Time and Despondency: Yes, it is about you!

This was to be a book about other people. Not about me.

I am an Orthodox Christian with a strong tendency to get involved in activism. Being a woman with children, my special interests are women and children. Let me tell you some of the things that keep me awake at night.

We are seeing unprecedented rates of anxiety and depression amongst children and teens. Porn use is sky high for boys and men; girls are pressured by their boyfriends to submit to porn-style ‘sex’ (it hardly deserves the name). The precedence of porn use is nothing less than a spiritual and public health catastrophe. Prostitution and its natural bedfellow, sex trafficking, are on the rise. Abortion, up until birth and for any reason at all, has just recently been decriminalized in Queensland, where even women under duress (suffering domestic violence or culturally sanctioned sex-selective abortion, for example) will now be legally relieved of their babies while the traumas and pressures remain unchallenged. Indigenous women and poor women around the world continue to experience unwanted or forced sterilization and contraception.

Big global businesses like the cosmetic industry, the reproductive technology industry and the medical industry rake in cash by selling fake breasts and buttocks, Botox and nose jobs, abortions, and even babies to desperate women. And of course, the sex industry sells women to men on film as well as in the flesh. Each minute more women are being trafficked, mutilated, and duped. How are we to fight these corporate giants?

Even armed with good humour and camaraderie, it is little wonder the activists I know are frequently burnt out, burdened with a sense of futility, or running out of time, or not doing enough.

In the course of this work, the reading material on my nightstand is usually horrific. So it was surprising that one of the most quietly stunning books I read in 2018 was Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life (Nicole M. Roccas, 2018, Ancient Faith Publishing). A small book written in a personable philosophical tone, it somehow stirred up some deeply uncomfortable truths about my own life. Roccas wrote this for the Christian who has become despondent, complacent, listless, lazy: “for anyone whose faith, like mine, has ever been shipwrecked by the hallmarks of despondent thinking: apathy, distraction, and despair.”

Luckily I am not that person. I am always driven and busy working on some worthy cause. My interest in the book was purely academic.

Or was it? While reading, it awkwardly dawned on me that my frantic activity is indeed a kind of despondency. Her book struck me to the core of my tendency to be outraged, frantic, and a workaholic.  It became apparent to me that Christian activists are in grave danger of losing their focus and ultimately their souls to whatever cause they take on.

We might see political or ideological opponents as enemies rather than our fellow humans. Do we operate as if there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’? Then we tread a perilous path. Roccas writes of the fragmentation of sin, “between ourselves and our neighbor, between ourselves and God, and also between the very parts that constitute ourselves.”

We might subconsciously replace the humility of the Gospel with political victories and social outcomes. Is there really any economic or mortality data that can tell us about the health of the souls of the people? When we make comparisons between populations, are we hoping everyone thrives or are we pitting one group against another? Do we rejoice over favorable political appointments, complain and criticize the unfavorable ones, and forget to pray for all our leaders?

Our minds become an endless chatter and a tumult of ideas and fictional conversations; a rollercoaster of hope and despair. Maryanne Wolf described in The Guardian Australia in 2018 how skim reading has become the way we all read. We use an F or Z pattern to sample the first line and then spotting words of interest throughout the rest of the text. We no longer spend the time to understand the intentions of the writer, to grasp the complexity of the text, to appreciate the beauty of the words and concepts, and to create our own thoughts. She cautions that “the effect on society is profound.” How to draw back from this abyss is anyone’s guess.

We might skim-read internet articles late into the night, feeling an addictive sense of outrage, instead of standing humbly and silently in prayer. In fact, Roccas notes that despondency predictably attacks prayer first, suggesting what corners could be cut, cultivating minimalism and carelessness. After all, there are so many other important things to be done.

At the end of the day when it comes to the time of prayer, the same thoughts spring to mind; I am tired, I have done so much today, it won’t hurt if I skip prayers; God knows what I was going to say; I should really get some rest. Besides, surely there are more productive things to do. Did I not notice the exact same thought process yesterday, and the day before, and throughout all the weeks and months?

Roccas pinpoints these processes that quietly unfold in our minds, day in and day out, weaving together historical and theological wisdom to reveal that our modern-day malaise is in fact as old as the hills:

Early theologians thought of despondency as an absence of effort, particularly in the spiritual life – we exert ourselves for the things we care about, and when we don’t care about anything we become passive and inactive. Despondency is alternatively described as a slackness of the soul. Like a belt that has stretched with time, the soul grows loose with apathy and ceases to hold us up. From this kernel of disregard sprout restlessness, rumination, anxiety, despair, sadness and distractibility…

Does the secular world have its answer to despondency and distraction? You bet. Mindfulness and gratefulness are the latest crazes in which children everywhere are being instructed. Books, apps and memes abound. The intention is good, but they are concepts floating in a vacuum, lacking context and direction. Being mindful about what? Being grateful to whom?

True mindfulness and gratefulness are to see every moment of time as a gift from God, and each face as the image of God, while keeping eternity in mind. Every moment, every meeting, every day of our life is to be redeemed, because (as the activist cannot forget), “the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).

For all of us, the most crucial work to be done is to tend to our own spiritual life, not that of everyone else. This is the perfect phrase with which Roccas cuts the deepest, the hope that blazes throughout her book: “the restoration of a single human soul has almost limitless transformative effects that ripple throughout the rest of the world.” This is our first task; to be Mary rather than Martha.

What Mary chose cannot be taken away from her. How can we learn to be Mary? Through the gift of time.

To be honest, parts of the book provoked skepticism in me. Roccas intended “to step back and examine more broadly what time is and the purpose it serves in creation”. Did she really deliver? Yes, she did. She distills her comparison of early Christian and Jewish cosmology of time to the astonishingly simple concept that “time is eternal love in action.”

I was reminded here of the long nights with a fussy newborn, learning to breastfeed. More weary than one thought possible, we wonder if it will ever end. But this difficult time is a gift; learning to love patiently, to give and receive with our whole body, our blood, sweat, tears and milk. And the baby is growing, brain developing through the touch of the mother, learning to love and trust in others, lessons that will not be taken away from the child. Time, Roccas says, is not a cold or distant force, but rather a direct extension of eternity, revealing God’s love through the Incarnation.

And she offers the notion, beautiful and refreshing to a frantic workaholic like myself, that “where there is time and change, there is the possibility of transformation.”

Is there a place for Christian activism? Of course. But we must take utmost care to prioritize the one thing needful. From that, all our other work should flow.

Stephen Lloyd-Moffett wrote in his 2009 book Beauty from Ashes about a Greek community that had been spiritually devastated by sexual misconduct of clergy. A new bishop arrived in 1980 to a church in disarray. Thirty years later the community was one of the most spiritually vibrant in Greece. How? This humble priest was no activist. Through the grace of God, and not with any clever political or social strategy, but only offering his own asceticism and devoutness. Surely this is a significant lesson for these difficult times.

A book about despair and despondency cannot escape mention of mental illness. Roccas, a scholar, admits she is no expert here and touches only briefly on the topic. From where I sit, mental illness is such an urgent matter that Christian scholars and healthcare providers must develop authentically Christian responses and make them widely available. I am heartened to know that there are many good people doing good work in this area.

In closing, Roccas offers a raft of practical suggestions in addition to prayer and the sacraments of the Church for fighting despondency and redeeming the time: humility, patience, gratitude, confession and community, labor and leisure, and humor. As a compulsive activist with much to learn, I commend them to you. After all, the present moment is the only one we really have, and now is the day of salvation.

 

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