What Can Despair Teach You

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them,” variation from Henry David Thoreau

I used to take the underground train back home before COVID. It took me one hour to get to work in the morning and then 1 hour and a half to get back home due to traffic. I’m talking about Mexico city’s underground train here. Everyone left their job from 6 to 7 p.m. The ride back home was always carnage. Everyone’s tired, everyone’s stressed, everyone wants to get home as soon as possible. But you have an hour, so when you finally get to the train, you need to find something to do while you’re there. Some people (myself included) entertained themselves with the myriad of personages that got on and off the trains. Smelly people, crazy people, poor people asking for money, poor people asking for money but offering some kind of show. You call it, it was an entertaining spectacle. Others, the majority, lost themselves on their phones, watching the world-famous Mexican soap operas or reality shows, absolute crap TV. That was what amazed me the most, not wanting to think.

It’s a terrible feeling, not wanting to think. Soulless, brainless, you look for the entertainment that requires the least amount of thinking possible from you. I tried to read, I tried to listen to podcasts. I was not going to waste away 2 and a half hours of my life daily on the commute. Time is a precious thing. But I cannot say I didn’t understand all the brainless people. No… I understood quite well. I too was mentally exhausted, I also craved funny stupid stuff.

I think I read too much. What was it that inspired me to read while on the train, while others wasted away their lives on Instagram? It wasn’t only me though, I often see other people reading. That’s a good sign. What makes you want to read when you’re that tired? Why can’t you just relax?

Desperation.

“That one is in despair is not a rarity; no, it is rare, very rare, that one is…not in despair.” — Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Everyone’s desperate, but not everyone’s willing to admit it. What were all the train passengers doing on their commutes? Watching the news, watching the shows, even in the morning? Distracting themselves.

It’s hard to feel the silence of your soul for long because it is rarely silent. So what you do is that you fill your time with something, anything. Desperation ranges in degree, some are able to quench it rather easily. Get a job, get moderate success, buy yourself a car, marry, have children, etc. Get drunk on the weekend, and that’s it, do that until you die. That’s the realm of quiet desperation. For some others, the desperate bug buzzes louder. They need harder stuff to silence it, like drugs and a lot of booze.

What is this despair we all share, what does it want?

Anxiety, unease. Think of despair as a question and a push that demands to be answered and acted upon.

Do the following sounds familiar?

Why do I feel uneasy all the time? Because I still don’t have the iPhone, sure, that must be it. No, it’s because I’m still not at the job position I know I can get and deserve. Surely, once I get that truck and that X amount of dollars in the bank, I’ll finally feel good.

That’s how you run from the question. You don’t answer it, you just follow what you think will quench it, the money, the girl or boy, the car, whatever.

Why were you placed on earth? What are you going to do with your time here? That’s the question that is constantly being asked. If you don’t want to answer it and act upon it, the harder it will yell. Most men do not answer it, most men do not want to answer it, most men live lives of quiet desperation.

The internal and the external

We are complex beings. Life is not so simple as getting filthy rich and owning a Porsche and a stunning girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s not original, that’s just what everybody wants. No, better said, that’s what all people have been lead to believe that they want. That’s what we’ve been told will quench the despair in us.

It’s not that easy. People spend their entire lives pursuing that popular and generic dream, only to find out, in the end, the truth, as they cannot lie any longer.

The external, without the internal, is empty.

The truth is that you don’t really want that. Or, better said, you don’t want just that, in that way. You are an individual, as different from other people as a snowflake from other snowflakes. No one is the same. Because of this, no dream can be the same either.

This is hard. It’s really hard because you’re alone on your journey. Only you have the answer to the questions that your soul is asking. And if you don’t answer them and act on them, you’ll die with regret, and the clock is ticking.

The Porsche, the iPhone, the likes on Instagram. That’s all great, but that’s nothing if you don’t have the important handled, the internal.

Despair, although not a great emotion to experience, is instructive. It is asking you something, the answer lies in trying to answer.

What should I be doing that actually makes me proud?

“To will to be himself is man’s true vocation…blockages in self-awareness [occur] because the individual [is] unable to move through accumulations of anxiety at various points in his growth. Kierkegaard makes it clear that selfhood depends upon the individual’s capacity to confront anxiety and move ahead despite it.” — Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety

Think of yourself as a process

It’s almost instinctual to think about your success as this grandiose moment. An hour in which it finally happens, an hour when you finally change the world and you stare triumphantly at the culmination of your deeds.

You are not a photograph. You are a constant process.

That triumphant moment happens all the time, as it is the way in which you live your life what determines the triumph. You triumph at any moment as long as you live with authenticity and courage. Give glory to the moment and yourself in it. You answer your questions here and now. You answer with the way you live and behave.

Be careful not to play yourself

When Marcus Aurelius says:

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
Marcus Aurelius

Be careful not to double down on the things that you think you should be doing without a question. You can be awesome and virtuous in something that you don’t really have your heart in.

“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy, but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress, but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.
From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event. That is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
Epictetus

Be careful to make sure that the progress you are endorsing yourself in is your progress and no one else’s.

Despair is not going to go away, however good you are at what you do if you haven’t answered that personal question of your soul.

In this sense, despair is a good thing. It propels you to action, it tells you to stop fucking around. Use it, and please, please, don’t rank yourself amongst the quietly desperate.

Thanks for reading,

Ricardo Guaderrama

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