however great.
We learn to live on, possibly reconstructing our lives better than before.
We can carry on without that specific person or that missed promotion.

     4. Our situations of hopelessness can be separated from one another.
Each difficulty or problem can be met by itself.
And if it is truly hopeless, we can turn to something else.
The end of love usually does not mean loss of health or financial ruin.

     5. Psychological despair can be handled by accepting the situation
and resuming our lives with whatever values we can still realize.
If a personal relationship absolutely cannot be saved,
we can let go—and start life over again in a new way.

II. EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR

     But there is no such 'cheery' side to primordial despair
—the fundamental hopelessness of human existence.
Any one life may have more than enough ordinary disappointments,
but underlying these ordinary defeats lurks the total hopelessness.
This deepest despair may feel like the utter hopelessness of everything:
Not only are all our little projects individually futile,
but we see no hope even in the process of trying.
This existential despair is not the loss of hope for this or that project,
not even the simultaneous collapse of all our ordinary hopes,
but it is the comprehensive loss of hope for existence.

     Active or passive suicide sometimes results from existential despair.
Viktor Frankl tells of the deaths of many prisoners
in the Nazi concentration camps because they totally gave up hope.
Sunk into despair, they did not even take care of their survival needs
and consequently they died quickly of one thing or another.

     "Hope springs eternal in the human breast" said Alexander Pope.
But we also have an existential hopelessness hiding within us.
This deep, dark, despair is not cognitive, rational discouragement
but an inward, unintelligible sense of hopelessness,
which only occasionally breaks thru our daily preoccupations.

Ch. 10    EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR: FLOATING DOWN THE RIVER    by JAMES PARK     255


F i v e   D i m e n s i o n s   o f   E x i s t e n t i a l   D e s p a i r

     At lease we can describe this deeper condition of complete despair.
The resulting phenomenology of existential despair reveals it to be
the opposite of psychological despair in each of its five dimensions:

     1. Not the perceived futility of some specific life-situations,
existential despair is the disclosure of total hopelessness.
All our efforts seem futile and meaningless.
We cannot get beyond the absurd.

     2. Thus, it is senseless to look for a specific cause for existential despair.
Particular life-situations are not relevant at all.
This hopelessness arises from within us, not from the objective world.
Changing our life-circumstances will not alleviate our existential despair.

     3. Nor will waiting and watching allow existential despair to pass.
We can accept specific hopeless situations (eg the loss of love).
And we can usually push forward on the hope we find in other situations.
But the darker despair is permanent and complete.
Life will not pick itself up again after a while
because our whole existence is infected with hopelessness and despair.

     4. This total hopelessness is not limited to one dimension of life.
Unlike other encounters with ordinary disappointments and failures,
no new hope appears on the horizon.
Existential despair pervades every corner of our beings.

     5. And because no area of life is untouched by comprehensive despair,
the thread of life cannot be picked up at another place.
All our efforts at reconstruction fail:  There is no hope.
Once despair has made its presence known, we cannot overcome it.
 
PSYCHOLOGICAL DESPAIR
EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR
1. Hopelessness of a definite situation;
impossibility of a specific task.
1. Total hopelessness;
all efforts futile.
2. Understandable cause or source
in the objective world.
2. No objective cause;
existentially disclosed from within.
3. We eventually accept the loss or
defeat; reconstruction possible.
3. Permanent hopelessness;
no reconstruction possible.
4. Independent, separate,
isolatable difficulties.
4. Pervasive, comprehensive
hopelessness.
5. We can accept the inevitable
and focus on other values.
5. We cannot overcome it,
only conceal it or embrace it.

256      OUR EXISTENTIAL PREDICAMENT: LONELINESS, DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, & DEATH


III. HOW EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR LEAKS INTO THE BOAT
 



 
 
    If you think that existential despair

might be a condition of your inner being,
you may want to read the rest of this chapter,
which is 14 pages in all, in Our Existential Predicament.
Go the publisher's website for details: www.existentialbooks.com.


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