There are three words that I have been pondering of late.
It is perplexing to me how the etymology of words can encourage further investigation, even if the results are so highly individualized that we cannot find any meaning in them except that which we have found for ourselves. I find that, although the meaning of our universe remains hidden to those outside of its sphere, we can still write about what we find in hope, perhaps, that someone else of similar tendencies will find us. In essence, it is as if we were lost sailors in a tempestuous sea of darkness and destruction sending messages into the void and hoping someone, anyone, will notice our seeking for like-minds. We hope that in the vastness of that life-like sea there is a small island of hope in which our fellow human beings are also seeking what we seek. I don’t know if this means that, at some point, we will dock our small boat and commune with the equal-minded in some very-particular island of thought. Yet I do hope that in sending those faint and small messages out there, into the void, we can one day receive a reply that will testify to us of the truth of our personal musings. Thus I send my pings into the night. Seeking to find what others, in their differences, do not. My signal is as unique as those of others in this world with different thoughts.
The Etymology Dictionary defines the verb as “c. 1300, from Anglo-French despeir, Old French despoir, from desperer.” I like to push a little deeper. French is a combination of two languages, Latin and Old German. I believe compound words have their genesis in Latin and Greek, something that has proven right time and time again. Looking at the Latin, the possible composition of the word may be de-sperare. Those of you acquainted with Latin will immediately notice two things, a participle (de) and the infinitive of the verb spero (sperare). The verb itself comes from the noun spe, which means ‘hope’ as an embodiment of the feeling, but which also means to ‘inherit’ as a factual contract. The noun is Fifth Declension, a complex idea in itself – I will just take ‘hope’ and go from there. The interesting thing is the participle, for it basically means ‘by, with, or from’ and it’s followed by an ablative noun, if one were present. Here we have a verb, but if that infinitive was a noun it would translate to something like ‘from (emphasized) hope.’ Thus, Despair, basically means ‘from to hope’ or ‘from hoping.’ It is interesting how ‘despair’ represents the going away from hope. A hope in which we had been firmly rooted up to whatever point it was that we left it. In other words, to come away from hope is to despair. Like most human affairs, it is a choice, it cannot be chosen for us. We, the hopeful ones, can rest on hope as long as we need to before resuming our inexorable race towards whatever goal we aim. That is the crux, the rub, and the meaning of it all. We choose. Despair is a choice. We choose when we come out of the protective circle of hope and move towards our intended goal, as it is meant to be, or towards the abyss of desperation, as we never intended.
I know this sounds maddening. I know people will say people do not choose despair. I am not saying that one chooses to be desperate. I am saying that one chooses the moment in which desperation takes place by letting go of hope. Let us think of the climber and his rope. When footing is lost, the climber hangs on to that rope, seeking to save his life. The rope is hope. As the climber struggles to find footing it is hope that keeps him alive, for things have gone astray, life has dealt that climber a dose of life itself. When will the climber let go of hope? Enter fear and courage. There are two scenarios to consider.
One, the climber will find courage, footing, and no longer needing hope, he will resume his expected path. What is courage? Once again the definition of the Etymology Dictionary runs thus: “c. 1300, from Old French corage (12c., Modern French courage) “heart, innermost feelings; temper,” from Vulgar Latin *coraticum (source of Italian coraggio, Spanish coraje), from Latin cor “heart,” from PIE root *kerd- (1) “heart” (see heart (n.)) which remains a common metaphor for inner strength. In Middle English, used broadly for “what is in one’s mind or thoughts,” hence “bravery,” but also “wrath, pride, confidence, lustiness,” or any sort of inclination. Replaced Old English ellen, which also meant “zeal, strength.” Quite nice. I like to think we can take a step back from the PIE “kerd-”, however, and visit Rome again to get a better sense of the word ‘courage’. In Latin, ‘cor’ was the heart. ‘Agere’ meant ‘to lead’. Thus cor-age(re) meant, quite literally, to lead with your heart. Now that is a definition as romantic as it is true. What is courage? I like to think that it is what drives us to act when all logic tells us we are doomed. Courage is the means by which the impossible (according to the mind, at least) can be overcome. We are no longer led by reason, but by the heart – the impossible. Courage is a place in which reason has no place, a realm in which logic has no bearing. Courage, thus, is the illogical pull of love, the overwhelming push of hatred, the madness of fear, the finality of entrapment. Courage is to lead with the heart and to lead with the heart despite the odds is courage applied. It is the last push of the strong, the last thought of the unwilling, the refuge of the ambivalent. It is the heart telling your mind that the odds count little when a life is on the line. The climber knows the end, and chooses to disobey the laws that dictates he has to fall. Courage leads him away from hope and he lets go into the despair that pushes up, to a better future.
Scenario two is grimmer. The climber will despair, his muscles will give into tiredness, and he will fall – this is the realm of fear. One last time, the definition of the Etymology Dictionary: Old English færan “to terrify, frighten,” from a Proto-Germanic verbal form of the root of fear (n.). Cognates: Old Saxon faron “to lie in wait,” Middle Dutch vaeren “to fear,” Old High German faren “to plot against,” Old Norse færa “to taunt.” Fear does not find its root in Greek or Latin, it is purely Germanic (the other half of French). It is not a composite word, which is another clue. Yet I like this word the most, because the farther back one goes the more one realizes that fear means to stand still, waiting for whatever the imagination has thought of as a possible scenario. Death. Our fear leads us to expect it, to await it, to embrace it. Dying is the most likely result of losing footing while climbing life. It is fact. Yet courage leads us to avoid standing still; to avoid receiving death with open arms. Whether we are afraid of death or not fear will tell us, in the end, that it is okay. We can let go of hope, the end is here. We despair for the wrong reasons, we despair and allow ourselves to fall.
To climb up this mountain we call life we must never despair for the sake of fear. We need to find our footing as courage would have us do, against the odds, even when life has dealt us such a blow that we are thrown completely out of balance, one that stopped us in our tracks. As we cannot move forward, we can take refuge only in hope until we find footing again and can then move forward, letting go of hope to find our path once again before us. That is hope. That is despair. They are polar opposites that allow us to continue our climb to the top of whatever plans we have made for ourselves or plunge us into obscurity. To ‘come away from hope’ (despair) is to give up on it. Use the precious moments you have to retrace your steps, reposition yourself, and regain the confidence you need to move forward – use courage. Come away from hope with courage towards the factuality of your plans, otherwise you will come away from hope in fear of the fall and, irrevocably, plunge into the abyss whence you came.
Lead with your heart instead.