The long months of the pandemic have not only been an unfamiliar experience for many, but have often created a profound feeling of weariness, lassitude, and lethargy for many, as well as a sense of sadness and irritability. As many of you know, I have an interest the root meaning of words. I came across a definition of lassitude as a condition characterized by lack of interest, energy, or spirit. The word itself has the same stem as the word “late,” which also relates to the sense of weariness, slowness, or sluggishness.
The word “lethargy” comes from ancient Greek and means inactive through forgetfulness. In Greek mythology, lethe was the river of forgetfulness, where one’s past life was lost to memory. And Plato spoke of knowledge as remembering. The word alethia, is literally, non-forgetting, and has evolved into its meaning as truth. It is similar to the word “revelation, which from its latin roots is the removal of a veil. As the song, Amazing Grace, voices it. “I once was blind but now I see.” It strikes me that when we hear something that strikes us as profoundly true, it is less a matter of discovering something new but of becoming aware of something we always some how knew but perhaps did not realize. One of the most gratifying moments in many years of teaching came when an adult student said to me. “You put into words what I always somehow knew but couldn’t say.”
In ancient Greece, too, a contrast was made between physical sight and spiritual insight. It was reflected in the legend that Homer to whom the authorship of The Iliad and The Odyssey are attributed, was blind. A blind poet sings of the journey of Odysseus, a blind seer warns Oedipus of the danger of uncovering a painful truth, and Oedipus himself becomes wise only after he is blinded. This thought is continued as well in the Shakespearian play, King Lear. Like Oedipus, Lear only realizes the meaning and importance of love after he is blinded.
We can also recall the essay on folk tales by G. K. Chesterton who says that we have often forgotten our name, forgotten who we are and the experience of wonder, evoked by the folk tales, can help us to remember our true self. Wayne Muller also speaks of the inner voice of our true self.
Neither my pain nor my confusion can stop the relentless companionship of this true and faithful voice. Something more vital, strong and true lies embedded deep within me. Sometimes I barely see it, can’t quite touch it. Then I experience a starry night, a forest after a rain, a loving embrace, a strain of sweet and perfect melody–and that is all it takes to remind me who I am: a spirit, alive, and whole. It helps me remember my nature, hear my name.
All these rambling thoughts come down to the idea that the lack of energy, the sadness, the irritability, and even perhaps the depression we may feel, can cause us to lose sight of, to forget who we truly are. Muller says that we must be careful how we name ourselves “If we believe we are a thief, we will act like a criminal. If we think we are fragile and broken, we will live a fragile, broken life. If we believe we are strong and wise, we will live with enthusiasm and courage. The way we name ourselves colours the way we live. … We must be careful how we name ourselves.”
What this means, in our perspective, is that deeper than all weariness and much else, there is our sacred self, a being of intrinsic worth, a value that remains, even when we cannot feel it. Whatever else in life happens that can push us toward forgetfulness or veil this conviction for us, it is essential to cling to this sense of worth, even as if to a life raft.
How do we do so? I find it a continuous struggle. Henri Nouwen whose vast writings on spirituality, were rooted in the conviction of the “belovedness’ of every human being, found this to be a lifelong struggle, one that involved a lengthy period of depression. Parker Palmer is an author from the Quaker tradition which hold that there is “that of God,” an inner light in every human being. Yet he also experienced three profound periods of clinical depression, which he wrote about in a book, Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey through Depression.
Certainly, speaking with a wise and caring counsellor can be helpful as can a limited dependence on medication where there is a chemical imbalance. Yet the hope that “this too will pass,” the recognition that this experience that this experience will pass can also be helpful. We may also recognize that we may for a time lack the energy required for activity, and allow ourselves for a time to be in that space. At the same time, solitude, friendship, and social involvement are certain ways of responding to a whole variety of different life situations.
Solitude is quiet time by oneself. Its simplest traditional expression is simply to attend to one’s breathing in its three movements of breathing in, pausing, and breathing out. It can also be helpful to read something that speaks to us. This is not a reading to devour information, but a more reflective process in which we let the words we read sink into our heart and soul.
Friendship can also be helpful: a friendship which is rooted in mutual trust and expressed in open conversation from the heart. It is a matter of mutual speaking and listening from the heart, the core or centre of who we are. Author Sam Keen writes: “Strange as it may seem, self-knowledge begins with self-revelation. We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.”
In addition, we grow as well through some activity of outreach in which we do something for others. Even small acts of kindness can count for a lot. So too can involvement in some kind of organization that deals with something in which we have a personal stake or interest, such as Amnesty International or Doctors without Borders. At the same time, as I learned from my brother Mike, the basic gift we have to offer is our presence, being there and being all there for one another. Upon that presence, but not replacing it, can be built the possibilities offered by our particular gifts and interests, as they are able to respond to the present situation and conditions in which our life is currently lived out.
May you find within yourself both acceptance and strength, and a continual recognition of your sacred worth, despite any persisting weariness. And may learn to extend your presence, wisdom, and caring in ever wider circles.
Norman King, March 20, 2022