A friend and colleague recently used this quote from Albert Einstein in an address to students about to graduate with a Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”
Einstein is said to have responded with these words to a distraught father whose young son had recently died. His words directed the father to turn his attention outward; to recognize that ALL persons are his closest and dearest relations, not just his son. It is a delusion, he states, to see yourself as separate from humanity. I am quite certain that this father experienced Einstein’s letter as a challenge, for the grief of a child’s death, one’s own child, overwhelms the soul. Einstein’s directive to experience all living creatures and the whole of nature as equally deserving of our affection seems reasonable to do in good times, but so difficult when facing such a horror.
Such grief is not everyday grief, at least not for most of us. All struggle with ordinary sadness, and some struggle with the torpor of acedia, the “noonday demon” depicted by ancient monks as the most troublesome of all evil thoughts. When in the mental state of acedia one experiences a state of not caring, a sense of disconnectedness from the world, an apathy about one’s own needs and the needs of others. Not quite depression, acedia saps spiritual joy from one’s demeanor, and leaves one in a downward spiral toward despair. In his Summa Theologica Aquinas defined acedia as “sorrow of the world…sorrow about spiritual good” that leads to a person’s flight from the Divine good. Acedia is in direct contrast to the spiritual joy of charity, of unconditional loving of our fellow man.
Ancient contemplatives knew this noonday demon well. The Desert Fathers lived in seclusion, often as solitary hermits, where the temptation to become restless, bored, unable to either work or pray, can become beguiling. Called to solitude in order to experience the living God, these ancient monks recognized that their prayer and meditation were in service of deepening their compassion for all human beings. They were not called to isolation; they were called to experience the universality of our communion. The greatest of these monks provided succor for the world, and left behind works of wisdom that demonstrate their profound connection to the Divine and to the world. But at its worst this life in the desert could easily provoke spiritual lassitude, the state of acedia that all contemplative masters warn of.
Many people in our modern society experience isolation. Though surrounded by means of communication that boggle one’s imagination, intimate human exchange is often cast aside in favor of the instantaneous rather than the emerging, the literal rather than the metaphorical, the cognitive rather than the affective, and the informative rather than the formative. I believe that we accept this isolation mindlessly, seeking the pleasures of stimulation offered in our online age rather than waiting and watching for the satisfaction that comes from true and deep intimacy. We are a restless people; we want more pleasure. Should we be shocked, therefore, at our glut of gluttony, our addiction to distraction, and our need for a quick fix to our inner knowing that something just isn’t right with us?
Einstein was right; we’re delusional. We believe we are separate from one another, and our information age reinforces this delusion with the illusions of connectedness it offers. So we suffer, and call it depression but perhaps it’s something else, perhaps it is actually acedia. This acedia is, in some ways, deeper than depression. It lingers, leading us to seek one stimulation after another, maybe in material goods, or in superficial relations, at times in the allure of casual sexuality, at other times in the pleasures of stimulating drugs and alcohol and the bright lights of the gambling hall, maybe to become fixated on the computer screen staring at images of light that divert our attention away from actual experiencing. We run to the psychiatrist for a pill, and maybe it relieves for a time. We seek out a therapist and hope for an answer, some wisdom that will make sense of it all. Self help books, gurus, meditation halls, far flung retreats that promise answers; we forget to look within to our simple need for human connectedness, then to look outside of ourselves and offer compassion to a suffering world. Einstein was right. Our salvation lies with the realization that the circle of compassion must be as wide as the universe. That we must strive to embrace all living creatures and nature in its beauty. And that we will fail, and it will hurt at times, but the striving itself is the liberation, and that with this striving comes the foundation for inner security.
If you believe you are depressed, and find that your depression leaves you listless, not caring for your own well being, cut off from humanity, take heart in Einstein’s words. Know that there is an answer for the delusion of separateness, for the spiritual isolation of acedia. Reach within to find the compassion that you have, however much or little, and then reach out and allow whatever compassion you are capable of feeling to be experienced by the people around you who suffer. In this you will find your relief. And it will be a relief that takes enormous effort, and may be more painful than you can imagine at first as it forces you to shake off all of your illusions about disconnectedness and you see how superficial you have become. But by finding deep connection, by coming to know that you are a part of the whole, not separate from the whole, all of your pain will make sense to you, and all of your suffering will begin to diminish. Seek compassion, and finding all, find the ALL.