Sinking into the River of Existential Despair


    Everyday disappointments and failures can lead to psychological despair.
But much deeper than these psychological-emotional dynamics
lies our Existential Malaise experienced as existential despair.
Nevertheless, this deep hopelessness without a cause
might be replaced by ultimate, uncaused hope.





1. Hopelessness of a definite situation;
impossibility of a specific task.
1. Total hopelessness;
all efforts futile.
2. Understandable cause or source
in the objective world.
2. No objective cause;
existentially disclosed from within.
3. We eventually accept the loss or
defeat; reconstruction possible.
3. Permanent hopelessness;
no reconstruction possible.
4. Independent, separate,
isolatable difficulties.
4. Pervasive, comprehensive
5. We can accept the inevitable
and focus on other values.
5. We cannot overcome it,
only conceal it or embrace it.

Sinking into the River of Existential Despair

by James Leonard Park

     We are all floating down the River of Despair, drifting towards death. 
Some of us live in elaborate house-boats;
some of us bob along in smaller motorboats and rowboats;
others are lying on rafts;
and still others are in the water clinging to driftwood. 
We all proceed with approximately the same speed toward the same destiny.
But some of us are enjoying the trip more than others. 
Some of us feel the wetness of despair against our own skins;
while others are protected from the river by secure life-games. 
If we live in house-boats, we can ignore the river:
We live as if we were on dry land. 

     The waves on the river represent our small disillusionments. 
These little disappointments remind us
if we live in close contact with the hopeless current
of the ceaseless flow of existential despair. 
But if our protective illusions and projects remain intact,
we ride over the little waves without noticing the river. 

     Psychological despair arises from many situations in human life:
Whenever we dare to dream, such hopes can be dashed;
wherever we aspire, we can be thwarted.
If we trusted love to fulfill us, its collapse might bring despair. 
If we expected our children to make our lives wonderful,
we can feel very disappointed if they go 'wrong'. 
If we put our faith in money and possessions,
we might be cast into despair if we lose everything. 


     1. Psychological despair arises from definite life-situations. 
Whenever we wish for something specific, we can be disappointed.
But existential despair is the comprehensive loss of hope for existence.

     2. When psychological despair strikes, we already understand it. 
We know why our dreams will never come true. 
We can easily see the cause, reason, or source of our hopelessness.
But our existential despair has no specific cause. 
Existential hopelessness arises within us, not from the outside world. 

     3. Most hopeless situations (except death) eventually pass.
After a time we become reconciled to the loss, however great.
We learn to live on, perhaps transforming tragedy into triumph. 
But if our basic problem is existential despair, it does not pass. 

     4. Hopeless situations can be separated from one another.   
Each difficulty or problem can be met by itself. 
But existential despair is not limited to one dimension of life. 
It pervades every corner of our being. 

     5. We handle psychological despair by accepting the situation
and re-forming our lives around other values and purposes. 
But existential despair leaves no area of life
We cannot climb into another boat and proceed as before. 


     Generally, we can cope with psychological despair.
When one dream fails, threatening to throw us into existential despair,
we pull back from the edge, stabilizing our boat. 
If we engage ourselves once again in happy, successful activities,
we can ride over the waves on the River of Despair.

    When a little existential despair leaks into the boat,
we look around for an easy explanation of why we feel bad.
We divert our attention from our Existential Malaise
without completely noticing what we are doing,
since to bail too fast means we acknowledge a serious leak. 

     Our usual way of dwelling on the River of Existential Despair
denies the underlying reality, the undercurrent of despair.
Walking the deck of our boat, we might occasionally feel off-balance,
but we have not yet toppled into fathomless despair. 
By concentrating on interesting, practical, even successful projects,
we might ignore the despairing current beneath our feet.   

     The more we notice our despair, the deeper we become. 
We can empathize with others in the same boat. 
We no longer attempt to cheer the other passengers with optimistic small-talk. 
Openly admitting the reality of our common Existential Predicament
makes us deeper, more sensitive persons of spirit.    
     Often it is difficult to distinguish the waves from the river. 
For instance, the death of a close friend might cause us to feel hopeless
both because we could do nothing to prevent the death
and because it opens up the total hopelessness of our own doom. 
Such a tragedy is good reason for depression and despair,
but if it throws us into the River of Existential Despair,
perhaps the cold water merely awakens us to our true Predicament. 

     If we want to obscure the comprehensive despair of our lives,
we can divide our time into many small tasks.
If we lose ourselves among the daily chores on board,
we can ignore the overall meaninglessness and hopelessness of life.
We can "live one day at a time", focusing on what we can achieve today,
leaving in obscurity our haunting awareness of ultimate hopelessness.


     However, existential despair might not be the last word. 
Can we dive thru the River of Existential Despair to Existential Freedom?
Once we have completely confronted and accepted our existential despair,
giving up our attempts to deny the river or rise out of the water,
then we might be prepared for a radical risk,
a deep change that takes us beyond despair.

    If we acknowledge our existential despair,
we might next give up our self-sufficiency.
Perhaps clinging to our own powers and resources
prevents us from making radical changes.
Maybe half-hearted or somewhat reserved 'surrender' prevents liberation.
Only when we become convinced (probably thru protracted struggle)
that our own powers are useless against our Existential Dilemma
will we be ready to say "I give up!" 

     Have we descended into the River of Existential Despair,
deeper and deeper until there is no possibility of return to the surface?
Have we broken thru the bottom of the river into Existential Freedom?
Clearly, we would not take such a risky plunge into despair
unless we had tried all the other means of coping with the river first. 
Do we dive into despair when there is nothing worth preserving?
Perhaps we see bubbles coming from others who have found an escape hatch
at the bottom of the river, but their accounts will not be sufficient. 
The push of existential despair is stronger than our hope for release. 

     This existential dive is not just a mental change.
We take nothing with us into the water.  
We abandon the purposes and goals we used to pursue on the surface.

     If and when we emerge below the bottom of despair, into Existential Freedom,
how do we feel about the activities we created to gain status and honor?
How do we now regard our efforts to enjoy ourselves and be comfortable?
If we were working hard to make significant contributions to society,
does that striving also disappear when we re-orient ourselves?
And if personal relationships were central to our lives,
how do those relationships change when we are liberated?

     Just as our existential despair was not a specific loss,
so freedom from despair is not a hope for something in particular.
It is not a mental state or an emotional high.
Just as we once were lost in total hopelessness,
are we now possessed by a surprising hope?
Neither state-of-being can be intellectually grasped. 
We can only be in despair or be in Existential Freedom.                                    

    Perhaps we find ourselves riding on a strange hope. 
We can still suffer disappointments and failures. 
Existential Freedom does not make us super-human creatures. 
When our goals and plans collapse, we are disappointed and depressed,
but ordinary troubles no longer open downward into existential despair.
Because our pervasive despair has been replaced by pervasive hope,
the little splashes of life do not threaten us with limitless despair.
Have we noticed that while we remain supported in Existential Freedom,
we cannot sink into ultimate despair?
We might be defeated in the short run; our plans might all go awry;
but this cannot threaten our fundamental hope, because this hope
is not based on ourselves, on our capacities to accomplish anything. 
While we continue in our new inner-state-of-being,
do we continue to be free of existential despair, buoyed up by hope?

                                Questions for Discussion 

1.     In your own life, what specific hopes have been dashed? 

2.     How did you re-construct your life after each specific loss?

3.     Do life's ordinary disappointments
        sometimes open downward into existential despair?

4.     If you have suffered both kinds of despair, can you tell them apart? 

5.     Have you sometimes tried to cope with your existential despair
        as if it were caused by ordinary disappointments and failures? 

6.     On the River of Despair, what kind of boat do you have? 

7.     What kinds of storms have thrown you into the water? 

8.     After one boat sinks, have you usually found another one? 

9.     Is it best to remain oblivious to the River of Existential Despair? 

10.    Should you help others to understand and acknowledge
          the undercurrent of existential despair? 

11.    Do optimistic religions deny the River of Existential Despair? 

12.    Have you tried to dive below the bottom of despair? 

13.    Have you experienced yourself buoyed up by Existential Freedom? 

Created March 28, 2004; revised several times, including: 7-13-2008; 3-5-2011; 5-17-2012; 8-15-2012; 10-23-2013; 4-9-2015;


    James Park is an independent existential philosopher.
Exploring our Existential Predicament is one of his deepest projects.
Much more about him will be discovered on his website:
James Leonard Park—Free Library

    This essay on despair has now become a chapter
in a small book called Inward Suffering.

              Further Reading on Existential Despair

James Park  Our Existential Predicament: Loneliness, Depression, Anxiety, & Death
(Minneapolis, MN: Existential Books, 20065th edition)
Chapter 10 "Existential Despair: Floating Down the River of Despair " p. 253-266.
This link gives you the first four pages of the chapter.


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"Sinking into the River of Existential Despair"

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Go to other secular sermons by James Park,
organized into 10 subject-areas.

Go to the Existential Spirituality index page.

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James Leonard Park—Free Library