outrunning despair

I was staring at the news. Hurricanes on top of hurricanes. Politicians ending dreams. Fires on top of fires. I thought of my home and imagined how it would feel if everything I owned was sitting in four feet of water. Or if I’d been separated from my family and didn’t know where they were. Or if I was living on a cot in a sports arena. I thought of people who are looking at other people and everyone’s wondering, “When are they going to DO something?” I thought of everything I had already thought of to do, everything I had already done, and how that still isn’t enough, how there isn’t enough privilege in one human being to leverage the change the world needs.

And I realized that I have no trouble owning and going into my fears, but I definitely try to outrun the possibility of despair.

Despair: to be without hope.

Despair is what I’m always trying to stay two steps in front of.

It occurred to me that perhaps despair is the ultimate fear. Despair is to be without hope, to feel a complete absence of any connection to the possibility of change.

And—the problem with being even marginally educated in the suffering of humans is to understand how quietly despair can creep up, and then it’s sitting on you like a heavy weight and you’re going, “How did that get there?”

To be clear, I’m not stuck in a state of despair at the moment—but I’ve been there, before.

* * *

Years ago, I regularly integrated something called “process work” into my life. I wrote about it once, when I talked about conscious crying, though in truth, I often felt self-conscious about doing this. I frequently felt silly doing it. Process work looks something like this: Alone in my office, with a towel and a box of tissues. Turning on a playlist that I’d compiled of the saddest possible music. Closing my eyes. Going into all the feelings I would normally otherwise resist.

The sadness.
The anger.
The “God, where are you? Do you even exist? And if you do, why would you allow these horrible things to happen?” sorts of feelings.

I’d go into grief over past losses, crying and piling up tissues. I’d go into my fury over a past hurt, punching the air in anger or screaming into the towel. I’d cry or scream until I found my way to the other side of the feelings, and I’d feel wrung out, but also like I’d reconnected to something I needed. Scraping away that top layer of emotional crud opened me up to the joy.

Then somewhere along the way, I ended up finding out that the group I’d been doing this kind of work with had several corrupt people in leadership. That reignited some of my initial embarrassment that I was doing this basically kind of crazy thing, by going into my office and—of all things!—screaming into a towel or crying.

So, feeling self-conscious, I stopped doing it.

* * *

All these years later, I’ve started doing process work, again.


I suppose you could say that the (collective) pain got to be enough. I’ve always been a news reader, and I have a deeply self-righteous streak. I’ve always been one who cries in the face of human suffering.

And somehow, the confusion and nuance and pain of the world that I’ve been bearing witness to, particularly in the past two years, has become overwhelming. Maybe you understand, too. It looks like hiding out from your social media feeds or feeling so anxious when you watch the news that you just.can’t.even.

When I talk to people about practicing courage (such as I do in my forthcoming book, The Courage Habit), I talk about accessing the body. Meditation, dance, running, yoga—they’re all great ways to access the body.

But what I’ve needed in the face of the pain these days has been something more. So back to it I go, screaming into towels in my office or crying out my tears until I think there are none left.

And, just as it was all those years before, scraping off that top layer of anger and sadness reveals something underneath that is calmer, steadier, and happier.

I realized that I’d been avoiding process work all these years as a strategy for outrunning despair. Sometimes, when I’m crying, the grief that I feel is the grief of despair. I touch into those places where it all truly feels hopeless. I cry long and hard, or I scream until I’m hoarse, and then every single time, by the end of that processing, I feel lighter and a smile plays on my face.

Here’s what.

We need each other, right now.
We need the world to change.
We need people to wake up.
We need people to bear witness to those who suffer, so that they aren’t alone in their suffering.
We need people to roll up sleeves and get to work.
We need movement.
We need to feed the hungry, and fight for the oppressed.

These are our fellow human beings; this is our human family. I don’t know what it is to be human, if not to stand up for one another and try to change things for the better, so that it’s not just you and me with internet connections who are getting to live joyful lives, but everyone.

I don’t know how I can be a human who takes a stand for other humans, without doing my work to scrape off the top layer of emotional crud that gets in my way. If I don’t take the time to process through, then I am only ever trying to outrun despair. Because despair is what happens when that emotional crud piles up.

If you have found yourself feeling more and more sadness at what you see on the news, then here’s the thing: Find the songs that help you to release your grief. Sit down, in a quiet space, with a box of tissues, and cry it out. Or pound pillows. Or scream into towels.

Scream out your despair, so that you don’t have to outrun your despair. Access the body and process your way through, to the other side.

That other side is where you find the strength and courage to pick up your life, your part in this human experience, and give something to others so that something can be given to you.