so, on despair
I have to exercise constant self-surveillance and discipline to be anything other than deeply depressed, and some of that has become subconscious by now, but by no means all. I am always thinking about misery, always in dialogue with misery, whether I say so out loud or not. I am happy, as happy now as I have ever been — but I have to work for it every day, and think about that work, and value it. So to me, hope is more or less the same thing as working towards a goal.
when I say hope I don’t mean happiness, or faith that things will work out. I mean the mental state that is a precondition for working towards a better future for yourself or the world: the ability to imagine that future, a modest amount of optimism, some faith in your capacity to control your life and your circumstances in even a limited way, not being completely weighed down by fear or melancholy. hope is this work; this work is hope.
I try not to be that person who sententiously declares “have hope” or “live for your work” to the depressed because that is deeply cruel and also never works. so I often wonder who the hell I’m talking to when I talk about hope and work, why I’m saying all this stuff, because depressed people mostly can’t use it and others don’t need it. my experience has been that hope is not like pleasure, where you can remember why it was good when you’re not experiencing it. when you lose hope you feel like a fool for ever having had it, you don’t want to hope again.
but I really strongly believe in the central importance of hope. even if it’s futile. even if it’s just hope that the supermarket will have that fake bacon stuff. that’s better than nothing; the hope, that is, usually the bacon too. how do you get to hope, though?
hope is basically a massive self-deception. It’s not real! How can you be so sure there’s a chance things will turn out ok? That you are in control of anything? But despair is no truer, and a lot less useful. Despair is immobilising, despair preserves the status quo, despair reproduces itself. Just because this is commonsensical doesn’t mean it’s reactionary. It’s interesting and comforting to explore the political possibility of negative affect, sure, and I think there’s some use that can, if necessary, be wrung from many awful feelings. Not despair, though. Despair is the foreclosure of all other ways the world could be; despair is our worst enemy.
But hope seems so remote when you’re depressed. Worse than unattainable; irrelevant, from another world, a mockery of your life. And anything I can say that’s not bland reassurance seems incredibly dangerous. I don’t know what to say when with people in utter despair. I mostly think that very little you say can help. What matters is what you do. I can’t reason my friends out of their sadness but I can listen to them and do their laundry and go with them to the doctor and tell them that I love them and the world is good again and again and again and if I’m very, very lucky and very, very smart I can gently steer them away from things that are destructive to them until they are ready to try hope again.
So what the hell can I say, pontificating on the internet, that’s of any relevance? Any use? Very little. Except maybe: almost any goal is better than none. And maybe also: hope, like happiness, often has to be approached sideways rather than being an explicit goal; it’s possible to get to hope or a reasonable approximation through guilt, self-loathing, spite, rage, or shame, if you’re tactical about it. I don’t mean shaming people into snapping out of mental illness, or whatever. I mean working with whatever other emotional resources you’ve got to resist despair. “Practice self-care because you matter” is saccharine and unconvincing to me most days. But I can manage “fuck you, I’ll show you how much I can blitz this” or even “nobody needs to deal with my neuroses, I’m enough of a burden” and leverage that spite and guilt into, like, having a nap and a snack and calling the dentist — and if I do that for long enough, things might start to look up for real. that is the best I can do, try and trick myself into hope. but it’s good enough.