Despair Is a Choice

 

He knew all the arguments for despair, and would not listen to them. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Eva Cassidy was 33 years old and at the height of her creative powers when she was struck down by melanoma in 1996. At the time of her death, she was largely unknown outside the Washington D.C. area. But after her death, someone in the U.K. happened to play Eva’s recording of Somewhere Over The Rainbow on the radio and the result was that her self-recorded “Songbird” album zoomed to the top of the U.K. music charts. Only after she was gone did the world start to recognize her artistic beauty.

Today, Eva’s friends laugh at the thought of her posthumous musical success. They say that this is exactly how she would have wanted it. She was never one for the limelight and her quirky musical repertoire never really fit the music industry’s tightly scripted genres.  

Sometimes life is disappointing and, for people like Eva, much depends on how they receive and process life’s unfairness.

Any dreams Eva may have had for her young life were suddenly overturned by tragedy. In the face of such unexpected disappointments, the temptation to despair can be very strong. 

But taking refuge in despair, when faced with disappointments, presupposes we know the end of the story. In my own life, far more often than I would like, I belatedly discover that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. Thomas Sowell, in a recent interview, said:

“You can’t have extensive knowledge about everything, but you can have knowledge about the extent of your own ignorance.”

Quite.

Humility regarding the limits of our own understanding may actually be an important prerequisite for retaining any ability to fight the inclination toward despair.

In one of the more interesting stories in all of the bible, an angel appeared to the prophet Daniel to explain that he had been dispatched in response to Daniel’s prayers to answer the questions Daniel had recently been asking.  The angel explained that he had actually been dispatched weeks before, but battles were taking place in the heavenly realms that had prevented him from getting to Daniel before that very moment. Even at that moment, the angel said, he would be returning to the fight after delivering his message to Daniel.

Many things intrigue me about that story, but perhaps the most interesting thing is the extent to which it reveals that there are things afoot, outside our field of vision, which nevertheless greatly impact our lives and the lives of those around us.  Even the way we receive answers to our prayers are, apparently, impacted by unseen events.

Even someone who does not believe in God, or in the power of prayer, is well served by adopting a constrained view of their own omniscience. Complex systems are hard to gain visibility into, and negativity bias is really a thing. I worked for a while as a principal engineer for amazon.com. The last talk I gave to the engineering organization there was called “Superstitious Architectures: How to Avoid Them”. Sometime I’ll write up what prompted that presentation, but my talk contained example after example of wrong decisions that had been made based on an inflated view of the completeness of someone’s understanding of what was happening in a complex system.

Covid-19 pandemic modelers have not covered themselves with glory in this regard.

We would all be well served by remembering the distinct possibility that we will be surprised by events.

I can certainly say I have been repeatedly surprised in my own life. I was born with a type of exotic vascular deformity that wasn’t discovered until early adulthood. On 2 occasions it has tried to take my life. I once took a 20 mile ride in an ambulance, from one hospital to another, that no one thought I would survive. Twice I have had to say “final” goodbyes to my wife and children in the expectation that it might be the last words I could ever say to them. I’m really only alive today by the grace of God and the gobsmacking improvisational brilliance of a team of surgeons at a world beating medical school. But all along the way I have repeatedly discovered, after the fact, that what I had perceived as hopelessly dire was ultimately mitigated by things I did not know about at the time.

Life is complex and full of surprises.

I have friends and acquaintances who, like myself, have been extremely disappointed by both the process and outcome of the recent presidential election. Obviously, there is much to be disappointed about. Leading up to the election, and afterwards, the predictions of constitutional disaster and the imminent ruination of the republic have filled my inbox and news feed. I share all of these concerns.

But I don’t despair.

It isn’t that I’m blind to events or that I can’t see the same highly dubious, underhanded behaviors that all of my friends see. I expect that the conflict will escalate and get much worse before it gets better. But I don’t despair, in part, because I have had to come to grips with the limits of my own predictive powers. I’ve have too often been wrong in my own dire prognostications. There are things likely happening outside our vision, for good or ill, that will alter the outcome of events. Until all becomes clear, we must act where we can to influence events, but resist by all means the temptation to give in to despair. A demoralized army will not fight.

We are going to have to choose to play the long game. We must ignore the arguments for despair.

A few weeks before she died, friends of Eva Cassidy in the Washington D.C. area held a benefit concert for her. She was amazed at the turnout and moved by the outpouring of love. During the concert, in her last public performance, Eva required help to get onto the stage and up onto a stool with her guitar. She was in a great deal of pain and explained to the crowd that she had taken a large dose of morphine to fortify herself for her performance.  But, in the excruciating disappointment of that dying moment, these are the words she chose to sing:

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful worldThe colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m moved by your post, Keith, and it’s a timely one for our times, and for me personally. I agree with you that despair is a choice. I would go further, though, in saying we all have moments of despair as human beings, but we must try not to indulge those moments. They will only take us to dark and painful places. And I think for ourselves and those around us, G-d recognizes those moments in us, too, and wants us to reach out to Him for the strength we need to appreciate our lives.

    Thank you.

    • #1
  2. dajoho Member
    dajoho
    @dajoho

    Great post KL.  My wife and I call the extreme “hopeless despair” and do what we can to stay outta that pit.  

    But taking refuge in despair, when faced with disappointments, presupposes we know the end of the story. In my own life, far more often than I would like, I belatedly discover that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. Thomas Sowell, in a recent interview, said:

    “You can’t have extensive knowledge about everything, but you can have knowledge about the extent of your own ignorance.”

    Amen.  And the older I get the seemingly less I know.  

    Many things intrigue me about that story, but perhaps the most interesting thing is the extent to which it reveals that there are things afoot, outside our field of vision, which nevertheless greatly impact our lives and the lives of those around us. Even the way we receive answers to our prayers are, apparently, impacted by unseen events.

    I often wonder if we will ever see our life on a timeline with all the unseen events surrounding it.  How many events will be close calls or managed by God that I had no idea.  Or see those events we know were close calls and clearly see the supernatural involved.  My son was in a bad fight in Africa a few years back – eight guys against an estimated 100 – in his own words “I shouldn’t be here….” and he cited “the hand of God” when he relayed the story to me.  

    Life is complex and full of surprises.

    Yep.  

    Thanks for this.  We all need to be reminded not to despair.  

    • #2
  3. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Great post and you are a great addition to the writers here. Your opening got my attention because my son is a performance musician and songwriter who lives and performs in the Washington D.C. area when the venues are open. He is visiting with me now because everything that was his life is at a standstill. I asked him if he was familiar with Eva Cassidy and he said yes, she had performed at Fleetwood’s, a club in Alexandria in the 1990’s, where he also performed and he had seen her there. He said she is a legend in the area.

    I don’t despair either but there must be a lot out there now. I have some new challenges cropping up in my family and it is absolutely true that many aspects of what must now be dealt with are unfamiliar and will involve new learning experiences.

    I am grateful to the Lord that I retain some facility for facing these challenges.

    • #3
  4. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Our almost 3-year(?) deceased Ricochet friend Ray of Raycon and Lindacon used to say to me we Catholics are onto something with the concept of redemptive suffering. This is our hope that wards off despair. That our suffering may be united to Christ’s (to “make up what is lacking” according to St. Paul) for the good of the world. 

    We Chauvinists have had several heavy crosses to bear over the years and are bearing them still — by the grace of God, as you say. It has engendered in us greater compassion and, yes, gratitude for those graces seen and unseen. And it has made my operating motto: don’t ruin today with worries about tomorrow. 

    Another excellent post, Keith. Thanks.

    • #4
  5. Keith Lowery Coolidge
    Keith Lowery
    @keithlowery

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I would go further, though, in saying we all have moments of despair as human beings, but we must try not to indulge those moments. They will only take us to dark and painful places. And I think for ourselves and those around us, G-d recognizes those moments in us, too, and wants us to reach out to Him for the strength we need to appreciate our lives.

    Completely agree. 

    • #5
  6. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    Intellectually I understand this; however, for me despair is an emotion so strong at times I can’t rationalize my way out of it.  Nor is my faith strong enough to sustain me through it.  All that I have is my stubbornness hopefully that will be enough.  Thank you for sharing this.

    • #6
  7. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Keith Lowery: I worked for a while as a principal engineer for amazon.com.

    Douglas Merrill wrote a great book–Getting Organized in the Google Era (Crown, 2010)–about his coming to grips with the death from cancer of the love of his life. It’s a similar story of despair becoming a turning point.

    This is a wonderful post that I enjoyed very much. :-)

    • #7
  8. Keith Lowery Coolidge
    Keith Lowery
    @keithlowery

    Raxxalan (View Comment):

    Intellectually I understand this; however, for me despair is an emotion so strong at times I can’t rationalize my way out of it. Nor is my faith strong enough to sustain me through it. All that I have is my stubbornness hopefully that will be enough. Thank you for sharing this.

    In my own life, I sometimes tell people my faith looks much more like white knuckles and gritted teeth than euphoric celebration. Notwithstanding that, I have lived through some very dark times, and not of my own making. As my wife sometimes says, “we have learned to have joy, even in the midst of suffering”. Gratitude is closely correlated:  I have to remind myself that the darkness is not all there is. 

    This is actually a central theme of Tolkien’s work.  Tolkien survived the trenches of WWI when most of his friends did not. He knew something about the question of despair, I suspect.  This, from The Return of the King, has always resonated with me. On the edge of despair, Samwise Gamgee looks up into the sky while Frodo, exhausted and nearly overcome by the ring, is sleeping. He sees the stars twinkling far in the distance and it reminds him that the dank darkness of Morder is not all there is:

    “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” That moment changed the momentum of their quest.

     

    • #8
  9. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Thanks, Keith, for an inspiring post.

    • #9
  10. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    Keith Lowery (View Comment):

    Raxxalan (View Comment):

    Intellectually I understand this; however, for me despair is an emotion so strong at times I can’t rationalize my way out of it. Nor is my faith strong enough to sustain me through it. All that I have is my stubbornness hopefully that will be enough. Thank you for sharing this.

    In my own life, I sometimes tell people my faith looks much more like white knuckles and gritted teeth than euphoric celebration. Notwithstanding that, I have lived through some very dark times, and not of my own making. As my wife sometimes says, “we have learned to have joy, even in the midst of suffering”. Gratitude is closely correlated: I have to remind myself that the darkness is not all there is.

    This is actually a central theme of Tolkien’s work. Tolkien survived the trenches of WWI when most of his friends did not. He knew something about the question of despair, I suspect. This, from The Return of the King, has always resonated with me. On the edge of despair, Samwise Gamgee looks up into the sky while Frodo, exhausted and nearly overcome by the ring, is sleeping. He sees the stars twinkling far in the distance and it reminds him that the dank darkness of Morder is not all there is:

    “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” That moment changed the momentum of their quest.

     

    Most of the time I feel more like Frodo weighted down by the ring.  I need to revisit Tolkien.  I haven’t read the Lord of the Rings in ages. Being at a different place in life, I would probably get different things out of it.  Faith is something I am still working on.   I had thought it was gone completely; however, lately I have found some vestige of it remains.  I am trying to water it a bit to see if it will grow.  I don’t have room in my heart for joy or gratitude yet, at least not much.  Although I do try to be polite and express gratitude even if I don’t feel it, sort of the “fake it until you make it” approach.   I admire Tolkien’s ability to make sense of the senselessness that was WWI, did he keep his faith thru that or find it afterward? Do you know?   

    • #10
  11. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    My faith is complex and hard won and I still don’t trust God. He did not build me that way.

    • #11
  12. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Raxxalan (View Comment):
    Do you know?

    I only know what I was told in a class on LoTR at church. I have not read a biography. But, after his father died, his mother moved them back to England (from South Africa) and converted to Catholicism. She was shunned by her family and was basically destitute. She and JRR and his brother were taken in by a priest, who ended up raising the boys after Tolkien’s mother died. So my guess would be he remained faithful through all of it, the trauma of losing his parents and of WWI.

    • #12
  13. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):

    Raxxalan (View Comment):
    Do you know?

    I only know what I was told in a class on LoTR at church. I have not read a biography. But, after his father died, his mother moved them back to England (from South Africa) and converted to Catholicism. She was shunned by her family and was basically destitute. She and JRR and his brother were taken in by a priest, who ended up raising the boys after Tolkien’s mother died. So my guess would be he remained faithful through all of it, the trauma of losing his parents and of WWI.

    He converted CS Lewis. Lewis was a mighty atheist. It was Tolkien who saved his soul and who knows how many others through that witness.

    • #13
  14. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Thank you for this beautiful post.

    • #14
  15. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    Another excellent post, Keith. Thanks.

    Dude’s on quite a roll.

    • #15
  16. Jim George Member
    Jim George
    @JimGeorge

    Keith, I echo all of the accolades voiced in the comments so far and want to thank you for reasons perhaps a little different from most of those above, which have been mostly about faith and its value in facing down the demon of despair, but my appreciation has to do with the timing of when I first saw your title and about helping me remember my love for the truly incredible talent which was Eva Cassidy. 

    I had just read your title when Judi came in to deliver some rather startling news about something which had just happened in our home– one of those small things which take one a good long while to realize was a small thing and not nearly as catastrophic as it seemed at the time. I’m almost embarrassed to relate even the barebones outline of what happened, but it involved a very special Christmas present I gave her being  broken by a cleaning lady. I have long called Judi “my Dresden Doll” and this year, I decided that if I was going to gift her with a real Dresden Doll, I had better get it done this Christmas! When she came into my office to break the dreadful news, I was noting your title for the first time, and there could not have been a better time to get that advice! 

    So, thank you for that! While I know that, on the scale of things,  our little dustup doesn’t get close to your illnesses, or other calamitous reverses we have all experienced, but it is an example of the kind of small things which can, especially in these times of the pandemic, send people over the edge.

    But, I must send you special thanks for bringing back in my life a singer I fell in love with a few years ago when a friend gave us Eva’s album “Songbird” and I became absolutely swept away by all of the songs on that album, but especially “I know you by heart”, which is one of the most poignant, haunting, heartrending songs I have ever heard in my life. Because of your discussion of Eva’s tragic passing at age 35, still unknown outside the music club circuit of the Washington, D.C. area, I have spent most of the afternoon researching her career, her music, and her international fame — sadly, not achieved until cancer had taken her from us. Here are a few links to some of the material I viewed in case they may be helpful: the story behind “I know you by heart”, a fascinating documentary on “The Timeless Voice of Eva Cassidy”, and the lyrics of “I know you by heart”

    Here are the last few lines of that  touching  song:

    You left in autumn
    The leaves were turning
    I walked down roads of orange and gold
    I saw your sweet smile
    I heard your laughter
    You’re still here beside me
    Everyday
    ‘Cause I know you by heart
    ‘Cause I know you by heart

    • #16
  17. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    I never thought Time after Time was a serious song until I heard her version.

    • #17
  18. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    What a beautiful voice she had – very sad that she passed so young. You put it all in perspective – that’s for sure. This is the second time today I read something where The Book of Daniel was mentioned. That right there is powerful.

    • #18
  19. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Superb post. 

    Superb. 

    • #19
  20. Keith Lowery Coolidge
    Keith Lowery
    @keithlowery

    Jim George (View Comment):

    But, I must send you special thanks for bringing back in my life a singer I fell in love with a few years ago when a friend gave us Eva’s album “Songbird” and I became absolutely swept away by all of the songs on that album, but especially “I know you by heart”, which is one of the most poignant, haunting, heartrending songs I have ever heard in my life. Because of your discussion of Eva’s tragic passing at age 35, still unknown outside the music club circuit of the Washington, D.C. area, I have spent most of the afternoon researching her career, her music, and her international fame — sadly, not achieved until cancer had taken her from us. Here are a few links to some of the material I viewed in case they may be helpful: the story behind “I know you by heart”, a fascinating documentary on “The Timeless Voice of Eva Cassidy”, and the lyrics of “I know you by heart”.

    Here are the last few lines of that touching song:

    You left in autumn
    The leaves were turning
    I walked down roads of orange and gold
    I saw your sweet smile
    I heard your laughter
    You’re still here beside me
    Everyday
    ‘Cause I know you by heart
    ‘Cause I know you by heart

    @jimgeorge – Thanks so much for this very thoughtful response. My first exposure to Eva Cassidy was also her Songbird album and I Know You By Heart is a particular favorite of mine as well. I also really love her recording of  Anniversary Song from her Time After Time album. The lyrics are beautiful and haunting in light of her life story.  

    Thanks for posting all of the links.

    One other, unrelated, thing. I looked at your profile and saw that you’re a bit of a fan of the Blue Angels. My best friend from high school was the son of one of the Blue Angels who died during a performance in 1966 over Lake Ontario. Lt. Cmdr. Richard Oliver. Any time they were performing at the naval air station in Corpus Christi, they were a must see for my friend and I.

     

    • #20
  21. Keith Lowery Coolidge
    Keith Lowery
    @keithlowery

    Raxxalan (View Comment):
    I haven’t read the Lord of the Rings in ages. Being at a different place in life, I would probably get different things out of it. Faith is something I am still working on. I had thought it was gone completely; however, lately I have found some vestige of it remains. I am trying to water it a bit to see if it will grow. I don’t have room in my heart for joy or gratitude yet, at least not much. Although I do try to be polite and express gratitude even if I don’t feel it, sort of the “fake it until you make it” approach.

    @raxxalan Since this post is tangentially about music, I’ll mention that the  “fake it until you make it” approach was one advocated by Nat King Cole in his song Smile I’ve never known whether that approach offers a long term solution, but I’ve always believed that it can’t hurt.

    I don’t know your situation or you, so I can’t possibly offer any advice. I can, however, share something about myself and my own life. The most challenging moments in my life have been those moments I have felt robbed or devoid of human agency.  Moments in which something horrible was going on but against which I felt helpless to push back. In my own life, I have found a certain amount of liberation in deciding that, though I can’t do everything, I can do something to push back against the darkness in the world. At the most difficult time in my life, the turning point for me came when I decided that, even though there was nothing I was capable of doing about my own immediate concerns, I could nevertheless roll up my sleeves and do something constructive in some other way. Part of why I find that helpful is because I believe that our world is an interconnected battleground of spiritual and moral conflict and, in a reductionist sense, the task of our lives is to choose a side. Part of the reason that The Lord of The Rings resonates with people, I suspect, is because it is true in this regard. In my own circumstance, I might not be able to bring down the tower at Mordor, but I can kill the Orcs within my reach.

    So, for me, doing something concrete – something that pushed in some small but real way against the darkness  – restored my sense of agency and really alleviated the temptation to despair.

    I think it boiled down to not allowing the enemy to have unilateral say over where the battle was going to take place.

    For what it’s worth.

    • #21
  22. Jesse Brown Coolidge
    Jesse Brown
    @JesseBrown

    @keithlowery

    Good piece. I’m new to Ricochet with not much to say but I enjoy reading the thoughts of other similar minded folks. My blogging days are far behind me. Maybe because of despair and a touch of depression. After Vietnam with the Marines I was never the same and have struggled my whole life to maintain an even keel emotionally and intellectually. Raised a Baptist, I became an atheist and then after open heart surgery I became a believer again and joined the Episcopal church. Sadly I’ve watched them and other mainline churches slowly self destruct over gay clergy and same sex marriage. I no longer attend services but still count myself a Christian. 

    Eva Cassidy. I grew up in Prince George’s County Maryland just outside DC and not far from where Eva and her family lived. Some of my high school friends kids knew her well and hung out at her house in Bowie. We all (locals) knew of her and loved her music and were devastated when she passed. She was iconoclastic in a way about her music, refusing to be shoehorned into the industry’s version of a hit artist. She had the voice and talent to be a major star but just wanted to do it her way. 

    • #22
  23. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Jesse Brown (View Comment):

    @keithlowery

    Good piece. I’m new to Ricochet with not much to say but I enjoy reading the thoughts of other similar minded folks. My blogging days are far behind me. Maybe because of despair and a touch of depression. After Vietnam with the Marines I was never the same and have struggled my whole life to maintain an even keel emotionally and intellectually. Raised a Baptist, I became an atheist and then after open heart surgery I became a believer again and joined the Episcopal church. Sadly I’ve watched them and other mainline churches slowly self destruct over gay clergy and same sex marriage. I no longer attend services but still count myself a Christian.

    Eva Cassidy. I grew up in Prince George’s County Maryland just outside DC and not far from where Eva and her family lived. Some of my high school friends kids knew her well and hung out at her house in Bowie. We all (locals) knew of her and loved her music and were devastated when she passed. She was iconoclastic in a way about her music, refusing to be shoehorned into the industry’s version of a hit artist. She had the voice and talent to be a major star but just wanted to do it her way.

    Glad to have you here, Jesse. I hope you feel welcome and will engage with us even more. We can sometimes be a rowdy crowd, but we’re a lot of good-hearted people. 

    • #23
  24. Susan in Seattle Member
    Susan in Seattle
    @SusaninSeattle

    Thank you for this timely, helpful post: most excellent.

    We love Eva Cassidy and have, I think, most of her recordings.  I, however, have to be careful about when I listen to her because I bawl whenever I hear her. 

    • #24
  25. Jim George Member
    Jim George
    @JimGeorge

    Susan in Seattle (View Comment):
    We love Eva Cassidy and have, I think, most of her recordings. I, however, have to be careful about when I listen to her because I bawl whenever I hear her. 

    I was so interested to see this comment as I, like you, cannot listen to most of her songs without choking up–however, when I listen to “I know you by heart”, there is simply no defense… I tear up every single time….”you left in autumn….” hits me every time, knowing how young she was when she was taken. 

    Thanks again, Jim

    • #25
  26. Jim George Member
    Jim George
    @JimGeorge

    Keith Lowery (View Comment):
    One other, unrelated, thing. I looked at your profile and saw that you’re a bit of a fan of the Blue Angels. My best friend from high school was the son of one of the Blue Angels who died during a performance in 1966 over Lake Ontario. Lt. Cmdr. Richard Oliver. Any time they were performing at the naval air station in Corpus Christi, they were a must see for my friend and I.

    Thanks again, Keith, for your beautiful post and for this comment about one of my self-admitted addictions, The Blue Angels. Judi and many of our friends say that I wanted to move to the Pensacola area, leaving our home of 35 years, mainly to be close to their base, NAS Pensacola and to be able to not only see their shows on the beach (the weekend after the 4th of July every year, except, of course, for this horrible year of the plague)  which I have watched about 17-18 times but also to see the practice sessions at the base. Our first summer here, I went out to the base approximately every other week to watch them practice. I had better stop here, as I have no filter when it comes to the Blues and I would get to 500 word count right smartly! 

    As others have noted, I look forward to more of your writing.. it is excellent.

    Sincerely, Jim

    • #26