James Hollis : The experience of "desuetude"

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Extract from:

James Hollis

Swamplands of the Soul : New Life in Dismal Places

(1996)




Chapter 4


Desuetude: The Dispirited Kingdom



"When we are depressed we may say we are dispirited; we have lost the energy for the journey. As we saw above, the energy is still there, but has sunk to the bottom of the well. Desuetude is the experience of being dispirited, of lacking the energy to traverse the wasteland. Listless, joyless, adrift in anomie who has not dwelt in such an arid place, periodically, or sometimes for years ?


Etymologically, the word "desuetude" means "to grow out of the habit of using." A thousand things may drain off the psychic energy necessary for life: physical illness, the thousand natural shocks which flesh is heir to, fatigue, and of course the effect of complexes that siphon off energy from consciousness. We watch dreams and symptomatology to find where the energy is and where it wants to go, the Tao of the moment, so we can track the missing energy.


In the language of the Middle Ages, we all suffer occasionally from acedia, spiritual torpor, which was called "the monk's disease." The soul, according to medieval physiology, is moist, and when it is dry one suffers an aridity of the spirit, a wasteland of the psyche. Probably the astringent lifestyle of the monks, the enforced pieties, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, not to mention the drab environs, led to a diminishment of the spirit not unlike that which any of us would suffer were we imprisoned.


As Max Piper said,


"the essence of acedia is the refusal to acquiesce in one's own being."

To give up one's uniqueness, to sacrifice the personal journey, no matter how normative the superego demands and institutional reinforcements, is to wound the soul. The diminishment of spirits is a concomitant result.


The kindred experience to acedia is ennui. Whenever the psyche is channeled, over the long haul, against its autonomous desire, or is obliged to service some value alien to it, ennui will result. Much of modern work is repetitious and constrained within artificial environs. Even professionals are strained through the narrow screens of occupational training, which often cares little for the worth and variety of individual souls.


In fact, one could say that the more successful one's outer life, the more rewarded by society, the more likely one may be trapped by that success, a prisoner of constantly escalating obligations and expectations. Such success can greatly constrict the soul. Ennui, a most unwelcome visitor, will frequently visit us as we suffer a progressive withdrawal of enthusiasm for our work, a desuetude of desire. Charles Caleb Colton observes,


"Ennui has made more gamblers than avarice, more drunkards than thirst, and perhaps as many suicides as despair."

It is in the mythological warp and weft of our age that we are expected to produce more and more, faster and faster, and that we are defined mainly by our observable productivity. Nothing in our time, no sexual scandal, no financial ruin, no lapse in taste, can equal the shaming power of feeling unproductive. We are obliged to repeat ourselves, like successful actors who are typecast, constrained to one role by the public's expectations. More and more, faster and faster, but alas, as Jean Paul Richter noted,


"For no one does life drag more disagreeably than for those who try to speed it up."

For our distant ancestors time was a vast colonnade of moments whose corners one could explore at leisure. For us, time is insufficient to the many demands on us. From the freneticism of success, from the obsessive compulsivity of expectations, we suffer ennui and that enervation of the soul we call desuetude.


As with the other swampland states, a psychological task emerges. Life provides us with energy sufficient to the journey. Admittedly, much of it is drained off into pursuits necessary to survival, but when we suffer desuetude we must acknowledge that we have been running against our own grain. Life may be simpler than we in the industrialized nations suppose. Two autonomous acts of psyche are available to us, the feeling function and the flow of energy. These twin resources are infallible guides as to how to live our lives. Any child, any peasant, knows this, of course, but most of us have forgotten.


The feeling function tells us whether something is right for us or not. Unfortunately, many of us have long ago lost contact with this resource and even deliberately override its directives in order to be productive. We do not choose feelings; feelings are autonomous, qualitative analyses of our life. We can only choose to make those feelings conscious, and

then decide whether or not to act on them.


Similarly, the ebb and flow of energy, which is a natural function of our mortal state, nonetheless is a vital guide to whether the choices we are making are right for us. If what we are doing is right, the energy is available. Too often we are obliged to channel our feelings and our energy into a soulless task. We learn to do this because we are rewarded for it and would feel shame if we stopped.


Yet in the experience of desuetude, in the collusion with soullessness, the task of consciousness vibrates. Jung's question haunts us all what task is this person avoiding? In most cases, we are avoiding responsibility for our lives. In childhood we learn, overlearn, our powerlessness; we internalize authority figures and societal norms and later, as adult worker ants, serve them slavishly. To run counter to them causes us inauthentic guilt and anxiety. But the experience of desuetude, getting out of the habit of using our energy to serve the soul, leads us further and further away from our authentic selves.


Only by faithfully observing our loss of energy can we track it to its split-off place. Lost energy is retrievable. If we choose to serve the soul, the energy comes back and then serves us. The responsibility of choosing to live the life we are called to, with all its practical

exigencies and commitments to others, remains ours.


Desuetude is a protest of the soul which autonomously removes energy from us because it does not approve of how ego is investing it. Such a powerful statement from the unconscious may be ignored, but then we may expect our symptoms to intensify. The soul will not be mocked. Its rumblings, however unwelcome, are really friendly warnings to change our lives. When we attend to that task, the energy returns."



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