Nathaniel on ennui
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
5:45 a.m. I got up thinking we should continue, but now I’m not sure. Time to take a day off?
That is always your option. You may feel you aren’t doing any work other than this and therefore shouldn’t stint this, but you don’t know.
I certainly feel flat, this morning.
No harm in skipping a day, and perhaps some help.
6:15. Maybe better if I use you for what I don’t have, a way to talk about my usual angst. It is so hard to want to live!
“Usual angst.” Doesn’t that strike you as an odd combination of words? Why should it be usual? Is it anything more than a bad habit?
I don’t know. Is it?
Well, what is a bad habit?
Same as a good one, I suppose: a well-trodden path.
No. a good habit – that is, one you approve of – is the result of conscious choice if only to the extent of approval. A bad habit is the result of unconscious choice – a contradiction in terms, that – which is why it remains out of your control.
Meaning, grasp it and master it?
Not necessarily in any death’s-grip struggle; just a deliberate choice of attitude. Remember, this is one of the seven deadly sins.
Not a tendency toward depression; not even a chemically induced depression, either natural or the side-effect of legal or illegal pharmaceuticals or alcohol. The sin is, shall we say, in tacitly approving of, participating in, depression.
That is not clear.
One may submit, one may resist, one may even approve. Or one may set one’s will against it, not acquiescing, not identifying with it, and, on the other hand, not hurling defiance at it, so to speak, nor even battling on in grim determination and resignation.
Well, that seems to exhaust the available choices!
It doesn’t, you know. There remains the sovereign remedy, to live in faith.
Isn’t depression pretty much the opposite of living in faith?
No, and we can show you. A brief thought-experiment. Someone is depressed by circumstances beyond conscious control, either indirectly, because of insuperable “external” circumstances, or directly, because the depression has no obvious cause but exists as a steady-state environment. What is the person’s choice? That is, what choice is available?
I can feel you, or me, dancing around the use of the masculine pronoun. Let’s just agree that, like TGU, we mean anybody regardless of gender.
Yes, it was getting in the way. Very well, s/he faces the problem: The depression is there, it cannot be alleviated or removed by shifting of external circumstance – what’s his choice? The answer surely is, he can submit or not. That amounts to, he can set his attitude (not his mood or his emotional response, nor even his intellectual response, but his attitude) one way or the other. He can accept it as an accurate description of the value of life, or reject it. To reject depression – life-devaluation – is not a cure-all; it leaves the underlying problems unaffected. But it does set one’s attitude toward life and against it.
The words are clear but not the meaning. Perhaps others will see it, but I don’t, yet.
The sin of sloth – ennui – world-rejection, call it what you will – is not in your emotional response to the world (you can scarcely help that) but in your response to the feeling. You see? It is in the giving up, not in the feeling overwhelmed.
I see it abstractly, but it isn’t really real to me.
Think of Lincoln in his darkest hour – in the Civil War. Already used to fighting depression his whole life, here he had external circumstance enough to make it seem warranted. Men were being slaughtered by the thousands, and he could do nothing to end it; the Union was in peril of being destroyed, and his best efforts were barely holding it together; he prayed for victory and success, not particularly to justify himself but so that justice would prevail, so that the twin cause of free government and abolition of the institution of slavery would transform the country. But, freely praying, still the victory did not come and the slaughter did not end, and he faced the very real prospect of being responsible – or anyway being held responsible – for the destruction of the Union and the continuation of slavery in North America. There were many times when there was scant reason to hope, but his life had taught him, plow on. Continue. Do not give up the effort and do not give up faith that anything that comes to you comes for a reason.
Acting in faith primarily, with hope a distant second, he lived with and in effect conquered the continual temptation to despair, to say, “It’s all too much,” or “It isn’t fair to expect me to deal with this successfully,” or “It isn’t worth it.” Like Victor Frankl he recognized, in effect, that in whatever circumstances, he could always choose his attitude toward them.
And I hear, he called to his assistance the cardinal virtues, even though he may never have heard them named. Prudence. Justice. Temperance. Fortitude.
Did he not exemplify them? They did not prevent him from making errors of judgment; they did prevent him from acting out of despair or, of course, malice born of pride.
An additional note. There is a reason why Pride is considered chief of sins: It enters into them all. They each in their own way manifest pride as a sin. (Again, always, as opposed to legitimate pride as joy.)
What is acquiescence in despair, in world-rejection, in depressed resignation, but an implicit assumption that you know better than the universe? This life you have been given has its difficulties, some kinds for one, other kinds for another, but everyone has them. They may crush you to the ground sometimes. Are they worse than Lincoln’s? Are they worse than Frankl’s? Are they worse than Anne Frank’s, or Helen Keller’s, or innumerable others who have seen their path through to the end, refusing to despair?
Yours is not the age of faith in the sense of the simple shared faith in God and the saints of the Middle Ages, but no one lives without faith in something, a faith implicit or explicit. Be it faith in an external order (faith in machinery, say, or Progress, or material prosperity, or Communism, or the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith’s), or in an internal order (“God will provide,” or “Every day in every way I am getting better and better,” or whatever), you will live, shall we say at least among a faith if not precisely in one. But always you must – and are able to – choose.
To choose to wallow in despair is no less a choice for seeming inevitable under the circumstances. To choose to have faith that somehow all is well may seem irrational, but it is still a permissible choice. And which one leads upward?
But note – you can hear it if you listen carefully – how Pride will tempt you to say that believing that All Is Well would be fatuous, childish, unworthy of a mature individual. And so it always goes. Abraham Lincoln’s deep humility saved him from that temptation, and led him to what the middle ages would have called sainthood, and his own age called goodness. In that, they were not mistaken.
I had thought this would be private, if we had a session at all. But I am grateful for this, and I’m sure others will be, as well. Thanks.