Reaching through Despair


A few years ago, I was staying at my aunt’s flat in Edinburgh. Probably, she was away for the weekend and I had gone up to check on my grandmother, who lives nearby. In the morning, I found that she had left some yoghurt and cereal for me, and instructions to pick some raspberries from her garden.

Outside, the morning sun struck through the spires of lavender, alive with bees. As I stepped through the french windows into the garden, the flags were warm underfoot. The raspberries were at blood-heat; crushed against my tongue, they tasted like a concentrate of summer. Bowl in hand, I flung myself down upon the grass and basked in the sun.

But, although every sense was gratified by that lovely, teeming garden, in the fullness of its midsummer glory, nothing could soothe or blind me to my ever-present distress.

I was an anxious child and a histrionic teenager. In my late twenties, the anxiety hardened into a paralysing despair. Concerns about climate change, the future of societies and, above all, artificial intelligence, obsessed me so much that I gradually withdrew from thinking too hard; it always led me to reiterate my despair. I came to fear any reminders of it, even though it was omnipresent. I was scared to read the news in case it featured a story about technology. I was scared to use public transport in case I ended up trapped next to someone using a smartphone.

Sometimes, during my thirties, I functioned reasonably well. I hung on to some of my old friends, and even made some new ones, which says a lot about the tolerance and kindness of the people I know. I did a lot of singing, and held down a proper job for a while.

At other times despair made me intemperate. Since I was constantly obsessed with hopeless thoughts, almost anything could make me break down entirely. Kindness and unkindness alike, and above all, music, would take away the last of my self-control, and I would weep and rage at anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t, perhaps, have chosen to. (It is a sad fact that nobody will ever be able to give a very depressed person quite as much attention as she is able to absorb.)

During those years, whenever anyone announced a pregnancy to me, I was hard pressed not to reply, “What on earth do you want to do that for?” What stopped me was not so much consideration for my friends’ feelings, as an unwillingness to give my terrors life by talking about them. Children represent the future; therefore, the idea of bringing people into the world who would be growing up in the terrifying, dark and insecure future of my imagining seemed too dreadful to contemplate. Certainly I didn’t think I would ever have children. I was haunted by the climactic event in Toni Morrison’s classic novel “Beloved”: the protagonist, Sethe, who has escaped slavery and knows she is about to be recaptured, kills her baby daughter, Beloved, to save her from it. It wasn’t, of course, that I thought my comfortable life had, or was likely to have, much in common with that of a nineteenth-century slave; what I recognised was the despair. We sometimes read sad little stories in the news of mothers who kill their children and then themselves. I feared for what the future might do to my hypothetical children, but I also feared what I might do to them.

What changed? It was a gradual rather than a sudden process. A lot of people did me a lot of good turns, and I had a couple of strokes of good luck, and my friends, family and husband showed their affection and care for me to be so resilient that I had to reassess my belief that anything good must be shifting and insecure. Last autumn I found myself, almost by chance, associating with various environmental campaigners and academics and having lots of fun talking and arguing about sustainable development – albeit not making all that much money. For the first time in decades I found myself in a position where thinking was  – interesting, rather than terrifying; laudable, rather than transgressive.

Which is probably why the effort needed not to get pregnant didn’t seem so important any more, because I wasn’t spending so much time in the pits of despair.  Which is why I became pregnant.

My reaction to this was, predictably, not jubilant; but nor was it appalled. I assumed that I would simply have the pregnancy terminated and that my life would return to the semi-stasis that I had decided was tolerable.

Then I dithered horribly.

“I’m more interested in you than I am in any other hypothetical person you might produce,” said my husband, “and I don’t want to be a father if you don’t want to be a mother.”

I didn’t know the answer to his implicit question. I asked carefully-selected friends what to do about it. Not happy mothers, oh, God, no. Hardly any parents at all. Childless people of my own age or older, mostly; nobody who I thought would be likely to undermine my determined nihilism. And, damn their eyes, they nearly all told me to keep it.

Or, perhaps, after all, that’s what I wanted them to tell me. Why? Because if they told me not to, they would be supporting and reinforcing my own despair. I realised that, while all the reasons for keeping the baby – a new phase of my own life, giving someone else a pitch at existence – were positive, the only reason I had for not keeping it – to avoid a horrific future – was entirely, unremittingly, negative.

(This isn’t, by the way, an essay about the redemptive power of rejecting abortion. It’s every woman’s right to decide what she wants to do with her own reproductive organs. It’s an essay about the redemptive power of rejecting despair.)

And so I came to cling, gratefully, to everything that my friends said that opened up the possibility of a new and more hopeful way of being: me believing that my child could have a happy existence.

I can’t remember the exact words one of them said to me, but it was something like this:

“But we never know how long we have in this world. What we know is that it’s here, now. And don’t you think – when you look outside – that it is so beautiful,  that it makes it worth living in, for however short a time? That maybe – that’s enough?”

I thought about that when, almost lightheaded with nausea, I took the train through the Tyne Valley to meet an old friend – one of the mothers whose advice I’d shunned. I was looking forward to telling her about the baby; and the weak winter sun, breaking through the clouds, lit up the grass in the sodden fields next to the curve of the river, and the slender graceful trees which fringe it. So much beauty and so much love for my child to bask in.


2 thoughts on “Reaching through Despair

  1. Another beautifully written and thought-provoking essay. The words i take away from this one, to start making part of my own spoken vocabulary are: Spires, Histrionic, Intemperate, Laudable and Transgressive. And I will now be adding Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” to my Goodreads “To Read” list.
    Thank you! xx


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