Anticipatory Despair: The Art of Speculative Suffering. ~ Elaine Shpungin

Via elephant journal
on Aug 5, 2010
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How to Anticipate Your Own Suffering…

Last month, for our annual visit to see my folks in NY/NJ, we decided to save a thousand bucks by driving (rather than flying) from Illinois with our two kids, aged 8 and 3.

Maybe for some families this type of (sixteen hour) road trip is kind of fun and even brings them closer together. In our case, it only brought us closer to a divorce and child abandonment (at the side of a road, let’s say, hypothetically, a random road in some town in Pennsylvania that seemed to specialize in drug trafficking and cute brownstones).

Without going into the harrowing details of the trip there, let me just say that upon arrival, the thought of having to drive back with my husband and children a week later was so dreadful, that I would have been willing to empty our savings account and max out our credit cards if only there had been a service that would fly our car (and us) back to Illinois.

photo by

It’s not that our tale was significantly worse than those recounted by veteran road-trip warriors over a cold brewsky (or a double skinny mocha hold the whip, if that’s more your style). It’s just that having (barely) survived it one-way, the idea of having to re-live it on the way back was too much for me to bear. Instead of enjoying the lively commotion of family around me, I felt myself sinking into anticipatory despair.

I am referring here to a state of hopelessness brought on by my belief that I have all the information I need to predict a future I dread.

Rather than spurring me into action, guiding me towards more intentional choices, or leading me to shift my plans in order to improve future outcomes, anticipatory despair leaves me much like an insect stuck in viscous amber resin, simultaneously immobilized and caught in the present.

photo by Rothamstead Research

Quite often, the frightening future from which I cower turns out to be quite tame once it catches up with me.

This time was no exception. The dreaded trip back (from NY to Illinois) was far better than our journey forth. Somehow, with no additional planning or preparation, we had gotten into a smooth rhythm that allowed us to travel “quickly” and without incident.

All that pain (mine and my husband’s!) – and for naught…

I take a deep breath and allow myself to mourn. I mourn for all the lost hours I have spent suffering needlessly in the voluptuous caverns of my own mind. I mourn for all the life around me that I have missed while wandering those echoing chambers.

Then, after I have felt the weight of my disappointment, sadness and exhaustion, and after I have given myself some much needed love in the face of my human imperfection, I turn my gaze forwards.

I imagine catching myself as I begin to shrink at the prospect of something that is yet to happen. I imagine talking to myself soothingly, gently, calmly. I imagine reminding myself that the river of life continues to flow around my feet, bringing with it change, always change, even if I seem to stand still within it.

And then, I feel it.

A blossoming sense of celebration. A temporary grasp of that for which I long. A recognition that, although I think I know myself, and although I have done it this way so many times in the past, the next time, I may do it differently.

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D., enjoys learning about and playing with ways that she can “be the world [she] wants to see”. At the moment, she is a student of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Restorative Circles (RC), a budding writer, a humbled parent, a tolerable romantic partner, and a somewhat seasoned director of a psychology training clinic. You can find more of her writing at:


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One Response to “Anticipatory Despair: The Art of Speculative Suffering. ~ Elaine Shpungin”

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