• nancy willbern

The Gift of Despair



If we are lucky, life will take us to the end of ourselves. For most of us, this moment feels anything but lucky. No, it feels really awful …terrifying… devastating.


When we reach the end of ourselves, we follow a predictable pattern. We go into problem-solving mode. Come up with a plan. Give it a try. And then when that one fails, we come up with another plan. And then another and another. And then we go back to the initial plan and try to make it work even harder than we did the first time. And then, to this infuriating, frustrating process, we add salt to the wound - inner judgement. The critic comes in with her self-flagellation for our not being smart enough, clever enough, creative enough to find our way out. Smarter, cleverer, more creative people would find their way out! And so, we pile layer upon layer of going-nowhere-ness and criticism onto our exhausted, beleaguered selves. The reality of our situation sinks in a little deeper. It feels like there really is nothing left of us and nothing left to try. This is the moment we have been dreading all along - complete and utter, gut-wrenching despair.


Now, this is where things get really interesting. How we relate to our despair makes all the difference in what we experience next. If we let ourselves fully feel the depths of our anguish, and respond to it through kicking and screaming, we take ourselves into a hopelessness that devolves into a boiling cynicism. We turn against ourselves and against life. If we stay there long enough, we end up slumped down in a tight little wad at the base of our impenetrable dead-end and join the ranks of the walking dead.


If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves to fully feel the depths of our despair, but respond to it by just feeling the pain of it, allowing ourselves to simply cry and grieve over the fact that we can’t find our way out – miracles happen. We discover that the end of ourselves is not in fact, the end of ourselves but instead, simply the end of our ideas about who we believe ourselves to be. We just can’t see beyond the boundary of our unconsciously imposed self-concepts. And even though hitting that boundary feels really awful…terrifying… and devastating, the full-out acknowledgement of I don’t know where to go from here becomes the doorway to our Soul’s expansion.


It boils down to this: The self that we know ourselves to be cannot take herself beyond herself. This is not something to fight against. This is just the way of things. Einstein’s famous quote suddenly becomes personally prophetic: “You can’t solve a problem with the same level of awareness that perceives the problem (as a problem).” In other words, the self we know ourselves to be is bound within the limits of that knowing.


As life progresses, after we have come to the end of ourselves many times over, a part of us begins to be secretly glad when the dreaded end comes around again. That part of us - which can be as tiny as a mustard seed - holds the space open for the more-of-who-we-are to arise to our awareness, with no effort on our part, whatsoever. In fact, if we continue to effort at all, we will simply be getting in the way.


What a gift.