It is forbidden to despair

“It is forbidden to despair,” said Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a 19th century Hasidic teacher who suffered from depression. I imagine him pounding his fist on a table in a dimly lit room, shouting those words to his demons.

Fifty years ago, TV screens flickered with images of policemen unleashing dogs on peaceful civil rights leaders and demonstrators, who were also brutalized, imprisoned and murdered. Forty years ago, Black Power movement leaders posed with guns and spoke of self-defense; white America panicked and had the “justice system” systematically and brutally get rid of them.

People said:
What is this country coming to?”
“Why can’t we just be civil?”
“There will always be prejudice.”

Then the boys burned their draft cards to protest an unjust war, the girls refused to sit down and let them men take care of (mess up) things, the gays refused to climb into the back of a police van.

People said:
“There is no respect for anything anymore.”
“Our children are lost.”
That chaos turned the world upside down and a lot of things got better. Not easier, but better.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail, his home was bombed and his family was targeted. But he never stopped preaching about his dream. He could not afford despair, which is the thing that paralyzes hope, imprisons the soul, and does not set anyone free.

I am not going kumbaya. I am not naïve. The day after the Dallas shootings, I watched the governor of Texas talk about Texas exceptionalism, its way of life and its values (open carry, anyone?). He waved the state flag and told Dallas, “We’ll get past this.” As if “this” was a hurricane or a flood, for which there is no explanation. As if you could just clean up the blood and pretend not to know that the cause of that unnatural disaster was the wages of despair taken to a toxic extreme.

People say:
If they keep on killing us, why not kill and be killed for a cause?”
“The NRA will never be defeated.”
There are no “two sides” to this story. Despair can be given no ground.

Listen to the voices of black women and black men telling the truth of their lives on every possible stage — virtual, viral, and face-to-face. Writing, blogging and reporting with passion and intelligence, anger and resolve, black men and black women are also making music and poetry that howls with pain and calls out injustice. White allies (we are legion) are with them, aching, marching and speaking out. We will not stand down, either.

“It is forbidden to despair” are fighting words.

If I were to get a tattoo (and that’s never gonna happen) I would make the message visible, so I would have to explain why despair is the great enemy that must be resisted at every turn.

It is forbidden to sit in the dark, to cluck your tongue and shake your head and say, woe is me.

After every setback and loss, Dr. King rose up. And as he predicted, even after they murdered him (with a gun), the dream did not die. Justice, justice we shall pursue.

Think of Rabbi Nachman, shouting at his demons, “I am forbidden to despair.”

Hope is a muscle. Optimism is a muscle. We’d better get in shape because we have a lot to do and long way to go.

Also posted on WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog  


  1. Kathleen Shattuck on July 11, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    thank you for this, Anita

  2. Moshe Givental on July 12, 2016 at 11:16 am

    What is the original source for this teaching g from Reb Nachman?

    • Anita Diamant on July 14, 2016 at 7:50 pm

      Not sure. But I’ve seen in at least a dozen books.

  3. Victor DeRubeis on July 17, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Terrific piece. I wish Anita had mentioned the innocents of law enforcement who have also been targeted. I get the argument that being a police officer is a choice, and being black is not, but I would assert that for many officers, especially the better ones, there is no choice; it is who they are. It is a very high calling and their “skin” just happens to be blue.

    • Anita Diamant on July 20, 2016 at 9:36 am

      Murder is murder. Wrong is wrong. I was addressing one particular category of evil, one litany of wrongs. Writing about one does not ignore or reject other evils.

  4. Jennie Israel on May 21, 2017 at 11:38 pm


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