No Room for Despair

Agnes Wengert

If I were to paint a picture of despair, I would select the darkest blues, blacks, purples, and black greens from my palette. I would cover every speck of my canvas in thick swirls of tormenting movement. There would be no highlights. If I were to paint despondency, it would be much the same, but the swirls would have tinted undershadows and at some point on the canvas, I would make one lightning stroke of gold-white hope. But even this I would cover with a sheer filmy cloud, so that only the perceptive viewer would notice. Should I allow despondency to prevail, it could easily result in despair by a few strokes of the brush to erase hope. But should I wish to encourage the gold-white ray of hope to extend into the turmoil, I may need added skill to remove the cloud, or seek the guidance of an artist more knowledgeable of the medium.

In life we may need comparable means to turn despair into despondency and despondency into hope. Periods of despondency may be part of the human condition. W. Q. Judge recognized it as a cyclic occurrence in the life of one of his friends, and urged him to take conscious note of its recurrence and take direct measures to divert them. (1) Katherine Tingley has words of encouragement for despondents and suggests walking through and from such periods, step by step. (2) Current writers offer many step by step progressions out of hopelessness and depression. Which steps, and to what heights need we ascend in order to be free of its clutches?

The scriptures, history, and general observance of life show us examples of deep despondency approaching despair. We may be familiar with Arjuna's deep sadness in the opening chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita. Upon surveying the two armies about to do battle, he recognized family, relatives, and close friends on both sides. Moved with pity, puzzlement, and depression at the seeming impossibility of fighting either side, he sat down, put away his arrows and bow, and stated he could not fight. (3) John Stuart Mill, a British analytical philosopher (1806-73) spent years in exhaustive study of mental processes — mind, emotion, and will. At one point he realized he had analyzed man into nothing and his work had worn away feeling. He stated, "thus neither selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me." (4) An anonymous man from Quebec tells of the "bottom" he reached when at age 54 he lost his job and returned to intoxication for three months after six months' sobriety. The ultimate came from the response of his employer, "die and be damned," when he appealed for a chance to visit him. (5) Thus depression and despondency have many sources and are experienced on spiritual, emotional, and physical levels.

Contrary to some modern self-help approaches, searching for the one deep-seated "why" of the condition does not necessarily offer the magic speedy solution to walking through and beyond the pain of despondency. In fact, the questions "Why do I imbibe?" or "Why do I quell pain with food or drugs?" may not even approach the question needing an answer. In several Upanishads, the sage admonishes the disciple to "practice austerity, continence, and faith for a year, then ask what questions you will."

It is interesting that in the 1920s and '30s a group of people, bogged down with a common symptom — alcoholism — learned that the "one cause" theory was a fallacy. Even should they discover the one cause, there was no assurance of effecting a cure or change in their lives. This group of sad, nearly beaten individuals formed a fellowship where, through shared experience, strength, and hope they were mutually able to inspire in one another a willingness to practice the "austerity, continence, and faith" recommended by the sage of the Upanishads. (6) They slowly realized that the spiritual, emotional, and physical natures of man play intricate roles in this condition. And on that basis, they developed for themselves and anyone who cared to join them, the Twelve Steps for Alcoholics Anonymous.

The merit of these steps lies in their wide range of applicability. They are approachable from each individual's attitude toward spirituality and religious affiliation. They are equally practical for persons with compulsions, addictions, or tendencies contributing to a state of despondency. And they are workable for anyone with persistent willingness.

In essence the first three steps are taken when the suffering individual, first, recognizes that he has experienced near spiritual, emotional, or physical calamity or disaster — and there is an admission of defeat in following the present repeated mode of thought or action. Second, he or she cannot go on living, drawing on the strength of former inadequate resources, but comes to an awakening that there is within himself a Higher Power able and willing to assist him or her. Third, there is an appeal to that Higher Power, with an open expression of willingness to follow steadfastly the intuitions and directives it may suggest.

It is as if the soul inwardly hears the beautiful words of Katherine Tingley: "We must grow as the flowers grow — not attempt to reach the tops of the mountains in one life time. Step by step we climb. This is an occult law. The ancient teachers taught it, and the people of ancient days believed it and applied it. It is full of meaning: step by step we climb — to a grander vision of life and to nobler service." (7)

At this point, a state of semi-euphoria may descend upon the willing soul, but eagerness alone will not suffice. The inner god may again be silent, should one stop there. Instead, in step four, the despondent one takes an immense step of honesty — an honest examination of the burden that weighs him down. It is called "taking a searching and fearless moral inventory." This, in turn, is admitted to oneself, one's Higher Power, and another person who is equally serious about spiritual growth (step five). In the words of the sixth and seventh steps of the AA program — "be entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character" and "humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings" — a different meaning comes to the "quick fix" plan than an addictive mind would desire. Moving out of despondency is seen as a slow, steady raising of one's thoughts and desires to higher planes.

An incident in the New Testament teaches the depth to which one must go in order to rise to the plane of the spiritual. It is told that a certain man running up to Jesus fell upon his knees before him and asked, "Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" And Jesus replied, "Thou knowest the commandments," and quoted those pertaining to preserving life, honesty, purity, and reverence. The young man answered, "Master, all these have I observed from my youth." Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said, "One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, . . . and follow me." (8)

Paraphrased, the Master's response may say: "Go sell all the deep-rooted tendencies and resentments that divert you from caring for others. Because it is in serving others that you will find yourself removing the defects and shortcomings." And he may continue, "With the profits of this sale (which will be compassion, mercy, and understanding) clothe the poor you have harmed, heal the wounds you have created in yourself and others." How? By listing the persons harmed and then making direct amends to such people whenever possible (steps 8 and 9).

By taking these nine steps, many an addictive despondent soul has boldly extended the gold-white ray of hope onto his canvas of life and at least partially removed some of the ominous clouds that bordered on despair. But along with this, he learns of the constant care needed not to blot out hope again. In this he listens to the suggestion of the great teachers throughout the ages, as in the Golden Verses of Pythagoras: "Admit not sleep to thy drooping eyes, / Ere thou hast well reviewed each one of the day's deeds. / In what was I remiss? What did I do? What duty was not fulfilled?"

G. de Purucker cautions that, in the review of the day just passed and the turning of our thoughts to order and peace, we "refuse entrance to any thoughts of dislike, hatred or evil," so that on waking our minds will "automatically go on functioning along the exact lines of thought which one had preceding . . . sleep" (step 10). (9)

Step eleven encourages daily time for quiet study, prayer, and meditation — a time to hear the heart speak. And step twelve permeates them all. It speaks of service — actively caring about others. This step stimulates the motive to carry out all efforts away from despondency, with others in mind. It is the life thread of all the steps: becoming more concerned about sharing life and love, than measuring one's personal growth. (10)

Despair, then, is a severe state of hopelessness, while despondency is depression that can be worked through. The soul afflicted with either requires footwork, faith, and support to withstand such a cloudy cycle of life. Many have discovered a path patterned on the twelve steps described, especially when their depression was caused by the throes of an addiction. This was true of the anonymous man from Quebec mentioned earlier. He testified that the devastation he experienced from his employer's seemingly harsh response was the turning point of his life. His realization that despair was of his own allowance, not the imposition of another, exacted from him utter surrender to his higher self. Step by step he trudged forward to physical and spiritual health. For sixteen years his journey was beautifully enhanced by his care and concern for others, especially those of a similar addiction.

Having grown despondent from his one-pointedness, it is told of John Stuart Mill that he remained in this state until he read a collection of Wordsworth's poems. "From them," he wrote, "I seemed to learn what would be the perennial source of happiness, when all the greater evils of life should have been removed."

The great soul, Arjuna, though not subject to addiction, was nevertheless burdened by attachments and misunderstanding which caused him near immobility. In this frame of soul, he questions, argues, suffers, and finally begs Krishna to teach him renunciation and final liberation. Through eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna responds with patient instruction. His lengthy and inspiring discourse in response to Arjuna's request: "I wish to learn, O great-armed one, the nature of abstaining from action and of the giving up of the results of action, and also the difference between these two," covers the whole of the final chapter. His words are a most glorious instruction for moving from what holds us to repetition of earth-binding actions to levels of great freedom. In humble response Arjuna cries, "By thine divine power, O thou who fallest not, my delusion is destroyed, I am collected once more; I am free from doubt, firm, and will act according to thy bidding."

There is hope for all. Each stage of the soul's evolution requires alteration and rearrangement of the hues and shadows on our canvas of life, metaphorically speaking. Life is noble and requires the noblest posture we can muster. Then we shall live these words:

With the ultimate ever in mind, we must yet live for the day. . . . We have not to look ahead to future years with fear and dread, but to eliminate from our minds all those ideas that have taken root in our blood, which make us the progeny of doubt and fear, and, according to the old conception, of sin. — The Wine of Life, p. 329

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1992; copyright © 1992 Theosophical University Press)


1. "Cyclic Impression and Return and Our Evolution," in Echoes of the Orient, Point Loma Publications, San Diego, 1975, 1:499-500. (return to text)

2. The Wine of Life, Women's International Theosophical League, Point Loma, CA, 1925, p. 329. (return to text)

3. Bhagavad-Gita, William Q. Judge recension, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1969. (return to text)

4. Cf. T. Subba Row, Notes on the Bhagavad-Gita, Theosophical University Press, 1978, p. 3. (return to text)

5. Came to Believe, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., New York, 13th ed., 1988, pp. 13-14. (return to text)

6. Robert Ernest Hume, Prasna Upanishad (I.2), in The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, Oxford University Press, London, 1934, p. 378. (return to text)

7. The Wine of Life, p. 258. (return to text)

8. Mark 10:17-21. (return to text)

9. Fountain-Source of Occultism, Theosophical University Press, 1974, p. 614. (return to text)

10. For complete text of the Twelve Steps see Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., New York, 1976, pp. 59-60. (return to text)

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