A bright beautiful snow was falling lightly, sugaring the earth until there was a thin coat. We were on our way to see a movie matinee in East Hampton, and by the time we arrived, the sun was back out, and our eyes winced from the gleam off the snow. We were late for our film, per usual, and when we entered the theatre, we were paralyzed by the darkness. It took several minutes for our eyes to fully adjust, and we all held hands like frightened children until we could stagger our way down the aisle to find a few remaining seats.
We started to giggle. We were just a smidge frightened by the depth of the blackness we had encountered. Once seated, we finally caught our breath. We chose to ignore the wicked stares and mutterings of those around us, just feeling happy to have safely landed. We then decided not to get back and get our missing popcorn, which was a wise if not life saving decision.
Darkness can be powerful. I cannot imagine what it is like for a person to be blind. Though I always hear about how the other senses expand and adapt to the loss of vision, I still find the thought of such blackness to be truly terrifying.
When the lights go out in our soul, we have entered an arena called despair. Tar black darkness, the kind which does not allow for even a ray of hope, is usually the result of an event which stuns us with just how insignificant and out of control we are. When our spiritual lives experience an eclipse, the despair produced is thick to the point of becoming a real presence. When we have become the people who dwell in deep darkness, we are a people who are wandering and lost and hopeless, paralyzed with fear, and faking it on a daily basis. We may put on the “I AM JUST FINE” show, but we secretly and silently yearn just to find our seats.
My mother had called me to inform me my cousin Warren was coming for a visit from England – his first ever, and a trip he had saved up for, for years. I asked her where Warren would be staying. She said with them of course. I asked her politely if she thought that was such a good idea. She sighed, snorted and snapped, “Do YOU have a problem with that?”
I explained slowly and as thoughtfully as I could, that Dad’s Alzheimer’s was advancing and how the impact of sundown syndrome often made him surly and suspicious at best, and how he might find Warren to be a most mysterious threat – especially after dark.. She basically called my view nonsense and threw in a bit of guilt about my complete and utter lack of support. She told me she had thought better of me. I reminded her that my father often thought I was trying to run off with her, or that I was his brother Bill, and wagged a huge finger in my face while threatening to blacken my eye. She hung up.
As I predicted, Warren’s visit lasted less than forty-eight hours, as Dad tried to throw him out for flirting with my mother. Mom was devastatingly embarrassed. She began to weep. I assured her I would have Warren come East and I would show him a lovely time, and that I would explain everything to the poor guy in the morning--as Mom had told me he had gone for a walk.
She then asked me to talk to Dad. He got on the phone, and he said, “Billy, I have been a very bad boy...very bad.” My heart sunk, my body shook, and my soul withered and shattered. My once proud and manly father sounded so fragile and feeble and far away, and at that moment I knew he was gone for good. The despair was palpable.
Despair is what it is. It is bad news which must be heard, embraced, understood, accepted, coped with, and hopefully overcome. Despair is not the blues or sadness or even most forms of depression, it is a towering wave of recognition, an epiphany of pain, and a knowing that our world will never be the same. Something or someone has changed, been transformed, and something has truly died, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. It is over. It is gone for good. The past has swallowed it whole.
I still vividly recall 9/11. Living on Shelter Island in New York, I knew many folks who either worked at the Twin Towers, or had apartments or condos in the vicinity. The sky that September day was so clean and pure and blue. The whole earth quivered with freshness. The day itself was lit by hope.
The collapse of the towers was such a hideous contrast of dirty and messy and riddled with the blood and flesh of very real lives. I was watching thousands of people die on my TV. I might know some of them. I felt intimate to all of them. The despair was like swallowing spoiled milk. I so wanted to gag.
Watching the faces of those sprinting away from the filthy mushroom clouds which chased them zigzagging down the streets, was just plain agonizing. How on earth had our world once again come to this kind of insanity and evil? I was dumbstruck. I was still smart enough to know the world would never be the same.
I am not sure I can offer much insight in how to heal the hurt of despair. It definitely will leave the heart deeply scarred. Maybe what I learned from being momentarily blind in a movie theater was ironically a good preparation. Hold one another’s hand, toddle forward, and breathe, gasp, and be encased in the safety of your seat. Listen to the movie of your soul. Get your mind off of the evil for a bit. Feel the comfort of being seated near wonderful strangers you now think of as family. Try to relax. Try to accept that when you get up to leave, you will just not be the same. Nothing will.
Despair does spiritual pruning. No matter how we like it, something will have to go. It is the nature of being human, being alive, and trusting in God. Though seeing is indeed often the key to believing, believing is also the key to seeing. So go back outside and walk. Trust that your eyes will adjust again, and you will find your way back to your car – and to your HOME. And yes, you will see again, as you will laugh and learn and love again, not because Life just rolls along, but because there is simply no place else to do.
Despair is a part of the daily equation. It is never far away. It seldom goes away when we wish it to get lost. It remains the mean teacher who cracks the whip and forces us to grow-up. We grow-up on those days and at those times, when we accept that we were indeed never promised a rose garden, and roses, even for all their beauty, carry with them some nasty thorns.