I have been once again reflecting on acedia (i.e. despondency) after a short hiatus (also known as, being busy mothering a toddler). I have been trying to dive back into my writing and sticking to the commitment that I made to myself to delve into the depths of the topic of acedia, but as it turns out, acedia itself has been beating up my motivation and my confidence.
When we engage in any type of healing we are essentially undergoing multiple little deaths. And these deaths are slow. They are necessary, however, for new life to emerge. Healing from a spiritual sickness such as despondency first involves a heavy prescription of humility – daily doses. It’s the daily realization that we cannot do this alone – that we need others, and we need God. In my case at least, the first death that needs to occur seems to be the death of pride.
The passion of pride can be pernicious and subtle, taking on various disguises, including self-loathing. I have a tendency to take unreasonable pride in my despondency. My despondency has an especially gloomy flair. Truthfully, I can make a habit out of suffering. This constant feeling of sadness, which has no real reason or cause, follows me around on a daily basis. The jokes people tell are idiotic, not funny; the things I would typically find inspirational are bland; the spiritual is boring; and the people who appear happy or enthusiastic about life are foolish. I am ashamed to say that it sometimes even causes me to avoid anything that might evoke feelings of happiness or pleasure within: good music, books, going for a walk, spending time in nature. Talk about self-sabotage! Even the good memories are hard to access in comparison to the bad memories. I know that good, even amazing, things have happened to me, but due to the conditioning caused by continual self-loathing, those memories are not the first on my mind. Thankfully I am skilled at easily identifying the redeeming qualities of those bad memories. And yet, the effectiveness at which I can enter sadness at will is amazing. And not only that, resigning myself to sadness and torpor has an attractive feature to it; otherwise, I wouldn’t be so willing to enter into it and rest there. Melancholy feels oddly in vogue. Even the word itself is beautiful. This first death may not be so little after all.
I have come to realize just how prideful and self-centered despondency is. It makes me feel bitter while simultaneously filling me with a sense of elitist superiority. It is the pride caused by feeling separate, unique and superior (ironically and paradoxically, my feelings of inadequacy and lack of contentment and inner peace somehow show just how superior I am and how real my intelligence is compared to all of those happy foolish people out there). Cue eye roll.
Thus I have decided to do battle with my tendency to be carried away by this odd, arrogant form of deliberate suffering. That battle begins with the following admittance:
I am the cause of my own unhappiness.
The thought has occurred to me that perhaps I haven’t actually wanted to be healed of my despondency, which is why it has lingered for such a long time. Sadness is a common human experience, but to wilt in chronic sadness for years on end is simply unreasonable – dare I say, “pathological.” The motivation to do anything for my own spiritual good has been lacking. As it turns out, this is my own doing. Spiritual sickness is not random. It does not take victims. It is chosen, even if unconsciously. Yet, the desire to imitate the victim seems to be strong with despondency.
I have always identified as being a somewhat tortured soul. This too is a symptom of the pride associated with despondency, as if being miserable makes me somehow special and unique. For this reason, I have always associated happiness with foolishness, juvenility and with having the wrong priorities in life. Life, as I always told myself, is not about being happy. This is true to an extent. I’m reminded of an old pastor of mine who used to say that life is not about being happy, but about being holy. And yet, I wasn’t even doing the work of holiness.
It turns out both holiness and happiness require work. And it’s my choice whether I do that work or not. This “happiness is juvenile” mentality is the same mentality I use to discourage myself from writing. “What’s the point? Nobody is going to read it.” But is not the fact that it makes me happy enough of a reason? In the same way, should not the fact that spiritual work makes me more holy be enough of a reason? It should be, but the truth is, I love despondency. There. I admitted it. And since I love it so much I can’t be bothered with anything as superficial and senseless as happiness, nor anything as wearisome as the work of holiness. Cue another eye roll.
Regarding both happiness and holiness requiring work, I am reminded of a story about St. Anthony the Great, a desert monk. While struggling with acedia he told God, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A little while later he was given an answer: an angel sent St. Anthony a vision of himself sitting down at his work, then standing for prayer, then sitting back down to work, and then standing to pray again. Then he was told by the angel who had sent this vision, “Do this and you will be saved.” 1
Work. That seems to be the main remedy prescribed by the Fathers for the battling of acedia. It seems simple. However, for myself, motivation is so important to the work getting done. It is so important that, without pure disgust for my despondency and the unhappiness and other symptoms caused by it, I remain stuck in it’s web. Unfortunately, I still have a romanticized, toxic relationship with my despondency. Thus, I am eternally grateful for the other concept out there, also discussed by some Church Fathers, that I don’t have to want to do the work – I don’t even have to want to be healed; I just have to start doing something. Perhaps doing what I do not want to do will create the true desire – for happiness, for holiness. Perhaps, with God’s help, I will develop a pure heart and a right spirit (Psalm 51:10). The work itself heals, with or without the desire behind it, because God meets us there, and His grace fills in the missing pieces.
The opposite of despondency is not happiness, as it turns out; rather, it is faithfulness. It isn’t just doing the difficult work of holiness – prayer, fasting, etc.; it is doing exactly the work that we are supposed to be doing – the work that is directly in front of us. Nothing more or less. The daily grind, so to speak. The wearisome, the boring. The opposite of grandiose. This is the cure. It is the cure for both despondency and pride. It is the cure for despondency because it involves the exact kind of suffering and constancy that the despondent one avoids by retreating into melancholy; it is the cure for pride because it is exactly the kind of work that the prideful person views as too modest, too unintelligent, too “below” her. In my case, that work currently smiles at me everyday with innocent bright blue eyes, wants me to read “Goodnight Moon” 50 times a day, runs away giggling when I say “come here” and leaves me with a sink full of dishes to do and tired eyes at 7 pm. God has orchestrated for me the exact necessities for my salvation (as he always does), but only if I am willing to participate with Him in that work faithfully. The exciting, the frustrating, and the mundane of motherhood: all are for my salvation. The work of motherhood is the work of holiness is the work of happiness is the work of healing from despondency. This will be my salvation.
Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.
- Taken from Sayings of the Desert Fathers
This is part 6 of a series called “Death to Despondency.” Click here to read from the beginning.