Despair in the Face of Cultural Decline
By R. J. Snell
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, andinterpretations 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 anunhappy 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, thisacedia 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.
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