A Reflection on Restlessness
Friday, 1st May 2020
Westminster has changed. I am living in a changed environment. Shops and offices are shut. Parks may be full, but the city pavements are deserted. Suddenly, it is easy to cross the road. Indeed, there have been so few cars that London looks crisper and more defined, in clearer air. If you live here, the streets still seem quiet, but we are told that traffic is increasing. It seems that London is not just thinking about getting back to work, it is beginning to go back to work. There is a growing restlessness, even a resentment, about our life in lockdown.
I feel this restlessness and struggle with it. I live a very privileged life in a very privileged place, but even here, the days can feel claustrophobic and there is an oppressive lack of opportunity and possibility. I want to do things I cannot do. I want to do some of them with an urgency I would never normally feel. Worse still, I begin to feel that I cannot really do what I am supposed to do, nor be what I am supposed to be, under all this constraint. I am sure I could be so much more effective than this.
What I feel is familiar. I have been here before, at other times when I have felt as though I have regretted a bad choice, or got myself locked into routines that I cannot abide. What I feel is familiar not just to me, but to many other people. It is so familiar that, in Christian tradition, it has a name. This is accidie or akedia. Essentially, that is a posh, theological term for boredom, the kind of boredom that makes you feel you have to do something else and be somewhere else. If only I could be there, not here; if only I could be doing that, not this, I would be happy and I would be successful.
This was a feeling that was deeply familiar to the earliest monks, the people sometimes called the Desert Fathers. Retreating deep into solitude in order to pray better, some of them were driven nearly to distraction by the feeling that, if only they could be somewhere else, they would achieve that perfect prayer. They thought a good deal about this temptation, about akedia. They agreed that moving on actually solves nothing. Running away, they discovered that the anguish only ran ahead of them and waited for them, wherever they arrived. Rowan Williams recounts the story of one of these monks who was much troubled by anger
He said within himself, ‘I will go and live apart alone. If I have nothing to do with anyone else, my anger will cease. So he went away and lived in solitude in a cave. One day when had filled his jug with water, he put it on the ground, and it fell over. He picked it up and filled it again, and it fell over again. He filled it a third time and put it down, and it fell over again. He was furious and picked it up and threw it at the wall. And he recognised that he had been deceived by the enemy.
Some of us now, would dearly love to be spared the anguish we face because we do have to go to work. Some of us face anguish because we cannot work. We fight different battles, and some of them are very hard. For all of us though, simply doing the next thing is perhaps the greatest battle. There is not much that I can do to make that easier for you or even for myself. We can all acknowledge though, that this next moment is the one that matters, the next moment is the one in which God is present and will meet us. It is in this next thing that salvation lies. We will find it nowhere else.