The story of our lives

Despair is a public health epidemic fueled by culturewide emotional neglect and social problems.

by Nathan Paulsen

ANOTE: This article originally appeared in the January 23rd print edition of The Daily. It was not posted because of error.

American culture has so stigmatized people who experience any emotion other than happiness that the ability to talk about our personal and collective pain has very nearly been erased. This forgetting of our ancestral emotional wisdom comes at a heavy price, and is currently feeding a multitude of social crises.

The fear, grief and despair that are such a profound part of human life, especially at the dawn of the 21st century, are commonly treated with derision, contempt and shame.

“Stop crying.” “Keep your head up.” “Be a man.” “You’re too sensitive, emotional, irrational.” “I’m feeling good; how about you?”

Cast forcefully into an enduring world of unconscious ghosts, the emotions we are so recklessly attempting to purge from our bodies take on a life of their own. Eventually, unacknowledged emotions are materialized in hell-fire missiles and semi-automatic assault rifles, Columbine and Iraq.

On campus, the hurried rush of students to and from overpriced classes, consumed with worry about the latest credit card bill or academic deadline, provides cover for long-neglected traumas to fester and collide, transforming themselves along the way into a wide range of physical and spiritual maladies. Everything from heart disease to bulimia can trace some part of their origins to repetitive social stresses buried within over-ambitious schedules. The University’s reports of sharp increases in the number of students receiving professional care for mental health problems suggests the need for each of us to slow down and pay more attention to how we are living.

I write from experience.

Having spent the better part of my late teens and early 20s struggling with drug addiction and bouts of despair that left me on the brink of suicide, I developed an intimate familiarity with life in the shadow of the American dream.

There were times in those tumultuous years where the weight of my self-hatred was so great that I could hardly muster enough energy to brush my teeth or wash my clothes. I dropped classes, stopped making or returning phone calls, skipped work shifts and lost interest in the activities I formerly loved. As daily life fell into disarray and meaninglessness pervaded my normal routines, my thoughts increasingly turned toward finding an escape from the seemingly unbearable pain that had taken hold of my life. Drugs, and later suicide, became my obsession.

Although drug abuse aggravated my growing despair and anxiety, fleeting highs provided momentary relief from the terrible suffering that was eating away at me little by little, and I didn’t know where else to turn.

I felt exhausted, lonely and, above all, scared. I was scared to death of what was becoming of my life, that I could not control the drugs or the tears and that the future would only bring more of the same anguish.

My hardest moments were marked by an overwhelming fear that if I allowed my misery to be seen, it would be met with silence, leaving me feeling even more alone than I already was. Our cultural tendency to marginalize people who express their blues, the “turn that frown upside-down” syndrome that reinforces the alienating notion that it’s simply not OK to be sad, forced me to become adept at hiding the way I was actually feeling. I distinctly remember the unreality I encountered when the smile I wore in public every day would not leave my face even while recounting my most difficult memories.

I often laid in bed at night wondering if I was the only one who was experiencing this awful grief or if each of us was lying to the other. My real and imagined isolation prevented me from asking for help until it was almost too late.

While I was fortunate enough to make my way through these troubled days with the love and support of family and dear friends, millions of young people across our nation are now trapped inside their own variation of this socially constructed house of lost souls, and many will not live to tell about it.

The etymology of the word despair leads to the Latin desperare (“to stop hoping”), then sperare (“to hope”) and ultimately spes (“hope”). The widespread absence of hope in a society is a cultural, economic and spiritual problem that has less to do with biochemistry than it does the historical and ongoing destruction of our communities.

In a world marred by perpetual war, entrenched poverty, sexual violence, domestic abuse, low-wage jobs and corporate careers, it does not take much imagination to see how deeply the roots of our despair must reach. Under these conditions, the severe denial and repression of dark emotions becomes a perverse necessity in order to maintain an inherently brutal status quo. Emotion is etymologically related to movere, meaning “to move, set in motion.” There is no movement without emotion.

An open and honest discussion of the pain many of us are suffering might inspire action to change the cultural imbalances and economic inequalities at its source. A failure to do so will inevitably breed more of the same mass addiction and rising suicide rates for decades to come.

Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]