Despondency, Beauty, and Activism

Last week, my husband forwarded a video to me called Ακτιβισμός και ακηδία. My Greek is just good enough to understand the title–Activism and Acedia–but not good enough to understand much of the speaker’s point, and we have yet to sit down and watch it together.

Nonetheless, it got me thinking about the intersection between this pernicious spiritual sickness and whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing in this muddled state of affairs that is currently the public sphere.

At first glance, it would seem that despondency would bring about a lack of activism. The Greek term acedia–whence pastoral concepts of despondency originate–literally means an absence of care. In despondency, we grow hopeless, care-less, apathetic. In our despair, one would assume we’d naturally settle into a pattern of comfortable non-responsiveness.

But somehow, this one-to-one connection doesn’t sit right with me. As I look around at all the energy that is being poured into protests and activism right now, I can’t help but sense a sort of aimless, frenetic desperation. An anxious clawing–at something, anything, whatever we can grab hold of to turn the tide. Not always, but sometimes this “activism” seems like a form of inverted acedia.

Evagrius believed that despondency comes from anger and desire–anger at what we have, and desire for what we don’t have. I’ve seen a lot of anger in the last few weeks–not just at policy, but at people and groups of people. And I’ve seen a lot of headstrong desire. And I wonder what will come of all our passion and passions.

I saw a post today, for example, from someone about to attend “a protest in favor of […]” and I was so confused I had to look up the word “protest” in the dictionary just to be sure we were talking about the same word. Maybe I’m being too literal, and maybe this person isn’t aware you can’t protest something you support. Maybe. But it summed up for me the hints of despondency that loom around our current culture of activism–we are so desperate to act, to feel our actions matter, that we must even protest that which we’re in favor of (even grammarly is telling me this this is the incorrect use of the word protest).

I’m not trying to belittle anyone–like everyone else, I’m just trying to figure out how to navigate the polarity and hostility that seems to unfold every time I turn around. And we all have different ways of following our conscience.

I haven’t found my way yet–both sides of the political puzzle baffle, confuse, and sometimes keep me up at night, staring through the darkness at the slats of streetlights between our window blinds.

I have questions, grievances, fears. What does it mean to be a Christian right now? Should I march in the street about something? I sometimes wonder. If so, what should I march about? I also ask myself if I should write something really opinionated on Facebook. If so, what should I be opinionated about? 

And to be honest, none of these questions–nor any answers that have come to me, feebly–seem particularly well guided. I frequently sense, when reading the news or trying to navigate pretty much anything anyone says about politics anymore, that there’s this whole other dimension I keep forgetting about. Forsaking.

And then, three days ago, I came across these words by Madeleine L’Engel. I don’t know when she wrote them–I only read them in an anthology of her works published in 1996. But for the first time in a very long while, I felt like I had something to grab hold of:

We do not love each other without changing each other. We do not observe the world around us without in some way changing it, and being changed ourselves. To listen to the news on radio or television is to be part of what is going on and to be modified by it. But how on earth–or heaven–can that be reciprocal? We are changed by war and rumour of war, but how can we in turn change what changes us?

There are some obvious, small ways. We can join, if we are female, the League of Women voters. We can do volunteer work in the hospice movement. We can write our senators and congressmen. […] Those are a few of the obviously active ways. But there are less obvious ones that are equally important. I was asked how we could pray for our planet, with the devastating wars that are tearing it apart, with greed fouling the air we breathe and the water we drink. And I replied that the only way I know how to pray for the body of our planet is to see it as God meant it to be, to see the sky as we sometimes see it in the country in wintertime, crisp with stars, or to see the land with spring moving across it, the fruit trees flowering and the grass greening, and at night hearing the peepers calling back and forth, and the high sweet singing of the bats.

I think, for now, I will try to care about love and beauty. I will try to see the world, and other people, as God sees them. It’s a hard enough task in ordinary circumstances, but I will try. It’s not that this will be my form of activism, it’s that this will be my form of stepping outside the loop of desperation, of lack of surrender, of the despondent oscillation between anger and desire. I want to perceive beauty–not by putting on rose-colored glasses, but by peering into the difficult places and seeing the potential of God’s love. I want to look to the future with the kind of hope that knows what has been lost and believes in what could be regained.

In Orthodoxy, we know that prayer is no small feat. It is healing and can send ripple effects of Peace through the whole world–it is the ultimate weapon, and the ultimate form of activism. I think that prayer begins like L’Engle says: seeing the world as God sees it, with all its potential, all its brokenness, all its belovedness. I want to know in greater measure what it’s like to see things that way.

I worry that if we focus too much on acting for the sake of action, or opinionating for the sake of opinionating, or raging for the sake of raging, we lose sight of what it is we hope for.  And I wonder what would happen if we began all things with beauty–if we found something beautiful in our neighbor/ political issues/ society/ Others before speaking or acting toward them. If we tried, maybe a bit extra for a while, to center ourselves on whatever is true, noble, good, pure, and lovely (Philippians 4:8) before zooming in on the bad, horrendous, and offensive.

To me, that is the harder fight. But it’s the fight I most want to be a part of.



  1. “Not always, but sometimes this “activism” seems like a form of inverted acedia”

    Dr. Roccas,

    Thoughtful post as always. It reminded me of John 18:36

    “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight (agōnizomai)…”

    1. Thanks, Chris! That’s a beautiful verse. The first part had actually crossed my mind while thinking about some of the things in this post–that the Kingdom Christ calls us to is not made of human powers and policies. But the second portion about fighting fervently never crossed my mind. That’s a great connection and thanks for sharing!

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