Despair is the loss of hope, but it is closely related to acceptance. Photo by Pars Sahin on Unsplash

Despair is the loss of hope.  When we despair, we give up the chance, in our minds, of fulfilling our wishes.  It can be extended or brief.  We can pass through despair in a nanosecond on the way to acceptance; or we can prolong our state of despair, hanging on to feelings of indignation, loss, anger, sadness and resentment.


From birth, we suffer desire and disappointment.  Evolution has bred desire into us – the urge to feed, for example, is built into our automatic body functions.  In those early years, most of us have the experience of getting at least some of our desires met.  This cycle of desire and crying, followed by fulfilment and calm, is the way we learn to ask for, and receive, what we want.

If we suffer severe neglect in early years, we may well have mental health problems in adulthood.  This is because our mind and body have no confidence, or trust, in a connection between our expressed desire, and incoming help.  We don’t believe that our cries will be heard, and every time we are let down or rejected, we may experience it as a confirmation of our secret belief that we are unworthy.

In this way, the ability to wish, and then have our wish fulfilled, is a sign of mental health.  It is also a sign of mental health to be able to accept when our wishes cannot be fulfilled.  In contrast, distorted communication of our own wishes, and trust issues with ourselves and others, can be a sign of poor mental health due to past neglect or trauma.  We can end up living in our own world, isolated and resentful.


Despair is the painful state most of us go through to move from aspiration to acceptance.  It involves the giving up of our original wish, and the modification of our expectations.  Can we avoid the pain, and go straight to painless acceptance?  Well, yes… but it is hard, for two reasons:

  1. Our minds and bodies are partly built on pleasure-and-pain reward systems.  So a small amount of pain, when wishes are not fulfilled, is an important message.  For instance, a scientist who feels some pain when they get things wrong, and pleasure when they get things right, may have more energy to discover truth.  A little discomfort is therefore desirable as part of our natural thought processes.
  2. Our ability to function socially partly depends on our ability to be assertive.  If we are painlessly accepting when others are bold in their desire-driven assertion, then we, and our wishes, may not get a look-in.  To function socially among friends, and to communicate successfully our needs, we need to have the word “ouch!” in our vocabulary.

As we mature and become more wise, it may be that despair turns more rapidly to acceptance.  Indeed, for some, despair may become so painless that it is effectively acceptance by another name.  Extreme wisdom may be an ultimate acceptance of the universe exactly as it is, without the need to act.  We can still act, but we do not do so out of pain.

In short, the pain of despair, or near-despair, acts as a motivator, both in thought and social action.  It is a natural transitional state.  Even so, as we mature and become wise, pain becomes less necessary, because we develop the ability to act without the reminder/stimulant of pain.