Despair in the Face of Cultural Decline

In the last months, particularly after the Supreme Court decision on homosexual marriage in late June, I’ve noticed a pronounced malaise in many of my friends and family. For some, this looks awfully close to despair, for others a scornful anger, with a kind of dazed escapism haunting yet others hoping they are in a disturbing dream from which they will soon awake.

I sympathize, I really do. Our culture does seem rotten, not impaired or mildly infected but gangrenous—gay marriage, transsexuality, polyamory, Planned Parenthood, divorce, family collapse, and precipitously low birth rates along with a debased celebrity culture, corrupt political class, inept foreign and domestic policy, failing schools, and violent and trite entertainment. It all seems broken right now, and with no obvious path of stability, let alone recovery or flourishing. I get it; I understand the frustration, the sense of hopelessness.

It is this sense of resignation which has, I suspect, nourished the buzz surrounding the so-called Benedict Option as articulated by Rod Dreher (and others), whether in support or objection of Dreher. Now, whatever the Benedict Option precisely is, and interpretations differ widely, whether huddling behind the circled wagons, a selective and principled retreat from politics, or a reminder that the culture is now toxic and so we must realize the deep need to form ourselves without counting on the usual cultural institutions, each begins from resignation, the sense that we’re beyond the tipping point and there’s simply no coming back from the post-Christian value shift we’re experiencing.

That may be true. I don’t know. Resignation may well be a reasonable response to the facts. As I survey those close to me, it is not the resignation but the malaise that worries me. In itself, resignation is not problematic inasmuch as it is not submission, and I note no consent, no willingness to embrace the new ethical confusions, so much as an unhappy acceptance that this is the way things now are. My companions are not complicit, nor are they necessarily wrong in their judgments about cultural trends.

But they are sad, and I feel the temptation myself. Not merely mournful, but given over to sadness, whether in malaise or scorn. Those who mourn are blessed, we have on good authority, whereas we also know that giving ourselves over to a resigned sadness is something to resist. Pope Francis addresses this in The Joy of the Gospel, where he calls this acedia, the deadly sin of sloth:

And so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.” A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions.”

In the diagnosis of Francis, such melancholy often emerges when our apostolic work is “undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable.” Consequently, our work as culture makers and redeemers results not in the “content and happy tiredness” of work done well but “a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, unbearable fatigue.” For some, this acedia occurs when they entertain unrealistic expectations of what they can reasonably accomplish, others lack patience and cannot abide the normal limits of time, while others have lost “contact with people” and so care more for their plans than for the persons caught up into those plans. Finally, Francis suggests that an unhealthy obsession with results leads many to a kind of despair.

Others fall into acedia because they are unable to wait; they want to dominate the rhythm of life. Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.

I find this last suggestion compelling. As I describe in my book Acedia and its Discontents, sloth is not laziness so much as a repugnance of limits and a desire to dominate, which is why the monastic fathers so often prescribe obedience, stability, and bearing the bonds of limits as paths to overcoming sloth. They don’t say to work harder, they say to stay put, to do what God has asked.

Oddly, then, the melancholic resignation which looks a lot like acedia has as its cure another, albeit very different form of resignation. Namely, what some might call abandonment to God’s will, although I’d emphasize that the discipline of resignation is not a passive act, not a “let go and let God” while we wait to see what he does. Instead, Christian resignation is the active willing what God wills. Note well, however, that this is not equivalent to willing results.

When my colleagues and associates (and sometimes myself, too) suffer acedia about our cultural moment, this generally occurs when we focus on results. “Look at all this terrible news,” we say, “observe all the disorder and decline. What shall we do?” Then, if efforts appear fruitless, the temptation sinks in: “What can be done? Can anything be done? Nothing can be done.” But that’s not true, really. Given my belief in natural law, the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit, and God’s promise to redeem the world through an abiding Church, I would never counsel quietism or forfeiture of the ground—whatever else, people of faith are simply to be here, to stay put in the world doing their ordinary work—even if there is no obvious way to reverse course and right the ship. We may not see results, but this is no reason to give in to acedia.

Instead, stay put. As writers like Cassian and Aquinas suggest, acedia is combated by staying on the path, keeping under the bonds—just keeping at it in fidelity. We have to remind ourselves that the value of our work as co-redeemers comes less from what we do (the efficacy comes from God’s grace anyway) and more from who we are. As baptized children of God with priestly souls, merely being present in the world participates in the world’s redemption, whatever else happens or doesn’t happen.

In order to combat own my melancholy, I frequently remind myself of three principles, and perhaps they can be of help to others.

First, practice slow evangelization. Unlike some truncated accounts, the Catholic understanding of salvation is not limited to decisionism, or the notion that salvation is obtained and exhausted in one instant of conversion. Instead, we believe that every aspect of our lives and being is redeemed through God’s grace, even if it takes some time. Further, while individuals are indeed saved, so too is the entire cosmos, including the world of culture. God is very patient, clearly working in terms of centuries and millennia to redeem the world. So, too, we ought to be in this for the long haul, and our long obedience and co-redeeming work will be passed on to grandchildren. So build well, build what will last for centuries, and worry less about fixing the culture in some sort of five-year action plan.

Second, practice the ministry of accompaniment. When still a young priest, John Paul II believed it was one of the priest’s task to make Christ present in the ordinary world of the young, not only inside the walls of the parish (akin to Francis’s request for priests to smell like the sheep). All of us have priestly souls and priestly tasks, and all of us exist to accompany the world, and in so doing make Christ present in every corner of the world. Insofar as we are each alter Christi—other Christs, little Christs—in the world, we contribute to the perfection and redemption of all things through our everyday, ordinary, mundane work. In the classroom, office, workshop, home, construction site, Christ labors as we labor, for we are his presence, his body. We are little sacramental presences whom he sends to accompany all those who do not know or love him. So, stay put. Whatever our current place and vocation, we are to stay put and work.

Third, practice cheerfulness. Obsessing with results—can we turn this around?—will make us glum and miserable, scornful and angry, but as Francis has taught so clearly throughout his pontificate, we are not to be “querulous and disillusioned ‘sourpusses’” but instead radiate a missionary dynamism rooted in the joy of the gospel. Of course, this is not a naïve escapism or simplistic optimism, but instead acknowledges that God is at work, and from the supernatural viewpoint all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well. But if we are morose, angry, bitter, argumentative, we proclaim only our own lack of faith, thus giving no reason for others to embrace the hope we possess.

Practice resignation, then, but of the right sort. A cheerful consenting to the will of God so that we can do our ordinary work of redeeming the world, even if we see no results, for we labor in hope. But resignation of melancholy or anger, that is not for us, not for the children of light.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Gleaners” was painted by Jean-François Millet in 1857.


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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