Despair and Purpose

Despair and Purpose

To let ourselves feel anguish and disorientation as we open our awareness to global suffering is a part of our spiritual ripening. Mystics speak of the “dark night of the soul.” Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances and allow old mental comforts and conformities to fall away, they stand naked to the unknown. They let processes which their minds could not encompass work through them. Out of darkness, the new is born.

—Joanna Macy

Work in the wounded world carries despair with it as an occupational hazard for me. Many years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I worked as a volunteer in Camden, NJ, for two summers along with several other recent graduates—all of us white kids from the Midwestern suburbs. We were, quite frankly, trying to save the world. We worked in an organization that did community development. We ran a small employment agency, worked rehabbing houses, volunteered in a day care, did voter registration, helped set up free legal services, and arranged neighborhood recreation programs. Our naiveté seems almost laughable now. The cultural forces we were up against—poverty, race, drugs, violence, and white flight to the suburbs—were overwhelming. I think I managed to register about 25 voters during a time when the annual loss of voters was over a thousand. I found myself smack in the middle of a debilitating despair that I couldn’t shake.

On weekends we fled the city and went to the Jersey shore. One of the volunteers had a beach house at Ocean City, and that was our refuge. One weekend, towards the end of the first summer, we built an elaborate sand castle at the edge of the ocean, while the tide was coming in. The ocean soon threatened our castle, so we feverishly began building an elaborate set of sand dikes and canals to save it. We added seaweed and driftwood and empty coke bottles to the walls to reinforce them. I’m guessing that we looked pretty ridiculous—a group of eight college graduates sprinting up and down the beach with various materials to stop the waves. Eventually, of course, the ocean destroyed it all. We sat, side by side, as the sun was going down, watching the waves eliminate the last traces of our work. No one said a word.

Now, when I drive through Camden, I think of those two summers and wonder whether anything we did mattered, whether any person I knew still lives there or remembers that pathetic white guy from the Midwest who offered a ride to the courthouse to register, who drove the van to the job at the Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks factory in Doylestown. The entire street we lived on the second summer has been torn down. I recently read that Camden is one of the worst urban neighborhoods in the country. The dikes we built were made of sand. I had a friend who spent those summers lying next to his pool in Haddonfield, NJ, getting high and hitting on the girls next door. I could have partied instead of trying to build something, and the world, in the end, would have been about the same.

Despair is the ghost that haunts my attempts to work with purpose. I open the door and see it standing there as it has many times before, and I don’t know why I am surprised each time. I foolishly try to shut the door to keep it out. But of course it moves through the walls and makes itself at home. And here I am with it again, my companion. There is an old ghost story from the south where the ghost keeps asking the question, “Why? Why?” That question keeps ripping away at me. I answer it: “Of course you made a difference. . .” “You’re sowing seeds, and all it takes is one to sprout. . .” “it’s a thousand-year vision. . .” “It’s the death before the new birth, like Joanna Macy says. . .” All those answers still sound to me like that naïve Midwestern kid, desperately scurrying around to avoid feeling the despair. All those answers shrivel away, leaving only the paralyzing question.


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