According to the organisation Museum of Homelessness, there were 976 recorded deaths among the homeless last year (2020) in Britain, a 37% rise from the previous year. 36% of these deaths were related to drugs and alcohol, and 15% were related to suicide; commonly known as ‘deaths of despair’. The theologian Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be (1952 A.D.), wrote of despair:
“Despair is an ultimate or ‘boundary-line’ situation. One cannot go beyond it. Its nature is indicated in the etymology of the word despair: without hope.”
What is it to be without hope? Hope is a fundamental characteristic of humankind. It’s something like a disposition. Oriented towards the future and concerned with happy outcomes, hope is something that motivates and consoles us when we are in pain or suffering. One hopes they will be married one day, or that some cure is found for such and such an illness.
This marks hope out to be something different from ambition. Ambitions are something that we can all expect, generally, to be able to achieve ourselves. Hope, however, is for something that cannot be achieved independently (e.g. one cannot marry oneself). The individual is the smallest yet most important unit of human concern; we all depend upon each other, we are all interdependent, and each a part of an interrelated web of community of persons. Hope cannot thrive where community breaks down, in which some are hanging on by mere threads or are completely cut loose. Such figures as those quoted above, as saddening as they are, should be no surprise in a pandemic in which human connection has become a health risk, and in a society that values money over people.
It is not difficult to imagine, then, that despair thrives in times of societal breakdown. Nearly 4,000 years before Paul Tillich wrote those lines in the wake of WWII, in the century following a period of intense social and political upheaval in ancient Egypt, a ‘didactic tale’ (c.1937-1759 B.C.) emerged depicting a man’s dialogue with his soul, in which the author writes quite movingly on his loss of hope and his resulting desire to cross a different threshold (between life and death). A line from the tale reads:
“Death is in my sight today
Like the longing of a man to see his house (again),
After he has spent many years held in captivity.”
As these two writers describe, from opposite ends of history, one cannot see beyond despair. One neither envisages nor desires a future, happy or otherwise, when one is without hope.
Returning to the idea of ‘deaths of despair’, the colloquial phrasing seems to be rather apt. When in despair, when hope for a happy future is extinguished, it is a natural human response to turn to methods of relieving one’s suffering. It is little wonder then that a person in the grips of despair would turn to either drugs and alcohol or to suicide, and even less so that those without homes are among the most without hope.
In order to combat these kinds of deaths among the homeless, and among the wider community, it is vitally important we pay attention. The causes of despair could point us towards ways of combating it, some of which might be:
The feeling that nobody cares;
Together we can combat the despair of many in society, by working on building and rebuilding communities in which: (1) nobody is left to feel isolated and cut off from others; (2) those in need do not feel looked down on or ignored, and are given help; and (3) the suffering of others is not allowed to needlessly become compounded. As members of a community of persons it is the responsibility of us all to help shoulder the burden of suffering, to help those who are in despair, lest we become a community without hope. To those in great need, any and all help can contribute to breaking through the fog of despair. Clothing Collective, through its unique clothes voucher system, helps to return a sense of autonomy and dignity to those in need by giving them back some choice and agency over what they wear. You can make donations to the Clothing Collective here. ---- Follow us on social media to keep up to date with everything we're doing at Clothing Collective. We'd also be delighted if any of our blogs are shared! Instagram - @clothing__collective, Twitter - @charityvoucher, Facebook - @clothingcollectiveuk