This particular post isn’t for everyone. And that’s a good thing. Because the topic addressed here is something that I hope no one has to experience – though some of us, perhaps many of us, do – almost everyday. While this topic may seem rather morose to many – if it's actually helpful to even just one person, then the time put into it was well worth the effort, in my view.
Despair is something that all of us experience at one time or another - often due to the loss of a loved one, or some other catastrophic life event. But with the passage of time, the intense pain of despair gradually fades, and life returns to some semblance of normalcy.
Some despair however, never really fades away. It is chronic, and it can be completely debilitating, unless you find effective ways to deal with it.
And so I will share a few rather personal experiences and perspectives, and how I have tried to effectively manage them in order to cope with the intense sadness that accompanies such despair, so that I might nonetheless proceed to live my aspirational life of a flâneur – a life of rich experiences, profound meaning, and one that is truly worth living.
Depression vs. Despair
It’s best to begin I think, by understanding exactly what despair is – and the difference between despair and depression.
In depression, one feels sad or low for an extended period of time – and not necessarily for any discernible reason. In my case, I’ve personally experienced prolonged periods of great sadness, along with profound feelings of worthlessness; the inability to concentrate or focus intellectually; extreme fatigue or loss of energy; and recurring thoughts of my own impending death (though never suicide, thankfully). And there's never any real specific reason for such feelings, as those who suffer from such things know all too well. They just occur.
While it may be hard to imagine – despair, specifically clinical despair – is actually worse than what's described in the previous paragraph. Because in addition to all of the above-referenced attributes symptomatic to depression, despair is also characterized as “…. a profound and existential hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness and pessimism about life and the future…. [as well as] a deep discouragement and loss of faith about one's ability to find meaning, fulfillment and happiness, to create a satisfactory future for oneself.”[i]
Most people who know me and work with me would probably be rather surprised to read the previous two paragraphs, and see me apply them to myself. That's because you learn to cope, and to manage, and to bury, so that you can move forward with your life. You must do this. There is no viable option. The only other alternative - which is not a viable one - is simply to allow yourself to become consumed and incapacitated by it. And for me, that just cannot be allowed to happen - although the battle becomes more difficult with each passing day.
How I Developed Long-Term, Chronic Despair
I believe my battle with depression had its origins with intense feelings of a lack of self-worth that actually began 50 years ago in adolescence. The oldest of two siblings, I was instilled with the notion that if I didn’t apply myself to my absolute fullest, there was a strong probability that I would simply grow up to be nothing short of a village idiot as an adult. Nothing I did at that early age seemed to be good enough. As a result, I lived a young life hearing mostly criticisms of myself, or how I failed to meet someone's expectations, with very little encouragement – or at least much that I can remember.
But it's important to realize that such an upbringing, like so many other experiences in life, is never all bad - as it always ends up having both positive and negative influences. For one thing, it resulted in me setting very high standards for myself. I was always my own worst critic. But I also applied those same standards to others in those days, and frankly, even to this day sometimes, which unfortunately often makes me harshly judgemental of others, and occasionally even completely dismissive.
On the plus side, that upbringing made me extremely self-reliant (e.g., Because why would anyone think enough of someone like me to want to do anything for me? Ergo, anything I got in life, I would have to obtain for myself. So that's just what I did.) It also made me a very independent thinker, because I 'knew' that I couldn’t rely on anybody else for positive reinforcement. As a result, I wasn't very much influenced by others. I always had to think things out for myself. Consequently, my mindset also essentially made me bit of an over-achiever.
Having said all of this, it’s also important to state here unequivocally that my family was a loving one, with parents who did their absolute best to raise two sons under challenging financial circumstances – which they did. I will always be grateful for the sacrifices my parents made for me, and I will always love them. All any of us can do in life, is the best we can, with the hand we're dealt.
But I nonetheless went through most of my life unable or unwilling to form strong bonds with any other human being. Yes, I dated of course, and I had acquaintances, but nobody was ever truly “let in.” And that frankly made for a very lonely and often sad personal existence. Even my beloved wife of over 20 years, who has truly become my best friend and my life, has often lamented in frustration that I continuously “live inside my head.”
Daily Functionality Under Despair
But as I mentioned earlier, we all have to make the best of our circumstances. We all have to find ways to cope and move on with life. And that's precisely what I did. It has always been remarkable to me just how successful – at least to a degree – one can actually become, even amidst much dysfunction. If you’re reasonably adept at discerning the expectations within your work environment, and you have even a modicum of competence, you can actually go quite far in business - to a point.
Where you'll hit the ceiling, is the path from the senior management level to the executive level. Because the executive level is a club. And membership to the club is built upon the personal relationships and alliances you’ve built along the way. If you cannot, or you are unwilling to forge those relationships, membership in the club is probably not in your future.
The club is also generally not for independent thinkers. So if you fancy yourself a maverick of sorts, that’s perfectly fine – just appropriately adjust your expectations as you attempt to career path.
But I digress. Pursuing a successful career path is really not the primary reason for this blog post. I make the point only to illustrate that you can outwardly appear successful to others, but inside there can be a pain and emptiness that will ultimately destroy you if you allow it, and if you do not act to manage it.
As I very clearly point out in the Social Interaction section on the Elements page of this website, “To go through life minimizing our interactions with others is to miss out on what most of life has to offer…”
I, in fact, made that mistake for most of my life. I essentially admit it in that section. But my point here is that when you do what I did, for as long as I did it, there are long-term consequences to your mental well-being that can permanently impact your ability to find happiness and fulfillment in your life.
As I also previously recounted in that same Social Interaction section, it was a full dozen years after the death of both of my parents, while in my late 50’s, that it finally dawned on me what I had been missing out on my entire life. And that reassessment of my life, along with how to more appropriately live it, ultimately manifested itself in the creation of this website and blog, in order to share the benefit of my experiences with other like-minded persons who know exactly what I’m talking about, or who are searching for the same things.
My Current State-of-Mind: And What I’m Doing About It
For reasons that I’m not yet completely sure, I have been battling a new profound sense of despair since the beginning of the year. And no matter how deeply you try to bury chronic despair, once you have it, there are those occasions when it will inevitably bubble back up to the surface and manifest itself in your demeanor and your ability to function normally.
I generally do not consult with therapists, nor do I seek psychopharmacological solutions. I have enough difficulty thinking clearly on my own, without adding mind-altering drugs to the mix. And true to form, I basically tough it out and try to figure things out for myself. This may not be the best option for others however. You ultimately have to decide that for yourself. But nonetheless, I thought it might be useful to share a number of coping and management techniques I have used, in the hope that they might be helpful to others. And they are working, albeit slowly. Perhaps these principles can work for you, if you are experiencing the same.
Soren Kierkegaard, in his Sickness Unto Death (1849), suggested that despair could be understood as comprising three stages: [the first being] Spiritlessness, which applies to those who outwardly seem well-adjusted and successful yet inwardly live in a state of deep and perilous despair.
As a Christian believer, I pray daily. And the hope that springs from a God who listens, and who tells us that He will place no burden upon us that is too great for us to bear, is perhaps the greatest help to me in these circumstances. It also is of immense help in fighting off the notion of hopelessness and pointlessness of life that despair often, irrationally, brings with it - because it shows us that there truly is a purpose to what we are going through.
Don’t Focus on Yourself – Focus on Others
Go out of your way to do acts of kindness for your friends or family - or even complete strangers. Focus on them and their situations, and see if there’s anything you can do to make their day a little bit brighter.
When you do interact with others however, for God’s sake don’t be a pill. Don’t make your misery their misery. And don’t look for their pity. They should not even know what you’re going through. Be a blessing to them – not a burden. If all you're going to do is try to solicit their pity for your self-inflicted pain, you're only proving yourself to be a narcissistic bastard.
But showing kindness to others will ultimately help your own internal turmoil. It’s counter-intuitive I know, but I have always found this to be true - take your focus off yourself.
Also, as long as you can keep your despair contained, you should truly push yourself to go out and meet new people in the true spirit of flânerie. The social interaction will energize you and lift your spirit. It will. It really will.
Force Yourself To Keep Moving Forward With Your Life
This is very hard to do from the depths of despair. I’ve been there – I know. If you cannot do this on your own, it’s probably time to call a therapist who can help you. But you must do this. You simply cannot allow yourself to become completely consumed by your own perceived self-worthlessness. If you do, your ability to lead a functional life will cease, and you'll find yourself staring off into space - unable to do anything for hours, if not days, at a time. Life is too precious and fleeting to waste it that way. Remember, tomorrow is never guaranteed.
Meditate Upon All of the Blessings in Your Life
If you can’t help but think about only yourself rather than others during these periods, at least focus on all of the blessings that you presently have in your life (e.g., a caring spouse, wonderful friends, a lovely home, a good paying job, etc.). Don’t focus at all on your misery. In depression, most of it is contrived anyway (although I certainly know it doesn't make it any less real for you).
If you truly believe you have absolutely nothing in your life for which you think you should be grateful (which, if that's the case, such a perception should perhaps raise other questions in your mind), then start over and repeat the first three items again.
Good Luck – And Get Help If You Need It
Despair and flânerie are obviously not compatible over the long term. You have to deal with, or at least manage the first, before you can engage in, and truly enjoy the second. But, as I have found, the act of flânerie itself can assist you in dealing with your depression or despair over the short term.
As I stated at the beginning, I sincerely hope that the vast majority or persons reading this post have absolutely no understanding or empathy for the profound experiences it references. But if you do, then you know exactly what I'm talking about, and I sincerely hope that what’s briefly discussed here can ultimately be of some help or comfort to you. If it isn’t – it’s very important that you get other help.
If you do think you need professional assistance, and you're not sure where to start, Psychology Today offers a very user-friendly way to find a therapist close to you. Just type in your zip code at the top of the page, and you'll get a good directory of therapists or counselors near you, their areas of specialty, their average rates, and any insurance plans that they accept.
Finally, always remember, you’re not alone - even though it feels like it. None of us has a perfect life. As I will continue to assert time and time again - it is most important that you just do whatever it takes to keep moving forward, and to do your absolute best with the hand you're dealt. It will never be exactly the way you want it.
 “Clinical Despair: Science, Psychotherapy and Spirituality in the Treatment of Depression,” by Stephen A. Diamond, PhD.; Psychology Today article posted on-line on March 4, 2011: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201103/clinical-despair-science-psychotherapy-and-spirituality-in-the-treatment.
 While I do not use therapists – I also do not have any thoughts of suicide. If any such thoughts ever cross your mind, you should see a therapist at once. If you don’t have one - or know how to get one - get yourself to the Emergency Room of your nearest hospital immediately and tell them you need help, or call 911. Do not wait.
 Op. cit.
© 2017 David Nogar All Rights Reserved
David Nogar worked in railroad operations for almost 50 years until retiring from the transportation business in early 2023.