Naming the Hydra

The last year has upended our lives, to say the least. Most of my friends have been reflecting on how it has upended our emotions as well.

Have you noticed that? There’s a generalised malaise in the air. Sure, there’s ambient anxiety caused by the way we consume news like there has been for decades, but on steroids. And sure, there’s the emotional exhaustion caused by daring to hope and having your hopes ripped away time and time again. It’s like trying to defeat a hydra.

Beyond that though there’s an emotional ‘flatness’ that we’ve been trying to name. Someone asks how you are, and it isn’t one of those polite questions and so you’re reading your soul for a genuine sense of an answer but you’re struggling for more than “I’m fine.” You’re not trying to put your friend off; you’re not trying to change the subject or dodge the question. You aren’t despairing either, but it’s like the top half of the emotional spectrum has withered. You are fine, but you aren’t good enough to be good, and you’re struggling to get excited about anything much.

We’ve settled on ‘humdrum’ as a description of our emotional state for these days. Every day is the same. Your boundary markers have been pulled up and thrown in the fire. Emotionally you—on this particular day—don’t have anything strong to complain about but crawling out of the pit and lying gasping on the ground is about the best you can hope for. Joy seems a distant dream. Perhaps a delusion.

You’re not bored, or at least you tell yourself you aren’t. The symptoms, internally and externally, look remarkably similar. The difference is that there’s nothing you’re bored of, except the pandemic. You’re not tired, we aren’t doing anything, but you feel like you’re exhausted all the time.

You wonder if its ennui, that listless despair that arises from a lack of occupation. That might be part of it, but I think several of us would attest to not being less busy, especially once the initial shock of the spring 2020 lockdown wore off. So, perhaps its ennui, though I’ve always associated that with Tolkienian elves and goths.

If it isn’t any of those emotions though, what is it?

My gentle contention, aimed more at myself than you, is that it’s what the medievals called acedia.

More recently we referred to it as sloth, but that’s less helpful than it might be because we’ve changed what that word means. It’s not laziness, but a ‘lack of care’. It’s not simply apathy, though that’s closer, it’s a “dejection that made it harder to be spiritual”. It’s the feeling of trying to read but listlessly not really getting anywhere.

Naming the hydra will make it easier to kill.

That sounds familiar to me. The problem is that some groups of early Christians, particularly those living monastic lives, saw acedia as a sin. It morphed over time into the sloth that made it into the seven deadly sins.

Is the humdrum feeling I and others have been experiencing, sin? I don’t think it’s an easy question to answer straight off the bat, so I’ll have a crack at an easier question. Is acedia caused by sin? Like most emotional states, the answer is “probably yes and no”. My emotions stem from several roots in my heart. If I don’t allow that some of those roots are sinful and need pulling out, I’m not going to make progress. In this sense, repentance is always the answer.

At the same time though, not all of those roots will be sinful, and I wouldn’t be too quick to identify which are which. Our motives are always mixed, but that doesn’t need to drive me to despair. I always need to repent; I don’t always need to be told that I need to repent.

We should give ourselves a break. This has been a particular brutal time for all of our emotional health even if we don’t especially recognise it. Asking the Spirit to show you which roots are sinful is a good idea, but some of them will be out of your control.

We are told that life in Christ should fill us with joy. Yes. It’s helpful that we define joy as nearer to “peace” than “happiness” though. The Christian life is walked through a veil of tears. It’s often deeply sorrowful. We can always find joy in knowing Christ, apprehending the future, considering the gifts God has given us. We won’t always be happy. There’s an authenticity often lost in my charismatic circles when we remember that it’s good to be sad when circumstances mean you should be. Not being so is as bad as being sad when circumstances don’t warrant it.

I don’t have wisdom on how to escape our humdrum emotional states. Self-care isn’t the answer though. The desert fathers held that you could resist acedia by endurance, prayer and crying.

Endurance: yes, let’s keep on going. Prayer: yes, let’s bring our worries to the Lord.

Crying? An unusual Christian discipline? I don’t think so. We should normalise crying in the assembled people of God. There’s plenty to cry about. I remember sitting in tears during a meeting shortly before Christmas one year and the worship leader looked at me and said to the congregation “Come on, rejoice! It’s Christmas!”

Don’t do that.

I believe that God can turn our mourning into dancing and that that’s literal not simply a metaphor. I’ve seen it happen. I’m a whacky charismatic who expects Sunday meetings to leave someone on the floor crying with laughter. We need to be the people who weep too.

And when we’re so numb with acedia we can’t express much of anything? When we’re flat and humdrum? Ask God to release your emotion. It will help. Though it will also hurt.

And if after prayer and endurance and weeping it doesn’t shift? Seek help. We can’t do this on our own and we shouldn’t be trying to.

If it won’t pass after spiritual, and perhaps medical, help? Sometimes we have to walk in endurance with the Lion by our side. Take courage, dear heart. You are not alone.