Making sense of despair – Greenspan, Part 3

This blog is intended to draw on some of Miriam Greenspan’s wisdom, to shed light on a very dark emotion and to provide some trail markers to help readers on their own journeys.

In Healing Through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan describes despair in many ways.


(is) the agony of meaninglessness…

(is) like a mirror held up to (our) weaknesses and flaws…

(is fuelled by and breeds thoughts like…) I’m a failure, I’m a bad person, I’m nothing

(is) inner paralysis, abject loneliness, spiritual barrenness…

(is) a profound dispiritedness, a fatiguing emotion that saps the life force. The smallest action may seem to require a gargantuan effort.

(is) a legitimate and eminently human emotion.

(is) a metamorphic process..(a)…call to spiritual death and rebirth (easily mistaken for a call to suicide).

…tells us what we’d rather not know.

…cuts across lines of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic and religious affiliation.

…contains core elements of grief, anger, and helplessness.

…invites us on a journey to the dark inner core of our banished selves and our failures to create a humane world.

…invites us to change our lives and ourselves, to transform the way that we look at the world. And it moves us to let our grief flow.

…has a distinctly moral and social dimension that calls us to pay attention to and make meaning out of human suffering.

Alchemy, according to Google, is “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination”. So, what does it mean to alchemize despair?

The keyword here is transformation and it helps if you believe in magic. Greenspan says we must stop our regular routines and follow despair “to make meaning out of apparent meaninglessness; to grieve our unmourned losses; to examine the unexamined life; to legitimate our anger at the world; to struggle out of the cocoon and be reborn”.

What is the difference between depression and despair?

“Depression, as I see it, is unalchemized despair. It’s what happens when despair becomes chronically stuck in the body. Depression is certainly not a medical condition in the way that heart disease is. Rather, what we call depression is a culturally acceptable concept for chronic, toxified despair…The way that we think about depression makes the alchemy of despair next to impossible and, in its way, contributes to the escalation of this condition in our time.”

How does the medical model reinforce depression, even while it claims to “treat” it?

The cultural ethos of modern science and technology, prescribes that we not linger in helpless and sorrowful places for too long. Greenspan says doctors typically ask how long you have felt this way, if it runs in your family, if you have ever taken antidepressants. The disease model says there is a pill to fix this, instead of developing “affect tolerance for despair”. In other words, our culture is saying we are supposed to be happy, so we think there is something wrong with us when we feel down and then reach for a way out, instead of relating to difficult feelings as information or something that can be accepted and worked through.

What questions would a therapist who supports the alchemy of despair ask?

“What do you mean by depressed? What are the various emotions in this ‘depression’? Is depression the same as feeling sad? What does it have to do with anger? Is there any relationship between your depression and things in your life that make you feel disempowered or without a voice?” As a psychotherapist, I would get to know the specifics of how depression looks and feels and shows up for you.

Why am I feeling despair?

According to Greenspan, “Long-standing grief over unnamed or unmourned losses is one of the most common sources of despair. These losses include the more dramatic forms of violence and abuse, but they also encompass the silent losses of emotional neglect. The pain of loving (or never having had the presence of) a loving, nurturing, empathic parent often appears, years later, in what gets diagnosed as depression.” She quotes William Styron, who writes about “incomplete mourning” after the loss of his mother, and carrying “an insufferable burden of which rage and guilt, and not only dammed-up sorrow, are a part.”

How can I get through or heal my despair?


“It is not feeling despair but denying its impact that holds us hostage in a world imperiled by our own actions.”


Go deeper to “find a meaning (you) can live with”. Greenspan illustrates this beautifully when describing her daughter, Esther’s, disability and illness and her despair as a mother who could not ease her own child’s suffering. She has this revelation: “The universe holds Esther. You don’t need to do it all yourself”. She found the meaning she could live with: “I was here to love my daughter and to learn what she was here to teach me, not to single-handedly rescue her”.


She also talks of the role of teachers and therapists and, how “being truly loved and appreciated by just one person…can make all the difference to someone’s ability to get through despair and to heal brokenness of body, heart, and spirit.”


Greenspan writes about a client called Jody, sexually abused in childhood, who used meditation to tolerate painful emotions and physical symptoms. Says Jody: “What my emotions really wanted, was to be attended to. Because of the depth to which I could pay attention to them in meditation, they didn’t feel they had to keep knocking at my door. I came to see how the fear and resistance to emotions makes the pain so much bigger. When my fear and resistance lessened, there was much more space to be taken up with other parts of life. That’s when joy started to come in.”

“The way out it through”

Greenspan also has 7 emotional exercises (that follow the 7 steps in Part 1 of this blog) worth looking at. I like this simple one: Find one beautiful place or one beautiful thing each day and contemplate it…If you are blessed with a place of beauty within walking distance, walk there each day and sit or stand for a spell. Or this: Ask questions of your despair: What do you want of me? What are you asking me?

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