Tag Archives: despair

The mechanics of faltering

Yesterday I wrote about having a calling but no answer to it, today I want to talk about how that works in practise. I have a regular and dependable burnout cycle, I’ve repeated it over more than a decade, with each cycle taking six to eight weeks, typically. That’s got to be getting on for 50 bouts of getting wiped out physically and falling into pits of despair. If not more.

I have a calling, to write and to serve, and it gets me out of bed in the morning. I run all day, as hard as I can, doing as much as I can, saying ‘yes’ as far as is possible. I throw everything I have at trying to do something worth doing. I don’t take whole days off, and I push my limits until I collapse. I do this because I feel so driven, and because for assorted reasons, I do not feel safe or comfortable about stopping. Then I fall over, and on none of the occasions of my falling over have I achieved enough for that to feel ok. Often the timing is inconvenient. I look at all that I have done, and see how insufficient it is, and depression kicks in. Once again, I have failed. Eventually, I pick myself up from this and try again, promising myself that next time it will work. Next time I will do better. The next project, the next voluntary job, the next book will be the one that makes it all worthwhile.


It is the burnout that causes the despair and the feelings of failure. It is the despair and feelings of failure that prompt me to run like a mad thing towards the next burnout. Clearly this isn’t working, and for the first time I’m coming out of the dark patch of the process and questioning whether the answer is to gird loins and other body parts, brace myself and start doing it all again. I’ve got this audio project on the go, and this one, surely, this one (if I really give it my all) will be the one that gets somewhere…

I’ve started asking what underpins this process. Answers: I move the goalposts because anything I achieve, by dint of my having achieved it, ceases to look as big as I thought it would be. Some of that is learning and perspective – there was a time when I believed all I’d need to do was get a publisher and the rest would flow from there, and that’s not how it works. Some of it is sane, and some of it isn’t. I carry a suspicion that anything I have managed, probably wasn’t good enough anyway. Alongside this, I don’t feel entitled to stop, to rest, to let up, to go easy on myself and I don’t feel entitled to be happy. What this means is that any attempt to break the cycle feels like being lazy. I’m not trying hard enough, unless it actually hurts, and if I’m not trying hard enough, how can I possibly succeed? This is not a game it is possible to win, because there are diminishing returns around morale, confidence and energy reserves. I’ve spent ten years or more beating myself to a pulp on a regular basis for not being good enough and not deserving anything better.

I just can’t put my worn out body and fragile mind through much more of this. Every time I go down, it gets that bit harder to stand up and try again. One of these days, I will not be able to get up, odds are. If I slow down, much less quit, I have to contend with feeling like a failure, and a fraud. I have to face all the little voices (other people’s mostly) that say about how lazy and useless I am and that someone like me could never hope to do anything much. I have to face them being right. The years of running hard have never made them go away, never silenced them either in my head or in my life. I have to accept that there are people for whom I will never be good enough or worthy of respect, and that I do not get to prove them wrong. They’ve helped keep the goalposts moving and there is no winning this game.

It is a hard thing to look your own inadequacy in the face, but there is nothing remaining other than to turn and face it, and accept it. Running and pushing has stripped me of my faith in my own work, robbed me of energy and inspiration. Either I keep running and lose everything, or I stop now and settle for writing books for the tiny handful of people who like them. I salvage what I can and learn to accept that it will do.

When despair helps

Generally I’m pro-hope as a way of keeping going, staying sane and emotionally viable, and being able to get stuff done. Sometimes though, hope traps us and despair sets us free, and I thought it would be interesting to ponder that a bit.

Hope allows us to imagine that things will get better, that we can make a difference, that time will heal and wisdom will prevail. Hope is what enables you, day after day, to show up to the nigh on impossible and keep trying to move mountains. Without hope there can be no epic changes, no wild innovation and all the people who say it can’t be done get to be right. With hope, that apparently impossible task can turn into that which you have actually done. Hope is a powerful thing.

However, misplaced hope is not a helpful thing. If we hold onto the belief that it will get better, and that our staying and slogging away at it makes a difference, we can give a lot of time to achieving very little, or to staying in spaces that hurt us. Maybe one day he will value me and be kind to me… maybe this job will be better next year… maybe the neighbours will move and I won’t feel so intimidated… maybe this government won’t sell us out to the corporations… maybe once they see the evidence they’ll be reasonable… and on we go.

Many things only work if you’re dealing with sane and reasonable people. When you’re not, then hope becomes dangerous. Hoping that climate change won’t happen… hoping that politicians will see sense and do something about it – this does not work. It is misplaced hope, and we need to invest our belief and energy in changes we can make for ourselves and become the tidal wave that changes everything.

Despair can give us the push to move on. In giving up, we can become able to shake off what’s restricting us, kick it squarely in the shins and get on with our lives. Giving up on ideas, beliefs, hopes and people hurts like hell. It is a loss that can be as profound as a bereavement, but without the wider support because nothing visible died. What died was inside you, in your heart, in your head. We don’t do funerals for the loss of political ideals, although I suspect there are a lot of grieving and betrayed Liberals out there who could have done with just that. We don’t have funerals when we realise our idea of someone was imaginary and the real person is totally different. Our ideal is dead, but we have no means to honour it.

These private deaths and personal losses are deeply affecting, and agony to go through. However, on the far side of the death of hope, is a fresh start. A chance to rethink, do differently and find a better place to invest our hope.