At Home With the Noonday Demon

The common misperception of religion as a crutch would have us believe that people are faithful because they want to escape the problems of the world and the realities of everyday life. But my faith tells me the importance of staying put.
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(Photo: njaj/Shutterstock)

(Photo: njaj/Shutterstock)

I was born into a family full of religious devotion, but the process of claiming it for myself was slower going until I realized just how much I needed it. As a girl, I thought adulthood meant I would one day simply feel at home. In my house, in the world, in myself, everywhere. Then I grew up, moved away, got married, and found myself as anxious and at sea as I had ever been. Perhaps even more so, because without my parents my faith was mine and mine alone, and I felt helpless to control my anxiety. Adulthood was not the freedom I had imagined but a steady sameness I struggled to contend with.

The Christian church fathers had a name for this type of powerlessness: acedia. It was also called “the noonday demon,” because while other demons would wait to roam under cover of night, this one would strike in the harsh light of day.

I convince myself I will escape this demon only by finding something new or fleeing into the past.

I have always been an anxious person. My anxiety frequently blossoms at the intersection of uncertainty and powerlessness. I am afraid of the future and am often convinced I cannot affect change in my own life—this is a form of acedia. When I have these anxieties, I fear I can never feel at home. Managing my anxiety has been a lifelong endeavor.

I have made a home festooned with soft pillows and blankets, yet I am not at ease in my home. It embarrasses and confuses me to recognize that I feel more at home with my parents than I do with my husband.

I am a generalist, one who favors the vague over the specific. If I can be known quite well but not deeply enough—if I can know the world quite well but not deeply enough—I can avoid the pain that often comes with intimacy. Roots are twisting things, and I’ve always preferred straight lines. Easier for extraction.

The summer after high school I went for the first time to see a therapist. Her name was Marylu, and her office was in a series of buildings meant to resemble colonial Williamsburg. She had rows of the same book on one bookshelf: After God’s Own Heart. The cover was of a man in a white linen shirt looking free in a particularly evangelical way. His back was to the reader, hands in the air in a gesture of spontaneous praise, head thrown back so his forehead was almost visible. I had seen people like this before, in the church my family attended, and where my parents worked. Willow Creek Community Church, a large set of buildings often mistaken for a college campus, was my second home. And yet I sometimes felt out of place. Even before I could really articulate the thought, I was suspicious of the emotional nature of the well-staged dramas, no matter how innocent. I was suspicious of banging drums, heart-rending piano melodies, and a song’s crescendo.

Marylu handed the book to me (given the number of copies on her shelves, it seems safe to figure she gave one to all her patients). But I had suspected that what I needed from therapy wasn’t just to follow God’s own heart more. I needed grounding, freedom from anxiety, help with my fear. The book felt like a cliché; I never did read it.

The fourth or fifth time I saw Marylu—and the last, due to our move West—she pulled out a piece of paper and began to draw.

This, she said, pointing to a rectangle, is your dock. She told me that everybody had one; that the dock was the place to call home. She pointed to the square above. A small house. She then explained that my dock could be many different things. It could be a place or a feeling or a group of people. It could be a combination of all of that. It is whatever makes home, home for me, she added.

She pointed one long, silver-ringed finger at something in the shape of a triangle in the diagram, and told me that it was a boat. My boat. She explained that when you are young, you remain tied to your dock at all times. Your parents care for you, feed you, clothe you, put you to sleep. As you get older, you might take little forays into the world—a trip here, a trip there, testing the waters. But you always return to your dock.

I am a generalist, one who favors the vague over the specific. If I can be known quite well but not deeply enough—if I can know the world quite well but not deeply enough—I can avoid the pain that often comes with intimacy.

I remember her saying to me, “Now, you are sailing away from your dock to go to college. And at the same time that you are launching off, your dock is leaving. It won’t be where it used to be. If you try to find your way back, you will get lost.” In the moment I felt shaken by the truth of what I was hearing. It made sense. I was a boat that no longer had a place to tie up.

The common misperception of religion as a crutch would have us believe that people are faithful because they want to escape the problems of the world and the realities of everyday life. But my faith tells me the importance of staying put. In one way it asks me to grow roots, but in another it is nothing deeper than what the words stay: Stay put. Sit with the worries and fears and discomfort. Recognize it as a part of you and of the world. Recognize you can’t run from it, as much as you want to.

When I am anxious, I am filled with a powerful wanderlust that makes leaving home so tempting and makes it seem like travel will allow me to escape my churning mind. I hold the lesson of my faith in one hand and my desire to bolt in the other. I try to make sense of them. My discomfort surfaces when I have to navigate the world of adulthood for too long. Maybe I should go somewhere so utterly familiar that it does not challenge me, or else somewhere so new that it jolts me out of myself.

There’s an old hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, with these lyrics: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” When I get tired and the inspiration to travel—to plan another trip, to look impatiently forward to what is next on the calendar, to move out of the present moment—strikes up (and partly I blame that on God for making the world such a very interesting place to explore) that lyric “prone to wander” hits me hard. I find myself thinking that maybe running away is like leaving God. Sometimes I want to run backward, back to a deeper set of roots I did not put down myself, back to my parents’ house where everything is easy and safe. And this, I think, is maybe like leaving God too.

Even though I have a place to tie up now, a home I with a husband that we have filled with material comforts, at heart I am still that boat. When I wander now, it is because I am uncomfortable.

In his book Home: A Short History of an Idea, Witold Rybczynski writes about the word “comfort.” “Comfort” had no physical connotations but means instead a sense of solace: “We use it this way when we say, ‘He was a comfort to his mother in his old age.’” Rybczynski notes that Christians would refer to the Holy Spirit as “the ‘Comforter.’” In my more anxious moments, I seek comfort in the material world, whether in a new environment or in the overstuffed-chair, fluffy-duvet, cashmere-sweater kind of contemporary comfort. I have made a home festooned with soft pillows and blankets, yet I am not at ease in my home. It embarrasses and confuses me to recognize that I feel more at home with my parents than I do with my husband.

I realize this feeling is borne out of the sense of powerlessness; a sense of wanting someone else to take care of me rather than wanting to be and to have an equal partner. My Christianity wants me to seek comfort in the Holy Spirit that I carry within me. My faith wants me to stay grounded; to have the sameness of my days transformed into a quiet steadiness. And through it, I’m starting to understand that a mind prone to upheaval needs a calming sense of familiarity and routine, and the more I run from it, the more anxiety rocks my little boat.

I have learned about faith—about my faith especially—that running away was not a way of seeing the world or being close to my family. In the book of Isaiah, the prophet talks of a time when God's peace will reign. "My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest." Instead of running, I am trying to use my religion as a way that I can finally, properly inhabit it. Secure, and at home.

The Weekend Essay is a Saturday series edited by Leah Reich.

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