I used to fear despair. I feared it in others and I feared it in myself. Mostly, however, I feared it in myself. While in its throes I felt like a carpenter cosigned to build a house from sawdust. Despair was a story of endless hopelessness, a story whose end was as predetermined our own mortal story, life nothing but a lot of thrashing and hurrahing until the grave. Within this story, not one single step I took – not north nor south nor up nor down – not one of these steps would ever have any consequence for all of them led to precisely the same place – nowhere. So I feared it. I feared it because despair seemed like something that could happen to me like a change in weather, not something I could or not choose. For this reason, I also feared it in others. Here I would be, whistling along, the ghouls of despair safely in their barrows, only to be ambushed by some other poor slob’s tale of misery and loss: tales of the corrupt government, the rejection letters, the cheating husband, the pedophile priest, the ruined economy. I felt as if I were being shown the empty bowl not just of his or her life, but of all life. Once you’ve seen the evidence, looking away cannot save you from the story of nothingness your imagination now dutifully finishes.
So it was for many, many years. And then one day an old man told me writing was a lonely road. It sounded to me as if he had once idealized this view of writing, that he had seen a kind of nobility in it, but by the time he shared this idea with me all the heroism had been worn out and all that was left was the loneliness. But on that day, I did not see his empty bowl as a threat, as a sad story I must now finish. Instead, I saw it as an invitation. His bowl was empty, and he was inviting me to fill it.
“I suppose,” I said. “But we’re going to walk it anyway, aren’t we?”
Whether that filled it for him or not, I cannot say, but I could never look at despair the same after that. The only way to fill the emptiness I perceived was to first summon within myself that with which I wished to fill it. In this way, his despair was a gift to me, and in the months and years to come, when I would succeed now and again in filling someone else bowl, and they would thank me, I would thank them silently to myself.
I do not mean to make myself sound holy. I still despair when I look too hard for evidence instead of faith; I still grow weary when some friend or stranger begins a tale of loss or injustice. But I also grow weary some mornings before I write, having simply forgotten that every story ever written began with an empty page.
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