Don’t Despair

by Rebecca Crichton

Many years ago, during a particularly dark time in my life, I read a book where the main character said, “The only sin I believe in, is the Sin of Despair.” I understood it immediately. I realized I had committed that ‘sin’ regularly by holding out the option of ending my life if I continued to feel so hopeless.

As a Jew, I don’t believe in the concept of sin, ‘Original’ or otherwise. In Hebrew, the word for transgression is Cheyt, an archery term for ‘missing the mark.’ During the annual High Holiday observances, Jews collectively ask for forgiveness for the many ways we have missed the mark during the past year. They range from personal to collective, emphasizing how we all act in ways that take us farther away from our own divinity and our relationship with others and with God, however we might define that term.

At my moment of recognition, I realized that imagining my final exit if I wasn’t happy, constituted a mindset that was definitely off the mark. I had told myself nobody would miss me and that others would be better off without me. I had indulged in a kind of negative grandiosity where my lack of worthiness justified retreating from the fray of life.

“Stop that!” I told myself. “Don’t believe that story. Find ways to feel better. Find people to help you. Live this life and learn from it!” Okay, maybe I didn’t say those words exactly, but I flashed an imaginary STOP sign in front of my mind and forced myself to detour.

Only recently did a ‘reformed’ Catholic friend of mine tell me that Despair qualifies as a mortal sin in Catholic theology. Turns out it isn’t looked on that positively by Jews either. Despair, in both faith traditions, is about giving in to hopelessness. Not believing in God’s grace and help is considered a rejection of the comfort and support of the Divine.

I value seeing things through multiple lenses. Think of it like the Phoropter, the device that lets ophthalmologists change lenses to find the one that brings things into the best focus. I am committed to exploring different models, concepts, and tools.

As I do, I keep learning how much I don’t know about how others perceive the world. It is both challenging and encouraging to be open to hearing the many ways people navigate and experience their lives. I am not proud of how easily I dismiss the opinions I don’t agree with, or judge others for their choices.

I just read a challenging and valuable book: I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times by Monica Guzman. A nationally recognized journalist based in Seattle, she is willing to endure the discomfort of hearing opposing views about things she believes deeply. Guzman asks a number of important questions that I use to reframe for my own judgments. “Is there an Us without a Them?” And, “What am I missing?”

I find myself realizing how much I don’t want to be open to beliefs which I think are dangerous, stupid, unfathomable, etc. When I allow myself to go into reactivity and judgment about the many dangers facing us, from climate to politics, from hatred to violence, I drop into existential as well as personal despair.

I work to force myself to find a way to seek hope and discern what life choices I need to make. My intention is to avoid hopeless conclusions that threaten my equilibrium and efficacy in the world.

“Never give up Hope” is the age-old counsel of thinkers and philosophers. Finding and developing one’s own path to hopefulness takes awareness and discipline. Nobody else can tell you what is meaningful in your life. Being told to be hopeful and grateful – Gratitude can be a good antidote to Despair – only helps if it resonates with you.

Refusing despair is about acceptance and stepping into agency in your own life.