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Happiness Is the Truth: Fighting Despair

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It used to be that "end times," apocalyptic thinking was solely the purview of the crazies. You know, the fundamentalists, the recluses, the paranoid, the kooky guy holding a "The End is Near!" sign on the street corner.

Look at history, I'd say -- there have been many times when humanity seemed on the brink, when chaos ruled and when the end did indeed seem near. Really, seen from the long view, humanity has only had brief moments of relative calm before transition comes again in the form of war, disease and economic crises. It's the way of things. Somebody is always predicting the end.

In short order, the shocking ascendance of ISIS, the beheading of James Foley, the downed Malaysian flight in Ukraine, Ebola, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the horrifying events in Ferguson and then the blow when the laughter died with Robin William's tragic suicide have left us gasping for breath. Global warming and its undeniable impact is just a fact, a backdrop now, upon which so much is playing out.

Same as it ever was.

This rapid fire series of events has even more impact now, driven at the speed of social media, as we "like" and share horrifying news and pictures. A deep despair has crept around the globe like a wet blanket. If we aren't stultified by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chapter 1,533, we are terrified of Ebola. If we haven't stared at the picture of James Foley kneeling in the desert, we are equally as much staring, open-mouthed at the pictures of militarized police in a small town in Missouri or reading the details of Robin William's suffering or looking at surreal photos of anti-semitic protests in Europe. My God -- what have we done? What has happened?

I don't know anybody right now who is not feeling deeply despairing and existentially frightened. That I am not alone in this feeling -- that it is widespread, that it is creeping like an out of control virus scares me even more.

My situation is perhaps unique: I have spent the past several weeks braced for sirens and explosions. I comb the news fifty times a day looking for updates, rocket locations and any tiny shred of information that might help me predict what might happen next. I installed the "red alert" app which beeps every time a rocket is launched into Israel. It goes off sometimes for ten minutes at a time. Unable to bear it, I uninstalled the app, preferring instead to just wait for the siren. I now know the difference between the sound of a commercial jet and an F16 fighter jet. I know how many seconds it takes me to get to a bomb shelter and where all the good walls or overhangs are if I am outside. I know now what it feels like to go numb, on autopilot while I grab my keys, wallet, phone and shoes and race to the bomb shelter within 90 seconds. Over and over. And over. I know that this is nothing, that Palestinians are suffering and dying in horrible ways. I live in the strange space between gratitude that I am safe and horror that my protectors are killing others. Others like me.

The experience has left me frazzled, on edge and changed forever, I fear. If you are bug-eyed at the continued, intractable, tragic situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just imagine how we feel here.

But the rest of it too. What is happening? What can we do?

Living in the Middle East forces a kind of perspective. A kind of coping. There are only a few choices on the menu: Anger, Fear, Paralysis or Hope. Hope is obviously in italics, at the bottom of the menu, and is not fresh today nor readily available. It takes awhile to get to the table.

You have the same menu I do, believe it or not. We all do. I tend to vacillate between anger, fear, paralysis and hope, I won't lie. I won't tell you, like some annoying as hell Facebook meme of a horse on a beach that you should live in hope! That hope springs eternal! That everything is going to be okay! You aren't crazy if you feel despair right now. You are not alone. Things are not okay and they will not be okay for some time. That's truth.

But it does strike me that maybe we need to grow up a little bit -- we internet generation Facebookers. The fact is that relatively speaking, we have been lucky enough to live in one of the most prosperous, peaceful, advanced periods of time in all of humanity. We have been fooled by a sense of false security, of permanence. We are the Maytag washer generation, the everybody has a car and fresh food and water generation. The we have doctors and hospitals generation. We gave hope a chance. We killed Osama Bin Laden and dumped him into the sea, we put things like Al Qaeda in the rearview.

Except we didn't. And combined with the internet, media saturated world of our own making, a wave of despair has been generated unlike any I have seen in my lifetime of half a century. The scales have fallen from our collective eyes.

Anger, fear, paralysis and hope. Because I live in a hornet's nest, paralysis is not an option I can entertain for more than a few hours. But to cycle through these feelings and reactions on a daily basis is the way of it, I find. Who among us can stolidly hold onto hope? Or even anger? With whom shall we be angry? Whom shall we fear? It's too diffuse, this despair.

Like a virus, despair is catching and extremely contagious. It gets down into your bones. There is no cure. Not really. But you can get help. A kind of help that is so obvious it's almost embarrassing.

You can try to get happy in the face of it all. Sounds like an impossible idea, an over-simplification, a naive, maybe even downright stupid suggestion. But the very definition of faith and hope is to hold those feelings when they are almost impossible to justify. Generations of those who came before us did it. In wars, in famines, in plagues. They did it. They sang, they laughed, they gave food to someone in need. They created art. They did not give up the idea that things would get better.

Tough and despairing times present us with a choice - be a part of the problem or be a part of the solution. We are not the first generation of humans to have to make this choice and we won't be the last.

So -- how shall we respond? How will you respond? What can you do from where you are? You can turn off the television for a couple of hours. Or a few days. You can write, dance, sing, make cookies, mow the lawn, go bowling -- do something. Do something good and normal and loving and light. Laugh. Be light. Be a light. Offer life an alternative to the despair. Be brave enough to look foolish in the doing of it. It is anything but foolish to personify hope with acts of kindness, generosity, fun and joy.

It is the inextinguishable hope -- the essence of humanity -- that has gotten us all to this point and it can carry us to the other side of it too. So I laugh. I cry. I try to laugh again. I reach for feeling normal. And it's not easy. But the alternative, an absence of hope, for me is unbearable to contemplate.

Despair is so very seductive. Like lying down in the snow. Like darkening the room and lying face down. Like giving up. But it is a luxury that none of us can afford. It is much, much more difficult to find a reason to be happy. Who do you want to be right now? One who has given up, or one who will not yield to the easy out of despair?

Please join me in fighting the despair virus. It's easy. You don't have to pour a bucket of ice water over your head to fight for this cause. You don't have to write anybody a check or post anything on your Facebook status update.

Be subversive and change the zeitgeist of despair. Let go, release some of the fear. Say no to anger, to numbness and try to be happy.