Moving Through Despair Towards Hope

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Chalice lighting

As we gather, by the light of this flame,

Some of us may arrive with hearts filled with possibility

But for some of us, the last week may have felt frustrating, or difficult

Or we may, at this particular time, find ourselves feeling sorrow, or hopelessness

This morning, may we create a space

To breathe, to reflect, to honour whatever it is we feel,

In hope, and in despair, you are welcome

Let us be here, together, now.

Reading: The Guest House, by Jalaluddin Rumi

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Message - by a congregant

I was invited to write a talk on the theme of “Despair & Hope”. It's about how a complete stranger taught me the power of getting the last laugh.

It is Pride month, and as I look up at the billowing rainbow flag images high in the sky, it feels only right to also look at the ground towards our feet and the shadows beside them; to honour the deep dark shame pits that have proceeded those threads of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple that now sing out above us. 

Because for me, despair and hope are intrinsically linked. From each great sadness, emptiness or void, something is spun, transformed, created and grown from that space. It is nature’s cyclical trajectory and grand design. Even our darkest despair, the longest, harshest of winters and the dying out of everything we love cannot outlast the tenacity of spring and the sun bursting forth all over. Like us all, I am no stranger to despair. As the Simon & Garfunkel song says: “Hello Darkness, my Old Friend”. We are on first-name terms. 

I feel now somewhat lucky to have first encountered despair in early childhood, my confidence irreversibly shaken by the racism and violent abuse I experienced. I knew what it was to live in fear, to be hungry, to live in doubt and to be afraid. I watched my father leave, my mother subsequently having a breakdown. 

In the blink of an eye, I watched my family and stability slip away. I watched as my mannerisms, behaviour and sexuality emerged in a way that was incongruous with what was expected of me as a woman. Under the roof of my mother’s strict religious household, everything erupted.

I was thrust into independence full of doubt, lacking in guidance and a place to call home. I not only feared my identity, I grew to hate it.

I let predators eat me like prey. I fell into drugs, escapism and nihilism. Countless times I stayed up late drinking from despair’s cup, looking up at the night sky, cursing what it was to be here, in a world so cruel, so full of hate, so full of pain with a price that felt far too high to pay. 

But no matter how hard I tried to destroy, life kept creating and giving me flowers; every time I pulled them up in a sour mood, there were fresh ones by the morning. 

I kept landing in the lap of kindness, in the generous arms of mother and father figures, giving me opportunities to turn it all around with countless gifts and lessons that made it simply impossible to hold on to all those passing beliefs I had carried around in darkness. I now revelled in what light there was, and it, too, had touched I and became my friend.

I built an artistic and creative life that flowed like a river, pouring out from the mouth of my pain. By my early twenties, I was a dancer and circus performer, surrounded by friends and performing on stages across the country.

I had – as Mary Oliver once said – heard the announcement of my place in the family of things. Because life can be unkind, but love is elastic. When we have none, others can show us the way if we can find the courage to lean on them and the heart to listen:

When I am closed
Used up
You are stretched at your fullest width
Ready to give
I want to jump
Into you
And feel this life
As you do
Perhaps then
I could give as you do
Perhaps then
I could live as you do

(Lebogang Mashile) 

We are so often elastic bands, propelling one another towards what we need to see and feel. Have you ever had the pleasure of observing a child playing freely, your head full with a thousand fires of rage about your work and finances and just how unfair life is, then suddenly you see them hanging upside down from a tree screaming with glee and you think: "Ah, I need to lighten up?"

This was once all a playground and a place of wonder. Is it all a matter of looking at things differently with all things turning around, ending up fine in the end. Is that what you are saying?

No! Despair and Hope are connected: they twist and turn, and return again and again to tear, to teach, to strengthen us.

To move our despair towards hope is always a struggle, a constant battle between the forces of destruction and creation. We can learn to make this a dance, a conversation between the voices that want to lay in the dark under the covers and shut the whole world out, or worse, set it ablaze just to feel something. And the ones that want to wriggle – heck, crawl – their way into the light for another try.

Khahil Gibran‘s “Joy and Sorrow” (chapter 8) says: “Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

In 2016 despair paid me another visit, with several sharp knocks on the door of unhappiness. A break-up, further housing despair, chronic illness and then a friend’s suicide toppled me back into the shadows. 

All felt heavy, the will to move at all – let alone forward – had dissipated. My heart could not bear it, my heart could not go on. It was as if someone had come in the night and rearranged all my things, and there was no joy to be found in any of them now. 

I waited and waited, and still nothing. I could not get out of the pit. I needed someone or something greater to move me. I needed connection. I took a job with the NHS. I think – in retrospect – I had to be near human spirit’s equanimity. I needed to witness the fight for life close-up.

I worked in a regional neurological rehabilitation unit as a Physiotherapist’s assistant, working with people recovering from acute brain injuries as they learned to walk again or adapt to their new life post-injury, their new range of movements, their new mind and abilities. I was given many gifts of human connection in this time of work. 

I worked with patients on the fight for independence, autonomy and expression, pushing my employer to allow me to implement performance programmes for patients and families

 on long hospital stays, inviting my dancer and musician friends to share extracts of their shows on the ward, enlivening the patient experience.

I also initiated creative dance and movement sessions for the patients, creating with them their own power song playlists, assisting their dancing and movement to music each week; a precious moment to explore their bodies beyond their ongoing situation as a ‘patient’.

The real gift came one day in a story I want to now share to with you: it not only carried my spirit through those dark times, but still to this day serves both as a tonic and an invaluable lesson.

I met one remarkable patient who is happy for me to share his story. He had suffered multiple strokes and came to the unit in a wheelchair, suffering from aphasia - an irreversible impairment to his communication and speech which meant he could only say the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ over-and-over again, not in accordance with expected accurate responses to questions. 

We had uncovered that upon admission to hospital, his mother was in palliative care and he had been looking after her, and that his wife had recently had a cancer diagnosis.

I caught him by his bedside after a particularly difficult interaction with his visiting son, who became quite frustrated at not longer being able to communicate with his father. The patient seemed tearful and upset as his son stormed away from his bedside, unable to stay. It was time for his physiotherapy, but he needed the toilet. Due to a nursing staff shortage, no one was available to accompany him. The patient visibly had an accident and became increasingly frustrated. 

The physiotherapist and I stepped in to support him with personal care and then took him into the physio gym for treatment. I was responsible for running something called a “micro-stimulation" group. Often with strokes, limbs become weakened and unable to move, so we would use electro-stimulation pads on the limbs to encourage movement.

As I went to set up the patient after his ordeal - as I had many times before - he took it upon himself to show us all of his true character by doing the best impression of getting electrocuted I have EVER seen!

Before erupting into fits of laughter, he winked at me and put his thumbs up, smiling. Everyone in the gym was in hysterics at his joke. The patient had the last laugh and reclaimed ultimate power in the room. After my initial nervousness at checking I hadn’t actually hurt him (unlikely with the equipment we were using), I began smiling in awe at his understanding and courage in the face of all he had been dealing with in his life. I thought to myself, if that man can laugh in the face of adversity, I can at least dare to try. 

I often enjoy reflecting on this moment, my only sadness being that I could not express to him enough how deeply he touched my life with his spirit and his humour, how he had made me want to go on living, when for a while it felt like there was so little to live for. 

Who do you inspire to keep going? What do you do that you might not even notice that makes others motivated about their life? 

I invite you in a moment to pause and reflect on that, along with this.

May you invite your sorrow and despair in as you would a visiting guest. May you hold it, listen to it. May it be a road map to what you need to connect with and nurture in your life. May you move with it and through it, to its departure. May you be strengthened each time it visits. May it be so.

Closing words

As we cast our minds back over our own experiences,

We can perhaps see how we ourselves have moved through despair towards hope

The times when the smallest actions or moments of unexpected humour

Have given us the strength to carry on.

I sometimes wish, when I feel joy, or gentle contentment,

That I could reach a hand out into the past, into my own times of deepest sorrow,

And tell myself to hold on, that there are so many beautiful things yet to come

But maybe, right now, you are that voice to someone else

Or maybe by daring to hope, even just a little, you are that voice to yourself.

May we carry this flame with us,

To symbolise our potential, our possibility

And as a light, to illuminate all of our paths, through sorrow, and despair

May it be so.

Copy editing by Nelson Batista