Despair is the Achilles’ heel of justice groups and movements. It is the opposite of hope. Despair causes advocates to lose their inspiration and motivation to keep working for change and it contributes to burnout, misanthropy, dysregulation, and other problems that can cause and exacerbate infighting. When we feel despair, we feel helpless.
People often feel despair when they believe that there’s no viable solution to a problem—when they believe either that no solution exists (e.g., that there’s no way to end racism, gender inequality, or animal exploitation) or that the solutions that exist are out of reach (e.g., too few people care enough to make the necessary changes to end their complicity in the problem).
It’s important that advocates hold on to hope in order to offset the despair that can corrode morale in their group or movement. Likewise, it’s important to advocate for change in a way that encourages hope, so that the people we’re trying to reach feel empowered and inspired to take action.
Why advocates feel hopeless
It makes sense that we sometimes feel despair. As people working for progressive social change, we are awake to the reality that we live in the midst of global atrocities that many—and sometimes most—people are in denial about and are actively enabling. It’s almost impossible not to feel some degree of hopelessness in these circumstances.
On top of this, unjust systems like patriarchy, classism, and carnism often present the status quo—the way things are—as a given, as a normal part of everyday life that will never change and that never needs to change.
Consider the idea of meritocracy, which is the myth that achieving success through hard work alone is possible for everyone, regardless of their social position or life circumstances (e.g., their class, race, or family history). When we believe in this myth, change seems unnecessary. If hard work is all that’s needed for success, then there’s no need to make systemic changes to promote justice and equality.
Also, advocates often get the message that our groups and movements challenging injustice aren’t making a difference. How often does the popular media report on the successes of our campaigns and initiatives?
Should we feel hopeless?
So should we feel hopeless? Is our despair justified?
It’s true that many of the problems facing our world—such as climate change, animal exploitation, economic inequality, and other global catastrophes—are accelerating. And it’s possible that we won’t be able to turn things around in time to prevent our species from extinguishing ourselves and taking many other life forms down with us.
But it’s also true that awareness is growing: awareness of the structure and nature of injustice and of the urgent need for transformation.
Awareness of the structure and nature of the human brain and psyche—and therefore of the mentality that has been driving us to destroy ourselves and others—is also growing. With this awareness, which is higher now than ever before, we just may be able to reverse course in time to save ourselves and the other beings with whom we share the planet.
We obviously cannot predict the future. But we can choose to use the time we have on this planet to help direct the trajectory of the coming years. We can work to cultivate the relational maturity, compassion, resilience, and presence we need so that, whatever happens, we’ll be able to look back on our lives and know that we stood on the right side of history. We can practice what Buddhists refer to as “acceptance of what is” even as we work toward transformation, so that we can find as much peace inside ourselves as possible in our efforts to create peace in the world. And the less despair we carry, the more empowered we’ll be to do this vitally important work.
Providing solutions and instilling hope
People are likely to resist taking in information if they feel helpless to change the problem they’re being made aware of. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, says of climate change advocacy that there’s a “hope gap” preventing even those who are deeply concerned about climate change from taking action to help rectify the problem. They don’t know what they can do that will actually make a difference.
So when we’re communicating with people who don’t share our opinion it’s important to be solution focused, to talk not only about the problem but also about practical and feasible solutions. This approach helps offset despair, and it also increases the listener’s sense of personal agency (the ability to take positive action).
For example, when you’re talking with another advocate about the importance of ending infighting, rather than just pointing out what a huge and costly problem infighting is, you can point them toward resources that offer practical, actionable solutions to the problem.
Hope is both the opposite of despair and the antidote to it. It’s vital that we avoid fueling the despair that can plague our groups and movements, and that we commit to instilling hope. There are simple ways to do the latter, such as taking time to celebrate even small victories and avoiding reading or engaging with nonrelational social media posts.
When we reduce despair and increase hope in our groups and movements, we can help to reduce burnout, dysregulation, and a variety of other problems that can cause and exacerbate infighting.