Grief and Despair: Don’t Stop Planting
During a Question & Answer session some years ago, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was asked, “What is the hardest part of your practice?” I expected him to say, “stilling the mind” or “working with anger.” Nope. Thich Nhat Hanh answered that “not falling into despair” was the hardest part of his Buddhist mindfulness practice.
Despair is not a new topic for me to write about. As someone who leans toward depression, I am often skirting the edge of despair. I’m writing about it again today because the recent bevy of domestic terrorism, Black voter suppression, climate weather disasters, aggressive character assaults on immigrants, and attacks on the media have pushed my despair buttons once again. Some mornings I wake up feeling at a complete loss and tempted to simply give up.
Despair arises out of hopelessness and leads to giving up. And, despair can feel a lot like grief. But there is one important difference: grief is transient, and despair gets us stuck. If our deepest intention is to be part of the solution and to imagine the existence of future generations, we can’t afford to get stuck in our own despair.
If you're reading this post, I suspect you have access to the internet, own your own computer and have a house in which to stay warm. The more privileges you have — money and food, privileged identities and abilities, etc. — the more likely you are to give in to despair. Why? Because your life doesn’t depend on not giving in. You can choose to give in or not give in. That’s a luxury not everyone has.
When your life depends on not giving up
Most, if not all, of what I have learned about despair and not giving up, I learned from people who had few privileges. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk exiled from his own country and living in France was the “wrong” color, the “wrong” religion, and spoke with the “wrong” French accent. Even while still living in Vietnam, he was an enemy of the government because of his refusal to take sides in the conflict going on in his country. His monastery was bombed, and one of his students immolated herself. His mother and other family members passed away while he was in exile.
Thich Nhat Hanh had good reasons to despair, but he didn’t. He didn’t ignore his suffering, but he didn’t succumb to it, either. Instead, he developed a highly respected community of practitioners who have brought meaning, inspiration and ease to hundreds of thousands of people. My understanding of despair begins with his teaching.
“IF we allow despair to take over, we have no strength left in order to do anything at all.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, David Suzuki & Thich Nhat Hanh: Despair
The movie, Major!, chronicles the life of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a formerly incarcerated Black transgender elder and activist who has been fighting for the rights of trans women of color for over 40 years.
After all of the abuse Miss Major received from her family, society, and while incarcerated, she still says, “…we don’t have to be down on ourselves just because everyone else is. You know, you hear you’re a slug or you’re worthless for years and years and years, you start to believe that! And I want people to realize you can hear all the shit that you want to from them but look at you and see who you are and we don’t have to believe that. Love yourself and love the people with you.” (Huffington Post Interview, 2016)
Miss Major never give up either. Instead, she helped hundreds, and more likely thousands, of trans women survive and organize, and she has been the Executive Director (now emeritus) of the successful organization Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice).
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” ― James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings
How not to give up: impermanence and interbeing
Unlike these two leaders, neither my loved ones nor I will be in mortal danger if I give up and drop into despair, but I recognize that my despair still ripples out and has an effect on the world. If I give in to despair, the possibilities of my contribution are lost.
Two of the teachings of the Buddha most relevant to our despair are impermanence and non-self (also known as interbeing). If we look deeply at the world, we will see that nothing stays the same, everything is constantly changing — our bodies, our minds, the Earth, our loved ones — as 6th Century BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus said (and Disney made famous): “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Impermanence gives us hope for a better future.
Interbeing is the awareness that there is nothing within us that can exist on its own. Since we can’t exist without our mother, father, ancestors, sunshine, rain, plants, animals, other humans who support our life, etc., then there is nothing we can call a separate self. There’s nothing in me that I can point to and say is “Annie.” Everything depends on everything else. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explains this concept beautifully in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail saying, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Interbeing points to the way that all of our actions, including our despair and hopelessness, have an effect on everything and everyone else. Our despair matters.
When we really get this, the courage and energy we need to resist despair arises naturally. While we don’t give up our energy, our intentions, or our contributions, we do give up our attachment to a particular future. We know that what we do matters and at the same time, the future is unwritten. So, we do our work without attachment to the outcome. Like Krishna’s recommendation to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Let not the fruits of action be your motive.” We do the best thing we know how to do today, knowing that impermanence will provide us with a whole new set of circumstances to wrestle with tomorrow.
“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.” —Confucius
Getting to the place where we can make steps without falling into despair and without clinging to a particular outcome is a challenging and daily practice. Sometimes we can do it, and sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we need to drop down into the space of grief, wailing and moaning, before we can catch our breath. Sometimes we need to come inside and dry off before going back out into the storm. And sometimes we need to talk or hug it out. Grieving, self-care, and community are necessary parts of practicing with despair.
There is power in us. Like the gardener who plants a seed, we can grow so much food and beauty. And, also like the gardener, we rely on lots of outside forces like rain, sun, animals and luck to bring the plants to fruition. As human beings, we have the power to sow but not the power to manifest. Surrendering to this paradox is what we might call enlightenment. When nothing grows, we want to give up. It’s pretty frustrating and depressing to keep planting when nothing is growing. It sucks! And, it’s so easy to give up and give in to despair. But if we never plant anything, nothing will ever grow. It’s up to us to keep planting.
Friends, much of my inspiration for writing is to hear your thoughts about what you’ve read. Please share in the comments below - or simply share with others on social!