Feb 25 2010

The Spiritual Practice of Giving Up Despair

“Easter, Passover, Spring equinox—festivals of liberation, new life, and new hope,” the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry reminds us (you can read more at http://www.uulmca.org/main.html#40days). To honor this season of liberation and hope, the UULM invites us to make “40 calls in 40 days” to our government representatives, urging them to pass health care reform. Opponents to health care reform are surely keeping up the pressure to defeat even the most modest of bills; the UULM asks that we be equally persistent in our commitment to creating a more just and accessible system of care. “Forty calls in forty days”—even if we start late in the Lenten season, this is a beautiful and potentially effective spiritual practice. You will find the phone numbers for our U.S. Senators and for the White House in this edition of the newsletter, along with a brief message we can borrow.

But this spiritual practice is larger and more far-reaching even than health care reform. Here is the line from the UULM that caught my mind and heart: “Some folks give up chocolate for Lent. We recommend that we give up despair.” The spiritual practice of giving up despair … How can we make such a practice our way of life? Let’s puzzle this out together:

Just what is despair? In French and Spanish—désespoir; desesperación—the roots of the word are crystal clear: it means literally the loss of hope. Many of us have experienced moments, or more, of despair in our lives. When I think about my own moments of despair, I can see how fear—fear about the future—almost always plays a major role in that “loss of hope.” Sadness spirals into despair when we fear that the current bleak situation, whatever it may be, will never ever change.

And yet … the one thing we are guaranteed in life is that everything does change. Despair is a kind of misconception, then—a projection that the future will feel as difficult as the present does. And of course, the very best way to ensure that this projection does not come to pass is to get engaged in creating that future. As the UULM’s “40 calls in 40 days” illustrates, we can take action to help move the change—which will come, with or without us—in the direction that we desire! “Action is the antidote to fear” is one of my favorite aphorisms, because I have experienced its truth in my bones.

So when despair shrouds our hearts—whether such despair is prompted by discouragement with the workings of Washington, D.C., or by deep personal loss—let us remember that our feelings are gifts of discernment about where we need to focus our loving attention. If we feel stuck in sadness and discouragement, then we are called to reach out to others who will remind us how good it is that we are alive. If we feel fearful that the future holds only more of the same discouragement that we are feeling today, then we are called to reach out to help lift others’ spirits, to help make others’ lives brighter and more hopeful. Let our experiences deepen our compassion for all who are suffering; let these experiences, even of loss or discouragement, invite us into deeper engagement with each other and the world.

Our Sunday worship services in March, with the theme “Aspects of the Holy—the Depth and Breadth of Life,” will dance with the questions I’ve explored here. Please join us as we try out many languages for naming our surest sources of hope.

My friends, let’s never “give up”; let’s give up despair instead!


With warmth and hope,



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