The Midday Demons of Staying Put

A little over two years ago I made the following bold claim on this site:

I’m staying put. I’m here now and not going anywhere. If I move out of my current neighbourhood and into another one, I’m going to stay there for the rest of my life. I’m committed.

It was (and is) a bold statement, one that many thought meant I should be committed. And yet, Jaclyn and I moved ourselves from Winnipeg’s West End to its North End where, for better and worse, we plan to stick around.[ref]Whether that’s where we currently live at Flatlanders or elsewhere in the neighbourhood.[/ref] I even now have trouble adding for the rest of our lives to the end of the preceding sentence. Some boldness.

But today I picked up Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability, which spoke to just this reticence to want to stay put now that I’m where I said I’d stay. Wilson-Hartgrove draws from the long tradition of monastic wisdom via the account of John Cassian, a young man who went to study with the renowned desert fathers:

The abbas told him the truth about stability’s challenges, describing the “noonday devil” who attacks after one commits to stay and begins to feel the heat of high noon. Writing about what he heard, Cassian described acedia—literally, a lack of care—as a spiritual malady that is “akin to sadness and is the peculiar and frequent foe of those dwelling in the desert.”…

When the joy of morning wore off in the desert, the hard part about staying was that it got boring. And hot. With the sense of adventure gone, Cassian reported, new temptations set in, making the monk “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his cell, and also disdainful and contemptuous of the brothers who live with him or at a slight distance, as being careless and unspiritual.” Unhappy in the place where they were, desert monastics were tempted to give up, to think they were not up to the task, or to wonder if they might not be of better service to God elsewhere. Once acedia set in, putting down roots of love seemed impossible.

In a hyper mobile culture where we are always on the go, we who hear the call to stay might imagine ourselves as a type of spiritual athlete, not unlike the desert monastics who aimed to do combat on the cosmic front lines. If our analysis has any truth to it, staying is indeed a defiant act of resistance against the spirit of the age. But standing against the seas of constant change also means acknowledging that stability is a practice fraught with contradictions and tensions, making us susceptible to temptations we would not otherwise have occasion to know. (108-9)

I can restlessly attest to this. Wilson-Hartgrove names spiritual boredom and ambition as the two types of midday demons that beset those who commit to stay. I feel both acutely. I feel like he’s reading my thoughts when he writes about the latter:

The tension between fidelity and ambition is evident in the decisions we all make about our own personal development. Even if we’re committed to stick with people in the place where we are, ambition tempts us to invest our best energy in something more exciting than the daily tasks of cooking meals, cleaning the church, taking care of children, doing the laundry, planning a block party, or keeping the books. At the end of a long day, an activity as banal as Web surfing can seem more exciting than conversation with a friend or neighbour. (105)

I face this tension currently. I live in an intentional community where I’ve committed to working less[ref]I aim to work around 30 hours a week at Soma Design[/ref] in order to make myself available to my community. The limit chafes. My web design business has taken off and I could otherwise take on a lot more work and possibly even become a name or something. There is obviously some minimum amount that I must work in order to serve my clients well, but where the line lies between serving my clients and serving my ambition eludes me.

I’m glad that I now have the language of midday demons to help me describe what I’m facing. I will stay, but I have battles to fight that I wouldn’t otherwise have to face, and I’m encouraged by the fact that others have faced—and named—these midday demons before me.

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