On the Cusp of Despair and Joy


You have lived on the cusp of despair for so long.

When you peered over the ledge that time

the depth was vast,

a Grand Canyon of empty space and nothingness.

So you turned your back on it all,

thinking to see this would annihilate you.

Building strong walls of defense against despair

never has worked for you,

for they are impotent, imaginary walls.

Looking away from that ledge doesn’t make it disappear.

Despair is always nearer than you want,

an unwelcome guest.

And when you heard him knocking at your door

you tried to run away, or distract yourself from hearing.

He just kept knocking.

Some terror has pushed you out on the cusp of despair

some great misfortune, disappointment, or loss.

You spent all your energy just trying to keep from tumbling over.

Trying to avoid the fall into despair

is wasted energy.

No matter how hard you resist

everybody falls in the end,

if you live long enough.

What you don’t yet know

before you have fallen

is what comes after the fall,

after despair overtakes you.

I would tell you what is on the other side of despair,

as one who has fallen long and hard,

but I don’t know if you are ready.

Then again, who can know if you are ready to hear this?

For if you aren’t

when I speak this truth you won’t hear it anyway,

or you will just exhaust yourself

questioning and rationalizing with the dualistic mind,

the mind that thinks it can parse out reality in manageable portions.

So here it is,

a reality only experience can teach you:

What comes after despair,

just on the other side of that feared cusp,

is a quiet light in the soul

known as joy.

This is the great paradox of being human:

the nearness of seeming opposites.

William Blake calls us even deeper into this truth

when he speaks of coincidentia oppositorum.

“Opposites do not merely come together

and fuse in synthesis,

but are restored to a higher unity,

an alchemical wedding of loving and fiery elements

made all the more ardent by separation.”

This “higher unity” is your Home.

It is waiting for you on the cusp of despair and joy.

You will not find Home by avoiding your despair,

as if you could.

I tell you

leap over that ledge now,

go ahead and fall into despair.

For giving up is a prelude.

The gentle, unified symphony of joy awaits just on the other side.

Yes, there is something after despair,

which I have learned by falling over that ledge,

and not by choice.

I resisted long,

just like you do.

And I finally fell anyway.

That is why I say with Rumi,

“tear down this house. A hundred thousand new houses

can be built from the transparent yellow gold

buried beneath it, and the only way to get to that

is to do the work of demolishing and then

digging under the foundations…

the buried wealth is your pay for doing the demolition,

the pick and shovel work.”

This is also why I have become friends with Kabir,

who says this:

“Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.

Jump into experience while you are alive!

…What you call ‘salvation’

belongs to the time before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,

do you think ghosts will do it after?

…What is found now is found then.

…If you make love with the divine now, in the next life

you will have the face of satisfied desire.”

And this is what I have also learned about the cusp of despair and joy,

as Samuel Beckett says:

“I can’t go on. I go on.”

When we can live earnestly on the cusp of despair and joy

Mark Nepo, the Jewish poet and philosopher, says,

“…we are presented with many hints or thresholds into Wholeness: through wounds, through wonder, through revelation, through silence, through dreams, through paradox, through the love of others. How we relate to these hints or thresholds has much to do with whether we will reconcile our humanness on Earth.”[1]

As Carl Jung makes clear in his Answer to Job:

It is the task of the conscious mind to understand these hints. If this does not happen, the process of individuation will nevertheless continue. The only difference is that we become its victims and are dragged along by fate towards that inescapable goal which we might have reached walking upright, if only we had taken the trouble and been patient enough to understand in time the meaning of the numina that cross our path.[2]

Then Mark Nepo continues:

“Being human, we are constantly broken apart by experience. To reconcile our humanness means we are ever learning how to accept our suffering and to restore our Wholeness. We are often distracted into thinking we can solidify ourselves against being broken or that we can sidestep suffering. Both are impossible. We are fated by this [state of] incarnation to come apart and to be put back together. It is the opening and closing along the way that holds the secrets, and there is no other way to that wisdom than to be fully human and to accept where it leads.”[3]

So now I want you to go within.

Go to an inner story of a time when you have been presented

with such numina: hints or thresholds that led into Wholeness

through wounds, wonder, revelation, silence, dreams, paradox, or love.

Perhaps you have already known what it is like

to be broken open by this life,

and still found a way to sing

of the majesty of being human.

After you have a few moments to let the impact of this truth visit, I share a bit of lyrical commentary, drawn from the Celtic poet John O’Donohue.

In the Celtic world there are three domains:

The underworld below the surface of landscape

(where the fairy people and dark forces live);

The middle kingdom (where humans live); and

The heavenly world (the super-sensual, upper world where beings of light live).

Here’s the clincher: “These three dimensions [flow] into and out of each other. Indeed, they [participate] in each other.” Richard Rohr’s word for this trinity of relationship is perichoresis – “a circle dance”[4] – a community of relationship in which the three worlds commune.

It’s no wonder we awaken from dreams trailing clouds of thick darkness or bright glory, for we have been visiting the underworld, and the upper world, and both are still very near. Emotions and potential meanings from those encounters are still with us as we reenter the middle kingdom of waking awareness.

We try to protect and defend ourselves from these powerful encounters by saying things like, “Oh, it was just a dream.” But the effects of these meetings stay close – like it or not. There is a residue from our encounter with dark sacredness and we cannot shake it as easily as we wish.

We like to believe we safely dwell in the middle kingdom, as though there are no bridges or passageways to and from these other dimensions. But the psyche is wiser than our defenses and can easily dissolve our imaginary barriers between worlds.

This Celtic understanding might help us expand our awareness of reality and human experience. If I defend against despair by submerging it into my underworld, (repressing and suppressing what I wish to avoid into the vast depths of my unconscious), it will only find passageways toward visitations beyond my conscious control.

If I am frightened by the power of radical joy, which Brene’ Brown says we fear even more than despair,[5] and use numbing measures for self-protection, then joy and ecstasy will come looking for me in nighttime visits or daytime surprises. They will bring bliss uncomfortably near, and will find ways to keep knocking on my door, awaiting my answer.

And finally, there is this great paradox: because despair and joy are both interconnected dwellers of the underworld and upper world, wedded in an alchemical union beyond our understanding, the visitation of one can be prelude to the visit of the other, for they are nearer than they seem. We have wrongly thought despair and hope, much less joy, live on opposite sides of a spectrum. Awakening after 40 days and 40 nights of raw human experience, or 40 years in the desert, (Jewish metaphors for “way too long”), we may discover that just on the other side of despair is a quiet light in the soul, known as joy.

This is not some fanciful theory created to entertain you, or give false comfort. This is the experience of a man who has lived through 31 years of his wife’s kidney disease, and her two transplants, and her breast cancer with chemo and double mastectomies and radiation and more chemo, (our own versions of 40 years in the desert). It is the experience of a psychotherapist, pastor, and meditation teacher after 35 years of walking with people through their versions of the “dark night of the soul.” Learn this nearness of seeming opposites now, in this life, so you don’t have to wait, as Kabir says, for the next life.

[1] p. 167, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred, New York: Atria Paperback, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] P. 168, Ibid.

[4] “Contemplative Vision,” DVD Series from 2007 Contemplative Outreach Enrichment Weekend.

[5] The Gifts of Imperfection.

For more writing like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, now available as  a Kindle book.


About soulcare4u

I am the author of Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic World, published by Wipf & Stock and available through Amazon.com; and of a blog on Wordpress.com, "A Contemplative Path." I serve as the founding spiritual director of The School for Contemplative Living (www.thescl.net), adjunct faculty of Loyola University, and as a pastoral counselor and spiritual director in private practice.
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