“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” True in Thoreau’s age, perhaps, not so much in ours. It seems the decibels of desperation have increased since Henry David’s days near Walden Pond. And not decibels only, but desperation. Nowadays we take our desperation at alarmingly acceptable rates. How often we merely “consume” media coverage of a mass killing, a sadistic murder, or the latest teenage suicide. And that is if we bother to get beyond the headlines. Often, I’ve heard it called The New Normal. I have no idea what this means. I take it to mean, of course, that we are both desensitized and accustomed to the screaming desperation in our country. It is at once an acknowledgement of, and a gloss upon, the point.
The point has gotten sharper.
Young Nones leave sacred places for safe spaces. Catastrophizing the need for the latter, while ignoring the former, exposes the desperation woven into the very name for the religiously unaffiliated.
Beyond the scourge of illegal drugs, the veneer of acceptability persists in the abuse of prescribed narcotics. The U.S. is less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but consumes 80 percent of the global opioid painkillers and 99 percent of the global supply of hydrocodone, the active ingredient in Vicodin.
More troubling still, the National Center for Health Statistics recently reported that suicides in America have reached a 30-year high. The report shows increases in every age group except older adults. Significantly, the suicide rate of young girls aged 10-14 tripled. There was a particularly steep increase for women overall and a substantial uptick for those in middle age.
These are branches of the same dying vine. They are also desperate answers to questions facing desperate people. By themselves, though, they do not answer the question.
Why are we so desperate?
When I bring this up in conversation, some people respond with Keep Calm and Carry On. Most go long on history because they are short on interest. Bad stuff, they say, has been going on since the beginning of time. No time is worse than any another. But this does not suffice when one takes a close, sustained look at the phenomenon of desperation in our country. Why? Because each elides the point. We are simply trying to avoid it altogether. Yet the point remains.
Desperation defined is clear enough. Desperation displayed isn’t always so. We can all agree that an increased suicide rate is a symptom of widening desperation. Likewise, the excessive use and abuse of prescription drugs. There is likely to be more disagreement over the extent to which a surfeit of stupidity signals desperation. Any number of reality shows and YouTube videos, in my view, are disgusting and disturbing evidence of desperation. Here, I concede, the waters muddy a bit. It may be easier to apply Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s well-worn description of pornography to the phenomenon of desperation in its modern iteration. We know it when we see it. All the same, these are but signs and symptoms. If we are to have any hope in redeeming the country and the culture, we must, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, get down to causes and conditions. Perhaps we should look to Captain MacWhirr’s advice to young Jukes in Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, “Facing it—always facing it—that’s the way to get through.” True as that is, the storm of desperation is of our own making. And we have yet to face it.
Meantime, technology allows for a diffusion of desperation at breakneck pace. Cisco reports that by 2020, three-fourths of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video. Much of this no doubt is due to the ubiquity of Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat. What it says about us, significantly though not exclusively, is that we are desperate to be seen, heard, and entertained. And not in any authentically meaningful way. We are desperate to broaden our “profile” or “brand” but not our humanity. Desperation is the progeny of despair, and we are desperate for distraction from our despair. Despair, as Kierkegaard has it, in all its dimensions, is the sickness unto death.
In a humorous twist on a serious problem, we may do well to remember Douglas Horton’s view that “desperation is like stealing from the Mafia: you stand a good chance of attracting the wrong attention.” Indeed. And not merely from a world eager for distraction, but from an Evil One eager for souls. Lust, wrath, avarice and the rest ravage body and soul until we are given over to despair. The demon of acedia arrives in our despair, surreptitiously shutting the door behind the demonic horde.
It is here that acedia makes its home.
Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., Abbot of Saint-Wandrille, writes in his profound and timely book, The Noonday Devil, that acedia stifles our contemplation of God. “Acedia,” he says, “is a formidable danger: whereas the other thoughts [lust, wrath, et al] are like the links of a chain, acedia is the last of these links: therefore, it is not a transitional evil. Acedia endures. It is not a short-lived crisis. It is a radical, chronic evil.” Chilling words. Worse, Abbot Nault identifies acedia in his subtitle as “the unnamed evil of our times,” a theme he develops further in the book. Our refusal to name the demon that devours us denies us a defense. In the maw of the malignant, we must respond with the spiritual weaponry of Desert asceticism.
The Christian core of our country is increasingly, if not precipitously, being displaced by the demonic. The feeling is palpable. The experience real. We know it because we see it. It is imperative—now—that we place the diagnosis and remedy in the locus of the Desert. Too much of our national conversation is fogged by the vapor of debate in political and economic terms. It is incumbent upon Christians to assert the Truth. We are not framing a debate. We are declaring, amidst the troubles and turmoil, the division and disunity, the singular, universal, and uncompromising truth of Christ. If gridlock in Washington and the presidential election cycle have taught us anything, it is that politics rarely engender authentic human progress and the Oval Office is little more than vessel of misplaced hope. Both are necessary in our country, of course, but neither is sufficient. It is a great temptation for Christians to acknowledge this fact but act otherwise.
What is needed now is a simple devotion to the difficulty of the Desert. The spare, stripped down, get in spiritual shape athleticism of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. It is a simple path for complex times. It is a rededication to the essence of our spiritual tradition. It is the fount of Christian unity. This is no retreat from the public square. Nor is it the strategic withdrawal of the so called Benedict Option. There is one world, one people, and one purpose for both. Either we baptize the world with our sacramental presence and witness to the Faith, or we reject our communal calling.
We must start calling things as we, Christians, see them. As they truly are. We must use the language of the Spirit, of angels and demons, of vices and virtues. The country, indeed the world, needs the unalloyed, untainted, and unworldly truth of Christ. These are desperate times, and as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. But after taking the measure of our desperation, it is clear that the way forward is the way back. The way out is the way inward. A return to the Desert, simplifying ourselves in the Spirit. A return to reason in the absurdity of the Cross.
Editor’s note: The image above depicts Harold Lloyd in a scene from the movie “Safety Last!” released in 1923.