Review: Time and Despondency, by Nicole Roccas

Nicole Roccas, Time and Despondency Regaining the Present in Faith and Life (Chesterton, Indiana: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2017, Kindle Edition).

I sometimes remind people that anything worth illustrating in life can be illustrated from an episode of M.A.S.H. In “The Interview,” a journalist asks Hawkeye if his experience of war has changed him in any way. “I may care about things more than I ever have before, because, uh there’s so much more to care about here,” he replies. He continues, “On the other hand, I really don’t give a [Beep] what happens.” That is “despondency.”

“It is the apparent futility of living and dying,” writes Nicole Roccas, “that more than any other factor, invites the apathy of despondency. Since we cannot exceed the temporal bounds God has set for our lives…why bother with anything?” Roccas lectures at the Orthdox School of Theology at Trinity College, Toronto. In addition, she writes and speaks for the Ancient Faith website (https://www.ancientfaith.com//) and works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Time and Despondency is, I believe, her first book.

For me, one of the long-term consequences of losing a loved one is a decrease in my emotional thermostat setting. While I suffer only periodic anhedonia, I find that I am emotionally engaged by fewer causes, events, relationships and tasks than was once the case. I have always been reserved in my responses. But my acedia has taken on a deeper and fuller hue in the last number of years.

As a lifelong acedic, I found the book helpful, insightful and, at times, eloquent. It includes substantial commentary on works by Evagrius of Pontus and Dumitru Staniloae on acedia, which Roccas and others translate as “despondency.” Her connection to and study of Eastern Orthodox theology and virtue ethics informs her work. Her mentions of the work of Alexander Schmemann and Kallistos Ware also deepen and broaden the discussion.

She describes despondency as a rejection of the present moment. It arises, she suggests, “from a relationship to time that has become broken.” The despondent heart seeks distraction in the past and present as ways to avoid the uncontrollable present. Despondency, she concludes, “amounts to no less than a perpetual attempt by the mind to flee from the present moment, to disregard the gift of God’s presence at each juncture of time and space.”

Downstream, I am sure I will discuss in detail more of her work, both in the book and from her gentle and careful podcast, Time and Eternity. For now, I am struck by the intersection between her writing and that of Brene Brown. It is worth wondering if the opposite of acedia is vulnerability. While that doesn’t cover the full range of each term, it will be worth exploring.

In any event, this is a worthwhile read for you, my fellow despondents. Be ready for stiff doses of Eastern Orthodox theology, history and spirituality. I find that to be an asset, but that may not be true for all. For me, the book gets a little slow in chapter four, but picks up again as Roccas describes prayerful ways to live into and through our acedia.

It’s not a big book, but it is worth going slowly. And it is also worth listening to her podcast (especially her Lenten series on despondency) for parallel discussion and some complementary emphases. I found it worth reading twice, and I’ll go back through it again.

Finding ways to care in careless world…

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