March 6, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Doom is a virus

It saps the will when you need it most, writes Rev. Daniel Schultz.

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Editor’s note: This essay, sent to Editorial Board subscribers only, will appear in a forthcoming edition of Dan’s newsletter, Dandadad. –JS

Solutions for contemporary problems sometimes come from unexpected places. In the fourth century AD, the early Christian monastic Evagrius Ponticus wrote about acedia, a state of restless futility. The “Noonday Demon,” as he called it, convinced his brother monks their day was “fifty hours long” and hard work not worth the toil. You may know the idea better as “sloth,” one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Evagrius’ writings were the source of that tradition, in a much-garbled form.

Evagrius’ problems may seem remote, but acedia is still with us. Think about the kind of despair often seen in politics. DOOM, I like to call it.

DOOM is the notion that the game is lost already, and the future looks bleak. In its more conspiratorial versions, it holds that the fix is in. “They” have won. It’s very much an all-or-nothing style of thinking: If the revolution has not achieved all its goals, we are DOOMED.

Giving up in the face of reality is an option. So is working hard against the evils we deplore before or after the polls close.

DOOM is most often experienced by terminally online types, people who should disengage once in a while. But it pops up offline on the left and the right as well. You hear it in cynical rants about politicians and the unresponsiveness of government. As you might suspect, it comes from all-too-common feelings of frustration and alienation.

DOOM is experiencing a surge on the left these days. Joe Biden continues to struggle in (as-yet unpredictive) polls. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot disqualify Donald Trump from their ballots on the grounds of insurrection. More than a few fret about a second Trump administration, and for good reason.

It’s tempting to throw up our hands, declare democracy already dead in the United States, and head out for fairer pastures. I get it. But we shouldn’t. Let me explain why, without resorting to cheerleading.

DOOM spreads easily: Our brains are tuned to the negative, hyperalert to threat, focused on the evil that may befall us. Expressions of despair and maximal cynicism are quickly picked up and transmitted. The disease vectors of social media make sure of that.

Those expressions may reflect nothing more than a passing vexation. They may stem from very real insight into just how long the road ahead will be. In some cases, they’re marketing slogans for people who make a living grandstanding for the nervous and the clueless.

Whatever the origins, they sap the will of those who hear them, at the very moment of greatest need. The first step to authoritarian victory is to convince people that the authoritarian cannot be defeated.

Much like William S. Burroughs’ idea that language is a virus, DOOM is “a control system, a set of precepts by which we are programmed, inculcated, into a particular relationship with, or take on, the world.”

It’s possible to manipulate the language of despair for use as a control system. In a remarkable thread, DC Petterson explains how trigger words like “babies in cages” or “genocide” are used to derail productive conversation and sow chaos in those opposed to certain policies.

The ploy also works for cynicism. Accusations of naiveté often meet considered attempts to push back on the idea that systems are corrupt and failing, for example. And so, every time Trump’s opponents cry, “We are DOOMED, we are so SCREWED,” Russia’s Vladimir Putin smiles. Despair and endless wrangling work equally well for him.

DOOM programs us to believe that history is pre-determined, that nothing new can challenge or escape autocracy’s seeming inevitability. That belief is a parasite replicating at astonishing speed in perilous times. It is a cancer on civic discourse.

Make no mistake, we are in perilous times. An authoritarian is scrambling to reclaim the White House to evade accountability for his past crimes and inflict punishment on his enemies. Institutions seem ill-equipped to deal with the threat. And half the nation, more or less, seems willing to vote such a person back into office.

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But we have been here before. We have always been here. America is a nation founded on high-minded ideals of liberty as well as low-life practices of oppression. We have been ruled by apartheid regimes in the past. The possibility of another is always present. So is the danger presented to the people such regimes oppress and to those who stand against the oppression.

Giving up in the face of this reality is an option. So is working hard against the evils we deplore before or after the polls close.

Whatever path we choose, it’s important to go into the fall with clear heads. We need to think fast and tap insight. It is no use to give ourselves up as DOOMED even before the contest begins in earnest.

Struggling with acedia prepares us “not for a fight itself, but rather for the contemplation of the fight,” according to Evagrius. Figuring out how to keep ourselves in the game helps us to understand what it will take to win other battles.

Evagrius’ counsel for how to do this is simple and practical: divide ourselves in two. “One part is to encourage; the other part is to be encouraged,” he says. “Thus we are to sow seeds of a firm hope in ourselves.” DOOM may be a virus, but so is its opposite. Hope is contagious, and it spreads through giving and receiving support.

So the next time somebody says how we’re all DOOMED and Trump is all but installed as dictator of the United States? Don’t argue. Don’t agree. Don’t offer an empty bit of positivity. Just say, “It’s a struggle. How you doing?” That’s how to defeat the Noonday Demon and keep doing what needs to be done.

Rev. Daniel Schultz is the Editorial Board's resident chaplain and a minister in Wisconsin. He writes the Dandadad newsletter. Follow him @pastordan.

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