engine of joy mikel evins

Against despair

tags: stoicism 

Despair is a pernicious kind of vanity, and it’s seductive when things get hard.

Despair tells you a story like this: “I have tried everything and it hasn’t worked. I may as well give up.”

This story is a lie.

When despair tells you “it hasn’t worked,” it means that we have falsely assumed that the world owes us a particular outcome for our labors. It doesn’t. The world promises one thing: the world itself. Included in that world is our freedom of action and some inherent capabilities. We are free to act, and we are free to choose how to act. The world doesn’t promise us any particular outcome for our actions.

“It hasn’t worked” means we expected some specific outcome and didn’t get it. We’re disappointed because we didn’t get the value we expected from the effort we expended, but that’s because we’re deriving value from the wrong thing. The world does not promise us value in exchange for effort. We can have it if we want, but the world doesn’t supply it. We have to do that ourselves.

We can’t reliably get it from outcomes, because outcomes aren’t up to us. Outcomes are like seasons and weather: they’re given to us by the whims of fortune (or, if you prefer, Providence). We don’t choose them.

What we can choose is where we get our value. If we want to get value for effort, we have to derive it from something that is up to us—for example, from the effort itself. We must choose to make efforts that we value.

Just as “it hasn’t worked” is a false story about where value comes from, “I’ve tried as hard as I can” is a false story about our freedom of action.

“I’ve tried as hard as I can” sounds right when we’re frustrated. It’s a lie, though. Despair tells us that there’s nothing more we can do, but despair doesn’t know that. It’s just pretending to know.

We may have tried everything we can think of, but that just means we’ve exhausted our knowledge and imagination for the moment. It doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted our options. We always have options we don’t yet know about. Tomorrow we’ll know things we don’t know today.

Our efforts may have failed up to now, but tomorrow the world will be different. We don’t know what will change, but we can be sure that something will. Nothing is more certain in life than change. Despair whispers that nothing significant will be different, but it doesn’t know that, either. It’s blowing smoke.

Despair is a liar. If you have a fanciful turn of mind you can think of it as a demon. It comes to us when we’re exhausted and frustrated and offers a false promise of comfort. It says to us, “There, there, it’s all right. There’s nothing you can do, anyway.”

We don’t have to listen. We don’t have to believe its lies. We can recognize that we’re exhausted and need to rest. We can give up for the moment without giving up for good.

Despair wants us to promise that we won’t try again, but we don’t owe it that. We don’t owe it anything. We can rest and wait for our strength to return. We can wait for change, for new understanding, for help that we didn’t expect.

We’re free to choose a different goal, perhaps a better one.

We’re free to choose what to value.

We’re free.