How can desperation help us to become who we really are?
Posted Sep 26, 2019
Desperation is a very peculiar quality of an inhuman life. Let me explain.
In my life I have met desperate people. Well, I’ve been desperate myself on more than one occasion. What does it taste like?
To me, desperation tastes like overwhelmingly salty water. When I meet with a client who feels desperate I see someone who seems to be drowning alone in the midst of an angry ocean. Yet, if I focus long enough from the tranquility of my chair, I can clearly see that it is not water but solid earth that is underneath my client’s feet, and it is not aloneness but disconnection that is overwhelming her. Desperation seems to bring us closer to a near-death experience even when we are still alive and well.
Generally, my job is to point a client to the shore to rest and recover their energy. When hope is regained, a startling shift occurs. The client feels almost ashamed of their previous state of mind and all that seemed daunting before becomes almost ridiculous.
This dynamic made me reflect on the powerful role that Hope and its opposite, Desperation, have in our lives. The word desperation is itself a child of Hope. Desperation, in fact, comes from de-spes which means lack of hope. Giving up on our hopes leads us to experience a quality of disconnection and meaninglessness that is far more frightening than any other painful experience we might go through.
Hope is the last to die because it is one of the main constituents of the human species. Losing it means disappearing from life even if we are still breathing.
In mythology, the story of the demi-god, Elpis (Greek for Hope), is connected to a chain of mistakes and tragic attempts. Even though everyone seems to have done the right thing in following what felt true to their instincts and nature, they all ended up in very desperate situations. I will tell you their story.
It was the end of a long war between the Titans and the Greek gods. Titans had been defeated by the god Zeus, and it was the start of a new era ruled the Olympian gods. Yet, Zeus was not a tolerant ruler, so when a Titan named Prometheus stole fire from Olympians to share it with humans, Zeus put Prometheus in chains and has his guts devoured night and day for eternity by cruel vultures.
Zeus decided to punish not only Prometheus but humankind, too. For this reason, he asked Hephestus, the divine metalworker and blacksmith of Olympus, to create a perfect woman. Hephestus created Pandora. He used godly water and earth to create the perfect woman. The gods endowed her with many gifts: Athena gave her refined clothes, Aphrodite gave her sophisticated beauty, Apollo donated her musical skills, and Hermes gave her a witty mind.
But she was also tantalizing, capricious, and selfish.
Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother married her despite Prometheus warning him to do otherwise. Different from his brother, Epimetheus had the (quite useless) skill to be an after-thinker, that is someone who thinks afterward to the consequences of his actions.
In his book Commemorating Epimetheus (2009), Les Amis defends Epimetheus’ (useless) skill by saying that he, and not only his brother, is a benefactor of humankind because he instilled in us the awareness of our dependency and interconnection. In fact, we are so doomed to make mistakes because we do not think enough about the consequences of our actions, that we have to learn, quite soon, the vital need to care for and cherish one another.
So, Epimetheus decided to marry Pandora despite his brother's protestations – Prometheus believed that she would bring chaos and disgrace to Epimetheus. Zeus had, in fact, gifted Pandora a box which he warned her not to open. Pandora didn’t know the reasons behind that warning. Zeus, a revengeful god, had put all the worst evils that one can imagine into that box.
Of course, curious Pandora opened the box, thus liberating the evils that Zeus had planned to bring to humankind. Yet, at the very bottom of that box, one thing remained: Hope. Hope is thus always there for humans to use when the worst kinds of evil seem to prevail.
Differently from Brown’s (1997) and Hurwitt’s (1995) interpretation of this myth, I don’t think that the main point here is about “economics and sexuality.” I do not think that this quintessential woman has been sent to us to trick mortals into losing all that we own.
In these myths, all the characters acted according to their nature and this, I believe, is the gist. Zeus behaved as a domineering vengeful leader, Prometheus sacrificed himself to be loyal to his ideals, Pandora was too curious to keep her promise, and Epimetheus preferred material ephemeral goods to long-term happiness.
Although every action taken by these characters led to a chain of mistakes and desperate events, at least they lived and had a chance to discover for themselves who they really were.
Zeus, jealous of humankind, meant to plague mortals with suffering and pain but he forgot that an important gift still remained very well hidden in the desperation that these evils created: Hope. At the very bottom of Pandora’s box, Hope had transformed evils and desperation into wondrous metamorphoses. It is, in fact, behind the desperation that evil generates in our life that incredible discoveries have been made, and humans have found a way to evolve and become more and more themselves. Without desperation, my clients (and I) would rarely challenge a stagnant situation and push their limits in order to live a better life.
When the craziness of life leads us to forget how desirable human life is (so desirable that even an omnipotent Zeus felt jealous of it!) we need to take a leap of faith in order to remember that there is hope. Hope in the beauty of life itself.
The most basic form of hope
To conclude, I believe that the most basic form of hope is in our breath, in the simplest expression of life.
Any scenario in life is worth being explored. Not only moments in our youth and happiness, but also in times of shame and sickness because anything can bring us to the transformation we need at that moment.
Epimetheus is, after all, another benefactor of humankind because he reminds us of our limits and our need for each other. Each age, each part of life presents us with a new scenario that is worth exploring. It would be a pity to just stand still.
Where there’s life there’s hope. In Terentius’ words: “Modo liceat vivere, est spes”. Life itself is the meaning that sometimes we lose during moments of deep desperation.
Being able to have hope allows us to connect with our deepest human roots, our being in this world.
Brown AS. 1997. Aphrodite and the Pandora Complex. The Classical Quarterly 47(1):26-47.
Hurwit JM. 1995. Beautiful Evil: Pandora and the Athena Parthenos. American Journal of Archaeology 99(2):171-186.
Les Amis, Commemorating Epimetheus, Purdue University Press, 2009.