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When the Government is the Abuser

weekly message Aug 11, 2020

A few days ago, President Trump's new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy fired all of the top managers of the USPS in what is being called the Friday Night Massacre. DeJoy’s appointment was loudly criticized as part of a scheme to undermine the Postal Service as an institution. He has no prior experience with the USPS, except as a rival. DeJoy owns perhaps as much as $75 million in assets that are direct competitors with the Post Office, such as UPS. His appointment is viewed by many as a hit job. That is, he was hired to dismantle the USPS, not to make it stronger. The decision to gut the Postal Service of its leadership not only leaves it ineffective against private companies, it is also an attempt to sabotage this election, perhaps the most important election of our lifetimes, by making it incapable of dealing with the influx of absentee ballots people will cast this year due to COVID.

But DeJoy is only one in a long line of politicians who have been elected or appointed over the last several decades who cry out that government doesn't work while doing everything possible to break it. It is infuriating. It is unjust, hypocritical, duplicitous, corrupt. But it has become common. 

However, there is another part of what we are seeing that feels new. We are being intentionally worn out. We are living like a spouse in an abusive relationship. The constant barrage of negativity and harassment and violence drains us down and soon things that were formerly unacceptable become acceptable. And we find ourselves retreating from public life focusing on ever smaller circles of influence and caring because it just feels overwhelming when we look at the national news. 

Demoralization has become part of the strategy.

When the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the fourth century were exploring their spirituality, seeking to discover their true selves, they developed a framework called the Eighth Harmful Thoughts. For these monastics, all actions found their root in thinking and they discovered a very pernicious type of hopelessness that they called acedia, which literally translates as without caring or lack of caring. (a- lack, -cedia care). But acedia points to a weariness of the soul that allows us to look out on the world and feel so overwhelmed by the suffering we sigh and resign. It's different from the “not caring” of a sociopath. It is the “not caring” of the exhausted, the tired, the stressed, the worn-out.

Perhaps one reason I found the Friday Night Massacre so enraging is because I believe in the USPS. I have lived in other nations. I know how good the USPS is. I know how much better our lives are because of it. I know how well business runs because of it. And to see someone hired to deliberately wound it, and by extension wound us, just makes me mad. This is more than a money grab. It is part of a spiritual assault that is designed to leave us fatigued, isolated, doubtful, and hopeless so we come to accept our abuser’s behavior and ideology. It is an abusive training done to get us to believe that government is, indeed, bad and that we do not have a right to a shared common.

The Desert Ammas and Abbas refer to acedia as the Noonday Devil or the Noonday Demon because it struck them so often in the middle of the day just before afternoon prayers. It destroyed their desire to connect with God. It made them feel like the whole effort was pointless. And there is a certain parallel with this government in that so much of what they are doing is not hidden in the shadows, but done brazenly in the daylight. Our Noonday Demons are trying to destroy our desire to connect to one another and make the whole effort of a shared government seem pointless. And it has worked. Many of us now speak in nihilistic voices foretelling the end of the American experiment. 

And maybe it is. And maybe it should end. America has a lot of spilled blood to answer for. But I don't think it should end like this, with those who perpetrated those crimes, who spilled the blood, still holding the reins. 

But sometimes Jiminy Cricket, the little voice of conscience, chirps in my ear reminding me not to give up hope. And this weekend the voice came while rediscovering a short exchange between two desert fathers that I saved for inspiration. It goes:

Abba Lot seeking guidance from Abba Joseph asked, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Abba Joseph rose and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers were like ten lamps of fire as he responded: “If you will, you can become all flame.”

I love this story because it tells us, reminds us, that the solution to acedia is devotion or determination or zeal. Just when we find ourselves sinking down, losing our grasp on caring, we see that the solitary option is to care more.

I took a photo of these magenta flowers bursting forth from the sidewalk the other day. They were surrounded by pavement and weeds and when I saw them I was struck by their beauty and I heard the words “This is why I believe.” Those flowers pointed to the calling that lives in my heart, a calling coming from the sacred, from God, to try evermore to witness not to the isolation and cruelty but to the interconnection and courage. There is an intimacy to life that enlivens me, that turns me all aflame.

Our Noonday Demons are trying to steal this election, to steal the riches of this nation, and to steal our hope. And we need more than activism to save us. We need to neutralize the descending acedia by touching that part of ourselves that cares. By looking the demons in their eyes and saying “No matter what you do I am only going to care more.”

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