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Angela Tilby: Lockdown is a kind of grief

22 January 2021


ACCIDIE is the name that our Christian forebears gave to what many of us are suffering from at the moment. A listless boredom, a sense of confinement which seems both pressured and without boundaries, a depression of spirit as we contemplate a seemingly endless horizon of more of the same.

This is not everyone’s experience of lockdown, of course. For key workers, police, medical staff, and supermarket and delivery workers, life has got more intense, with a much greater burden of anxiety and uncertainty. But the pressures on them make those of us who are now having to stay at home feel more guilty, as well grateful. We grieve for the time when we could contribute something positive. The condition of accidie is well described by the fourth-century ascetic Evagrius of Pontus, whom I first wrote about in a book about the history of the Deadly Sins.

Evagrius distinguishes two nega­t­ive spiritual states, which became the ingredients of accidie. Writing in Greek, he uses the word lupe, grief, a sadness for what is no more, often punctuated by outbursts of anger. He also speaks of acedia, neglect, the sin of sloth. Later generations recog­nised sloth, but hesitated about Evagrius’s insistence that certain kinds of grief were sinful. So they suppressed lupe as a distinct sin, while incorporating something of “sadness” into their understanding of acedia, or accidie.

In his original description of lupe, Evagrius had spoken of “sadness . . . because of the deprivation of one’s desires”. I wasn’t sure what this meant when I originally wrote about it, but I feel that I do now. Deprivation of desire is exactly what lockdown sadness feels like. I have in some sense lost agency: that unthinking ability to plan and to do. Life has shrivelled.

Evagrius was aware that, in such circumstances, our temptation is to indulge in a gloomy kind of nostalgia, which leaves us feeling even more helpless and humiliated. The loss also leaves us angry: found yourself shouting at inconsiderate cyclists and joggers on your daily walk recently? Contemporary thinking medicalises accidie and links it to depression, but Evagrius’s suggestion that what we are experiencing is a kind of grief speaks powerfully to me.

The danger for us all is that grief becomes grievance: a conviction that the lockdown is evidence that we are being wronged — by each other, by the Government, by the Church, by those who won’t wear masks, or by those who do. So, we are hyper-vigilant and extra-judgemental, punching outwards to conceal the sadness within.

To help with the temptations that beset us, Evagrius recommends 76 Bible verses to help deal with lupe, and 57 to help with sloth. These are listed in his Antirhettikos, which means “How to answer back”. Sometimes, the critical spiritual battleground is within.

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