It is spreading more quickly and widely than ever before, especially among those who are plugged into the endless cycles of news streaming from all our various devices and screens. It is possible to pick up this bug even if you haven’t had any actual physical contact with anyone in weeks.
I picked it up few weeks ago, and it has gotten much, much worse in the past week, although I didn’t realize at the time that I had it and I certainly didn’t know the name of it then.
What is this mystery contagion? Anesthesia Dolorosa.
Bill Banta spotted my symptoms during a virtual happy hour a few weeks ago with Fred Lyon and Don Frampton. The three of us (hunkered down in our isolated lairs) were subjecting the world to analysis when Bill said something to the effect that he felt more optimistic than I appear.
Now, Bill is not one of nature’s Eeyores, by any measure, nor a Tigger is he. I’ve always found him to be among the more sensible balanced animals of the forest, and the more he talked, the more I realized he was right. My glass was neither half full nor half empty, it was brimming with pessimism. But it would be awhile before I discovered the name of the malady from which I was suffering and before I found myself on the road to recovery.
The discovery occurred while I was reading Alex Halberstadt’s gripping memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union, emigrating as a child to America, becoming a writer for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Paris Review, among other publications, and (here’s the stinger) discovering that his paternal grandfather had served as a personal bodyguard for Joseph Stalin, a torturer and a murderer of political enemies (real and imaginary).
In the course of telling his story, Halberstadt takes us into the Soviet mind as it was in those days prior to Glasnost. It was a time when an entire society tried to make itself believe the lies they were told day-in and day-out (though they knew them to be lies) because a single slip of the tongue, a single expression of dissatisfaction, a single admiring remark about the Liberal Democracies of the West, might cost you your job, your apartment, your family, your freedom, or your life.
It is in this larger context, and during the more intimate crisis in his parents’ marriage that would lead to divorce, that Halberstadt describes the symptoms of a mindset that can become a worldview. He writes: “My mother said that in those years she developed what Soviet [psychological] diagnostic manuals termed ‘anesthesia dolorosa” — a sensation of looking at the world through a pane of dirty glass.”*
Immediately upon receiving my diagnosis (thanks, Bill!), I embarked on a treatment.
For the next several days, I immersed myself in all the beauty and wonder of nature, dug in the dirt, planted new flowers to attract bees, butterflies and humming birds, sat in the garden early in the morning and late in the evening, listened to music, and listened to the silence. Debbie and I would sit in the garden so quietly that the birds and squirrels treated us as neighbors. I became so good a doing nothing that I didn’t want to stop doing it. Still don’t. I began to notice again the things I had forgotten I had noticed. I fell utterly in love with the top of a live oak a street away from our house (there’s not a straight line in the top of that tree), and learned to laugh again listening to a very immature mockingbird trying to learn his song. I prayed short prayers when the mood hit me. Meditated for long periods of time. And, as the boy in the pigsty said, “I came to myself.”
Gradually the grime on the window pane disappeared. It was on the inside of the glass all along and it came right off with a little vinegar and elbow grease.
Once I cleaned off the grime of the glass, my mental and moral paralysis cleared right up too. That’s the ironic thing about this malady. It makes you immobile in the face of the challenges facing us.
Aware that you can’t fix everything, you decide you can fix nothing. Aware that you may face criticism for what you do, you do nothing.
But once we see the world again, as wonderful and beautiful and worth our effort, once we see people around us again not as dim figures moving through the fog, but as neighbors, we can participate in what God is up to in creation to heal and restore it, to redeem and reconcile humankind.
St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church
*Alex Halberstadt, “Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning,” (New York, 2020), p. 192.