Battling the Noonday Demon - Part 1 of 3
How I lost the will to write (with all my heart and mind)
A few words before I begin. About three months ago, I realized that I didn’t just have writer’s block; I had lost the will to write. More specifically, I had lost the will to write with all my heart and mind. The three essays I’m publishing this week, including this one, represent both an attempt to heal and an act of repentance. I have no idea how these words and stories will land or whether they’ll resonate with anyone. I just know I have to get back on my horse. So here goes nothing… and everything.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was (for the most part) always ready and willing to write about sticky, complex subjects, especially those that had to do with human conflict, suffering, and injustice. It’s not that I was drawn to the darkness. It’s that I wanted to do my part to help alienated people—particularly in the church—move toward one another in understanding and to help fractured souls heal. The desire was so strong that for the sake of producing even a single essay, I would spend weeks reading books, combing through Scripture, reading Bible commentaries, and doing other kinds of laborious research. It was hard work, but I embraced it because I considered it part of my calling—my vocation. Writing was my primary way of nurturing goodness and reconciliation in the human communities I was a part of, whether up close or in a broader sense; and love was the engine that powered my writing.
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“It’s not worth it, is it?”
Last year around this time, however, whenever I’d sit in front of my computer to write, or whenever I’d attempt to read a mentally demanding book, a wave of dread, exhaustion, and sometimes even disgust would wash over me, hitting me with intense doubt about whether the effort was worthwhile. I could still compose poems, write brief reflections, and read fun stuff, but I could no longer summon the energy to do the kind of reading and writing I used to do. As weeks and then months passed, I found it easier and easier to choose anything and everything over sitting at my desk researching and contemplating societal dilemmas, ecclesial controversies, human suffering, and turns of phrases.
Seven months ago, right in the midst of this development, I wrote about my need for silence, including my own need to be silent. I portrayed it primarily in positive a way, describing it as something of a gestational season. I didn’t share this at the time, but I latched on to that metaphor because it was one of hopeful anticipation. I needed something hopeful to offset the cauldron of anti-hope emotions that were roiling inside of me then: pain, grief, anger, disappointment, pessimism, and judgment.I stuck to what I felt had transcendent value and left the giant cauldron of gristle simmering on the back burner, hoping it would eventually soften and break down into something palatable and nourishing.
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse. I fell into a posture of surrender—not the good kind where you say to God, “I am the Lord’s servant,” (Luke 1:38) but the other kind where you curl up in fetal position under a desert bush and take a long nap when big things are afoot (1 Kings 19:4,5). I started believing the persistent and increasingly intrusive thought, “It’s not worth it, is it? All that work. It won’t make a bit of difference anyway.”
I can’t pinpoint when nihilism took up residence. It seems to have happened both gradually and all at once—like falling asleep.I resisted it for a while, playing “Your Labor is Not in Vain” by Porter’s Gate on repeat until I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I also started writing out the Psalms by hand and praying the daily office in The Book of Common Prayer. Sadly, these exercises didn’t work.
Ok, that’s dishonest. I can’t actually claim that these disciplines were ineffectual because the truth is I just stopped doing them regularly. I’ve never been great at sticking to any kind of daily devotional practice. Then again, that statement’s probably also dishonest. I’m very good, possibly great, at religiously devoting myself to the daily Wordle, Quordle, Octordle, and Waffle. My guess is that if I were as effortlessly devoted to those daily spiritual practices as I am to my daily word games, I might be in a very different place.
Here’s something I’ve concluded, though. While spiritual practices like scripture reading, prayer, worship, and confession can and absolutely should be done on an individual basis, they’re meant to flow from and be anchored in their respective communal practices. But I haven’t been part of a faith community since February of 2021. I’ll get into the various reasons why in a moment. Right now, the only thing I want to say about it is that without the community life required for ballast, I simply wasn’t been able in my own strength to remain consistent in these practices. I doubt it’s a coincidence that shortly after my efforts fizzled, I succumbed to a profound sense of pointlessness, dread, and disgust (that’s a strong emotion, right?) about three specific things: 1) my work as a writer, 2) finding a church, and 3) making sacrifices, or suffering, for the sake of others.
I did so despite still possessing a rational belief rooted in the logic of “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). And despite still holding convictions rooted in the admonitions found in Hebrews about being diligent in love and good deeds to the very end and not giving up on meeting together (Heb. 6:10-12; 10:24-25). I just couldn’t shake this negativity that had taken root in my heart. I couldn’t chalk it up to depression either. The feelings of pointlessness, dread, and disgust weren’t global. They really were limited to those three specific things.
In hindsight, those three things had always been intertwined for me. My love and concern for the church universal, coupled with my real-life experiences of walking alongside the poor, had long provided the main fuel and fodder for my writing. But my love for the church had gone cold, and I was exhausted and embittered by the things I had suffered while trying to do good. All I could do was ask God to help me sort it out (or rather, get me sorted).
Unveiling the Noonday Demon, AKA Acedia
Revelation also came gradually and all at once. First, I came across an online version of The Institutes of the Coenobia, and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Faults (more commonly known as simply The Institutes), written by John Cassian around the year 420 A.D. The Institutes present expositions of and remedies for the eight principle faults, or vices: gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory, and pride. The word “acedia” caught my attention first because it was the most unfamiliar one in the list. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recall reading something about it in association with sloth, or laziness. And yet sloth, the more familiar and accessible word, wasn’t the one being used in the list of vices. As I started reading about acedia, it became obvious that it was about much more than laziness. Here are some excerpts from Cassian’s Institutes:
OUR sixth combat is with what the Greeks call acedia, which we may term weariness or distress of heart. This is akin to dejection, and is... a dangerous and frequent foe to dwellers in the desert... there are some of the elders who declare that this is the "midday demon" spoken of in the ninetieth Psalm.
AND when this has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual…
Then the fifth or sixth hour brings him such bodily weariness and longing for food that he seems to himself worn out and wearied as if with a long journey, or some very heavy work… and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work…
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Parsons’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, I found another illuminating description of acedia. Again, a few excerpts:
For envy blinds the heart of a man and anger troubles a man; and acedia makes him heavy, thoughtful, and peevish. Envy and anger cause bitterness of heart; which bitterness is the mother of acedia, and takes from a man the love of all goodness.
…from the sin of acedia it happens that a man is too sad and hindered to be able to do anything good...
Then arises the dread of beginning to do any good deeds… and tells himself in his heart that the circumstances having to do with goodness are so wearisome and burdensome to endure, that he dare not undertake any such works…
All I could think was, “Yeah, I resemble that.” The part that really caught my attention was the one in which Chaucer connected the dots between anger, bitterness, and acedia: “anger [causes] bitterness of heart; which bitterness is the mother of acedia.” It helped me begin to identify a number of painful experiences over the previous two years as major factors in my falling into a state of acedia.
Facing the Painful Things
Several of these experiences were church-related. Although they had nothing to do with previous church trauma that I had written about here and here, they re-opened and added insult to those old wounds. One experience was ministry related.
Story #1: An Unexpected Dead End. In July 2020, a large church here in Dallas approached me about helping them “thoughtfully prepare a comprehensive approach to racial justice in the way that [they] educate, disciple and conduct [their] outreach and mission work.”After a couple of in-depth conversations with various leaders within the church, it seemed like a great fit, and I joyfully committed myself to the work. I don't know how many hours I dedicated to the effort. I just know it was a lot. I didn’t mind, though. The work energized me. It also didn’t matter that I wasn’t getting paid; it was work I had already been wanting to do on my own for the broader church because of my (once-beating) heart for Christian discipleship. Having a particular context and a specific church do the work for served me well in that it provided both direction and specific deadlines—things that kept me focused and productive. In November 2020, I had the opportunity to present a draft and early outline of the curriculum to a core leadership team consisting of seven people. Six of them received it enthusiastically, while one team member expressed concern about scalability once he realized it wasn’t a didactic curriculum but a discipleship curriculum. The general tone of the meeting was positive. I found them all to be very likable, even the person who didn’t connect with what I presented. I said to them that they needed to decide first whether they themselves were willing to undergo the kind of spiritual formation this curriculum required. I felt pretty strongly that I wasn’t a salesperson peddling a product or selling a service. Rather, I was a fellow believer with some experience in this area offering them a vision of a different way to do things. At the end of the meeting, they thanked me and said they would discuss among themselves further, then circle back to me for next steps.
I never heard from them. I received only silence—like the kind you get after you interview for a job but don’t get picked.
Silence is a funny thing in a situation like this. It’s impossible to know exactly what it represents, yet the mind can’t help reaching for potential explanations. Mine certainly did as, over a period of months, I transitioned from a posture of expectant waiting to one of uncertainty, and finally, to realizing that the church leaders must have decided they didn’t want to adopt the curriculum. Although I had been under the impression that I was the only one working on this project with them, I now wondered whether they had been taking multiple “pitches” from various people after all and, in the end, gone with someone or something else. Had they decided that the curriculum I had developed for them was a bad fit? Or, had it just been a case of bad timing because of all the additional stresses of the pandemic? I may never know. I mean, I could undoubtedly go back and ask. But it’s been nearly two years since I had any contact with them, and I’m no longer curious. The sad thing for me—and I didn’t realize the extent of it until now—was that somewhere along the way, this experience contributed to my internalizing the terrible lie that my ministry of writing was neither valuable nor effective.
Story #2: Unfortunate victory for misguided heresy hunters. A few weeks after my last meeting with that team of church leaders, completely unrelated trouble started brewing at the church where my family and I had worshiped for a year-and-a-half. Two heresy-hunter type people with a disproportionate amount of clout started waging war against one of the ministerial staff with whom I had become friends. For weeks, I was hopeful that the brouhaha would simply blow over because the charges of heresy that were being leveled against my friend were ridiculous and easily refuted. But in the end, after weeks of what I believe to be poor management and a lot of obfuscation, the person with executive power chose to terminate my friend’s employment as an expedient means of terminating the controversy. This development was terribly discouraging. We stopped worshiping there.
Story # 3: Another dead end. Despite our disappointment with how the church leadership handled the above situation, we decided to remain a part of our church community group. We were still pretty new to Dallas, and the COVID-19 pandemic had created so much isolation. We still hoped to grow our budding relationships with that handful of families who lived geographically nearby, even though repeated attempts to deepen those relationships in the previous six months had not yielded much intimacy. Our group was scheduled to meet on February 14, 2021, but Winter Storm Uri hit all of Texas on the 13th, so the meeting got pushed to the 21st. In the meantime, the pipes in my daughter’s best friend’s house froze. On Thursday, the 18th, as the temperatures rose above freezing, half their house flooded as water gushed from the burst pipes. Thousands of families across the city and state were dealing with the same thing, so for days, our friends struggled to find a remediation company. Because we had dealt with a burst water pipe before, we knew the kind of work that needed to be done in order to prevent a mold problem. On the evening of the 20th, my family made plans to go over to their house the next day to see what we could to help. That same night, Annabel,the wife of the husband-wife duo that led our community group, texted me and Clarissa, another community group member, to see if we were coming to the meeting the next day. I texted back, “We’d like to, but we may be helping some friends pull up carpet and drywall, etc. then. Their pipes burst and half their house flooded.” Annabel texted back, “Hearing about so many busted pipes. Sorry for your friends!”
[Meanwhile, some pastor friends of mine in Austin had organized a good-Samaritan effort to address serious needs created by the winter storm. Their church members were buying and delivering non-perishable food items to impoverished families in the neighborhoods near them and deploying their church members to help people (even total strangers) in the local community whose homes were damaged from burst pipes.]
When my family and I arrived at our friends’ house to inspect the damage, we could tell that although the surface of the carpet felt dry (they had managed to borrow a bunch of industrial fans and had been running them continuously for two days), the layers underneath were still damp. We explained that the carpet couldn't be salvaged and had to be removed. We all (including the kids) got to work moving all their furniture out of the carpeted rooms that had gotten flooded, then completely removed the water-logged carpet and padding. I texted Annabel and Clarissa about 40 minutes before the community group meeting was scheduled to begin: “We’re definitely going to be here at our friends’ house ‘pulling an ox out of the ditch’ for the rest of the day. If Chad has any knowledge about managing water damage, we’d welcome any expert advice. So far, we’ve moved furniture and are pulling up water-logged carpets and padding. They live on ___ Street between ___ and ___.”
Clarissa, who happened to be part of the ministerial staff of the church, responded, “Oh no!” but Annabel didn’t respond. I figured she was busy getting ready for the community group and would probably respond later, but neither she nor her husband ever did. Clarissa didn’t show any further interest about our friends’ situation either, even though the following day, Annabel sent out a group text to all the women in our small group about various topics they had covered when they met and everybody started bantering about everything else (ding!… ding!… ding!… the notifications drove me nuts). I was stunned by the small group’s collective non-response and business-as-usual way of being while our friends were going through one of the worst experiences of their lives. It sapped any desire in us to keep trying to make those relationships work.
Two months later, we received a casual email out of the blue from Chad. It read, “Just popping off a quick note to see how you three are doing. It has been more difficult than I anticipated trying to keep track of everyone these days. Simply wanted to reach out and see if you needed anything.” I replied, “Not even sure where to begin. But thanks for checking in.” It was true. I didn’t know where to begin. It wasn’t just their lack of acknowledgment about our request back in February that was an issue. By the time he sent that email, we were eyeballs deep in an all-consuming challenge related to a ministry we had started in Atlanta 6 years prior. (I get into it when I share story #4 in my next post.) We actually needed a lot of prayer and spiritual support, but the situation was so overwhelming that only our most trusted friends and family even knew about it. We had no energy to try to loop in these people with whom we felt no significant connection and who couldn’t be bothered two months prior to check in on their literal neighbors.
Story #4 is long, and this essay is already approaching 3,500 words, so I’ve decided to save it for the next post. In the third installment I’ll share how I’m finding the will to write again.
Click here to read Part 2.
Nowadays, writing spawned by raw/untransformed, unbridled emotion tends to go viral, but I’m still of the persuasion that such writing is best confined to private journals or unpublished therapeutic exercises.
I’m borrowing from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, (“As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”), who borrowed from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (“How did you go bankrupt?" “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”)
This actually refers to Psalm 91:6. The Latin, which is translated from the Septuagint, reads “et dæmonio meridiano” instead of "the destruction that lays waste at noonday." See footnote 337 at https://www.pathsoflove.com/acedia/cassian-acedia.html#10.2
From an email dated July 3, 2020 (names redacted):
not her real name
also not her real name
I’ve put in the name Chad for her husband, but of course, it’s not his real name. He was known to be a super handy person. He did an entire bathroom renovation in their own house and had recently replaced their water heater.
Our friends are located exactly 3 blocks away from Annabel’s house.
I don't have eloquent words for this. Just a lot of groans and a few slaps to the forehead.
I wondered what had happened with that curriculum.
These silences are passive aggressive and can be so violent (both the cold silences directed toward us, and the silences we are made to keep to cover the multitude of...stuff).
BUT, that said, here you are, 3500 words later, beginning again. That is a celebration. A victory over the noonday demon (whew, that sounded way too familiar).
Thank you for your vulnerability. I’m sorry to hear about the cascading painful experiences over the last couple years. Grateful for your willingness to bring others into them. And, I’d never heard of acedia until now either--really intriguing concept that’s been cast aside over the years.