Before you think there is a new diagnosis being hoisted on the public, please be rest assured that “depressive dystopia” is my term for how I view our current collective condition. COVID life has helped create a societal malaise that has pushed our emotional tolerances to a state of constantly uncomfortable surrealism. Sometimes it feels like the emotional strain is unbearable, and our only guarantee of more immediate uncertainty and potential disruption offers no comfort or reprieve.
But wise King Solomon – more on him later – observed way back, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Google the word “acedia.” It goes back to ancient Greece and means feeling bored, listless, afraid, and uncertain. Other synonyms for “acedia” conjure the draining of vitality such as laziness, apathy, lethargy, or indifference. Psychologically, at the end of the well-known “fight or flight” response lies exhaustion, a term which matches the newer expression of “surge capacity depletion.” I think we have pretty much reached that place.
The Internet offers many quick and easy tips to help cope and give immediate relief when undergoing major upheavals and upsets – a necessary and vital form of mental health first aid. However, as self-aware, sentient beings, finding a higher purpose and meaning to our suffering and pain is also beneficial and necessary.
The existential need for such an analysis is described in the recommended classic by Victor Frankl (1946) Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl concludes that even in an ongoing dire situation, life never ceases to have meaning. It is ameliorative to appreciate that we all have the freedom to hope for a better future. The alternative of bringing sense to pain can be the easy route to bitterness, disillusionment, cynicism, and nihilism. So just how are we to make sense of this “mixed up, muddled up, shook up world?”
The first step might be to recognize our mourning of the loss of our pre-COVID lives, and accept the fact, that through no fault of our own, we are in a genuinely seismic, historical period of transition. Thankfully, humanity has had this kind of challenge before, and as such, dealing with chaotic periods of history is as old as antiquity. An excellent example of meeting such a tremendous challenge can be seen in the book of Ecclesiastes. As ancient inspired wisdom, it’s prophetic prosody for today’s times is worth serious consideration:
For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose beneath the heavens:
A time to be born and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot;
A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to breach and a time to build;
A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to lament and a time to dance;
A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek and a time to discard; A time to rend and a time to sew;
A time to be silent and a time to speak; A time of love and a time to hate;
A time of war and a time of peace.
How can you not be moved by such prose, tapping the vicissitudes of our human condition? When reading, it seems that King Solomon is saying that the juxtaposed emotional states occur at different times. We would be wise to consider that the human condition also encounters and holds opposites-at the same time.
Perhaps by not recognizing that we hold multiple, competing realities, we can also become drained. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
But how can one hold and evolve when faced with seemingly opposing realities? How does one not get engulfed in depressive dystopia while staying connected to the world’s not-so-happy state of affairs?
It is all too easy to be pulled into a downward direction without a meaningful response to the hefty challenges of our times. We are set-up for the easy cynical, or perhaps even worse – numbing indifference, the reaction by the barrage of social media, 24-hour news cycles, and having systems thrust upon us which feel outside of our aegis.
So, what is a good person like yourself reading this to do? How are we to respond to such a call? A little known, but extremely wise, set of guidelines for life can be found in the seemingly whimsical but life-affirming Paradoxical Commandments by Dr. Kent Keith. In 1968, at age 19, he put out a booklet to develop good high school student leaders. To me, he ended up drafting guidelines and maxims for a meaningful and fulfilling life. While King Solomon laid out the challenging realities of life, Dr. Keith encourages movement, either within one’s inner intentions or outer actions.
These seemingly simple adages are even more meaningful today as they help us maintain our dignity and encourage a prosocial response. Let’s hold onto the better nature of ourselves despite the strong forces encouraging us to yield to the divisiveness of fear, inequity, and aggression. But, dear reader, please decide for yourself and act accordingly.
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
As Oscar Wilde said, “The best revenge is to live well.” See you all on the other side.