So far, 2017 hasn’t been very kind to my health.
I caught the flu for the first time in at least two decades over the weekend, and unlike yours truly, it doesn’t seem to be something that gets better with age.
I sent my daughter to stay with her mom a few days early so she hopefully wouldn’t catch it herself, so I’ve been largely alone for the last several days while waiting this thing out.
The medication I was prescribed for my cough apparently had a nasty side-effect of depression, one that was exacerbated when I stopped taking it. So it was I found myself late last night in a long-neglected but not-unfamiliar state of being: despair.
Unlike general depression, I liken despair more to a sense of dull (though sometimes acute) panic. There is definitely a sense of hopelessness, but the hopelessness is almost manic in intensity as it is felt with dramatic immediacy.
I’ve experienced these episodes a lot, primarily as a child and teenager when I had routine bouts of panic attacks, but thank God they are few and far between now. I had an incredibly minor panic attack several weeks ago while in church, but what I experienced last night was a true throw-back to years gone by, and I fully recognized it as such at the time.
It’s really hard to describe what these moments of despair feel like. Panic and hopelessness are appropriate but vague. It’s a period of time when your mind is truly unable to understand how there is any kind of hope outside the torment it currently finds itself in.
Reason does no good here because it’s completely emotional. And, truth be told, there are often good reasons behind the logic of despair. Old, old lies that tormented me for so long crept back into the foreground of my mind, lies that in times of lucidity I fully recognize for what they are, but in times of despair struggle to distinguish from my own normal thoughts.
I tell myself: this is drug-induced. This is going to pass. It’s passed before; it will pass again. The lies: but they eventually come back, don’t they? Even if it’s 20 years, it’ll come back. You aren’t truly free.
I tell myself: you’re sick, and your mind and emotions are being played by a mixture of exhaustion, stress, sickness and medication. The lies: who are you kidding? You’ve worked yourself up into states like this before without any outside influence.
I tell myself: you only feel lonely right now because you miss your daughter, and you’re overly-emotional. The lies: you will always be lonely. Your daughter will grow up and leave. Your friends are all married. Your parents will die. You will never be married.
The primary enemy, of course, in times like these is myself. Well, truthfully, it’s God’s Enemy himself whispering the lies-with-enough-hint-of-truth-to-stick that is my primary enemy, but of course the lines of rationality I struggle with are spoken in my own inner voice.
It’s only through painful experience that I’ve learned it does no good to try to think my way out of times like that. I only think myself into deeper circles of despair. The only recourse is for the mind to shut up and be at peace, if that be possible.
So I pace. Back and forth, back and forth. I collapse on the couch, restless, stand up, and pace more. I don’t look at the clock because it is more despairing. I pace myself into thoughtlessness, and from there, eventually sleep.
With the morning comes, thank God, an increased absence of the drug from my system, and thus my despair has subsided. It was still difficult to get through the day, but it wasn’t as hard as it had been.
I share this because there are for many of us myriad reasons to despair if we focus on them. The future looks daunting, if not impossible, if we completely envision what it is going to look like all at once.
But that’s just the catch, isn’t it? The future doesn’t happen all at once. I’m not going to have to face all the things I’m afraid of at the same time. Life will happen to me, as it does to all of us, little by little.
And pleasant surprises do happen. Look, I have no answer to the deepest hole in my heart – my loneliness – other than the recognition that it will only ever truly be answered by God Himself. At its core, it’s an existential loneliness, but it is indeed also more than that. There is a human element to it I can’t deny, and I don’t have any answers for that other than to live life one day at a time.
If I do that, and don’t focus on the breadth of what I anticipate to be another 40 or 50 years on this planet, I’ll make it, come what may or may not. Maybe it won’t be the way I’d envisioned my life playing out, but that’s alright.
I often have crappy dreams, anyway, in retrospect. God has surprised me with His generosity in making my life mean more in ways I never could have anticipated.
Whether your despair is personal, or political, or communal, the wisdom is in just taking each day as it comes and trying to enjoy it as you can for what it is.
And if you can’t enjoy anything on this particular day, that’s OK. You’re allowed.
There’ll be a new day tomorrow.