Acedia and Me

It’s Thursday morning and I’m at the kitchen table in my pajamas, eating cereal and trying to ignore Zulu, who is sitting silently by my side and staring up at me with big brown eyes. Occasionally he’ll lie down without being asked and wag his tail, just to show me what a good boy he is and how much he deserves a treat.

I told Mike last night that I sometimes feel guilty when I eat in front of Zulu without sharing because he so obviously longs for what’s in my bowl and I know I could make him so happy (for at least the half second it took him to gulp it down) by giving him some. Mike told me I had boundary issues.

So this morning I’ve read the letters in all four email accounts, perused my google reader, checked facebook, skimmed the news, glanced at Twitter, and now I’m stuck.

What I should be doing is going upstairs, taking a shower, and then getting down to work on the trauma chapter I’m slated to be writing this week for a university in London. Or writing a thought-provoking blog, or even a fun and frothy blog along the lines of, “ten ways owning a puppy has helped prepare me for motherhood”. Or doing one of any number of other productive things, like pregnancy yoga, with my pajama-clad self.

But I’m in one of those moods. The only thing I really want to do right now is bake giant ginger molasses cookies. Except there are a couple of large red stop signs standing between me and executing this want – most notably the fact that there is probably no molasses within a 500 mile radius of me, closely followed by the fact that we do not have an oven.

Given that, I just want to go back to bed and keep reading the book I started last night. But even that plan is not sounding all that enticing.

“Maybe you have acedia,” Mike said last night after I’d kept him up past his bedtime, tossing and turning and sighing and admitting that I was in a woeful mood and had no idea why.

“Maybe I have pregnancy,” I huffed. “Maybe I’ve been waking up half a dozen times a night because my bladder is now the size of a lima bean, and there are mosquitoes in here, and someone snores.”

“That too,” Mike said, clearly hopeful that if he appeased me I would let him go to sleep before midnight.

But I’ve been thinking about this issue of acedia again this morning, and of a book I read a couple of years ago – Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris.

I heard Kathleen speak several years ago at a writer’s conference and immediately put this book on my “to be bought” list. When it arrived I read it with highlighter in hand, and today when I flipped through it again the book was full of colour. Acedia is definitely something I’ve struggled with at times, and even if the root cause of my problems at the moment are primarily pregnancy hormones and disrupted sleep, the mood it’s engendering certainly looks something like acedia.

So what is acedia?

Acedia was originally a monastic term, one of the “eight bad thoughts” that plagued monks. The monks often referred to acedia as the noonday demon – a great lethargy, restlessness, and animosity that beset the monks during their afternoon prayers. Over the centuries, however, some of the subtlety of the monk’s conception of these eight bad thoughts as temptations that an individual may identify and resist before they turned into harmful actions was lost. The eight bad thoughts became the seven deadly sins, and acedia was subsumed within sloth.

At its Greek root the word means “absence of care.” Someone afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. Norris puts it this way. “I suspect that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plague us today are the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. When we look at acedia’s root meaning, as not caring, we can see it as a social problem, and perceive that the sloth it engenders is anything but an insignificant physical laziness. It may even manifest as hyper-activity, but it is more like the activity of a hamster on a treadmill than action that will enhance the common good.”

Norris writes that, for her, acedia manifests first as a series of thoughts that tempt her from her work. These thoughts tell her it’s not worth it, or too much effort, or to take a break and do something more fun. If she indulges that voice for too long, she says, she can then start to grow weary with the repetition involved in daily routines of life such as showering, shopping, and cooking. She slips into states she calls “both anxious and lethargic” in which she can trudge through several paperback novels a day for days on end – not so much reading the books as consuming them. She complains of having so many leisure choices that she grows indifferent to them, even as she hungers for still more novelty.

Does this ring a bell for anyone but me?

Next time we’ll look at Norris’ thoughts on battling acedia.

Have you ever heard the word acedia before? Do you ever struggle with it? What do you tend to do when it strikes? And what do you think of the quote below?

“If the church has made too much of the sin of pride, which seduces us into thinking too highly of ourselves, it has not made enough of the sin of sloth, which allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as society.”

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12 responses to “Acedia and Me

  1. A resounding yes! Acedia was a word I was so grateful for learning once I came across Norris’ work that I almost considered naming a future daughter Acedia ( it has such a beautiful sound)… but obviously, its significance is something I would never wish on anyone I loved, or anyone period. But the thought that it sounds so beautiful got me thinking….. I hate to romanticize suffering but there isn’t there something of a gift in this kind of affliction? “Sloth’ is not something that we chose knowingly, but once it descends on us isn’t there information in its occurrence? If we take the time to investigate, and really sit with whatever we are feeling, is there not something to be learned? What are we avoiding? or what needs attention?
    One thing I know for sure is that the last thing one needs when afflicted with Acedia is to pile guilt and resistance on top of it…. this only grantees we will prolong it. One of the best books I have ever read on this (and the related topic of Depression) is named after Acedia… check it out on http://www.noondaydemon.com/ the first line is as lyrical and profound as the rest of the book: “Depression is the flaw in Love”. ….. you will never finds reading about depression so uplifting, I promise you.
    XOXOX
    Renee

  2. Never heard the word before today. But, to be honest, something about it (at least what I got from it here) makes me uncomfortable. Clearly, I don’t have a good grasp on the concept yet . . . but the idea that one should not grow weary of daily routines like shopping, showering, cooking kind of rubs me the wrong way. I mean, I think it’s ok that cooking dinner every night is not fulfilling and stimulating for me. I think we are all looking for something that sustains us and is meaningful to us (and hopefully impacts the greater good) which I think is part of this acedia thing somehow (and which I totally resonate with) . . . but I think the completeness of the concept is escaping me. I’ll have to do more reading. 🙂

    • I’ve read the book once and skimmed it a second time and heard Norris speak and I’m not sure I have a good grasp on the concept either, to be honest. The book is full of scratchings because a lot of what she wrote resonated with my own experiences (or echoes and hints of my own experiences), but I’m not sure I even have a good enough handle on it to address what I think you’re talking about here – but I’ll give it a go. What I think Norris is saying is not that we should find cooking dinner every night so meaningful that we are inherently fulfilled by the activity and set our other dreams and aspirations aside. I think she’s saying that we should try hard not to feel that cooking dinner, washing dishes, etc is always wasted time. She talks about these routines and daily chores grounding her and giving her space to practice intentional awareness in the moment and also to rest and stretch her creativity in new ways. She talks about the value of daily walking and washing dishes and making bread for her in the creative sense – as engaging her in different ways than writing, which she would say is her vocation….

      … And now I’m procrastinating because I have to write the next post and I’m not sure what’s going to go in it. I hate blank pages. Still.

  3. Well, I haven’t heard of the word “acedia.” But I am most familiar with it. Unfortunately. Commitment phobia? Yup, got that. Restless boredom? Yup, that too. Frantic escapism could probably be tossed in the mix. I seem to have luckily missed the enervating despair, though.

    I’m not sure what else to say, except that I should get off my computer and stop procrastinating on all that textbook reading. And stop floating around the internet in acedic (is that a word?) circles. It’s not that I don’t have interesting or important things to do. I do; I just don’t do them.

    (I’m looking forward to the next post.)

    • I’m looking forward to the next post too. Sigh. I’m about to sit down and start working on it now, and have no idea yet what I’ll end up saying. Happy textbook reading.

  4. Wow.
    I’ve never heard of this before, but as soon as you described it, my brain started moving in slow motion and my heart started beating slower, then faster, then slower again. I am so … convicted.
    Oy.
    I suppose you HAVE to tell me more.
    I suppose I’m supposed to say please.
    I think I’m supposed to be happy about sin being ripped out of my being?
    I’m not doing so well, I think.

    • Doesn’t that inner tickle when you feel convicted of something suck? I could offer you all sorts of strategies relevant to drowning it out, but I’m not sure that would be at all helpful :). Instead, I have told you more today, and I did not mind at all that you did not say please. Hope you had a good weekend Erica.

  5. At first, I was afraid to comment on this post, but since you did ask questions at the end of it, I suppose my answer would be as welcome as any. I’ve never suffered from acedia. I’ve known some who have (whether they knew this word for it or not) and I’ve been puzzled by it. I know that everyone’s feelings are different because we are each unique, so I have my puzzlement without judgement, even when I have to excuse myself from a conversation about someone’s ennui, because I need to get to one of the things that interest me. I’m no ball of energy, per se — actually I’ve dealt with some depressive thoughts in my life, but there is a focus to my desires that keeps me wanting to choose among my interests in any given moment, even if I’m just making a list, or taking mental notes about a story I want to write, while I wash the dishes.

    As to the quote, I’m not a religious person so I don’t necessarily see it as important. I do, however, have a problem with a thing that could sometimes be caused by the state of one’s brain chemistry, being seen as a sin. At the same time, I do think we should all be encouraged to find the things in life that move us, and we should each strive to be the best we can be. Thanks for this thought provoking post.

    • Yes! Definitely welcome. One of the best things about the blogosphere, I think, is the way it can capture different experiences and points of view. I think it’s wonderful that you don’t struggle with acedia. As for the comment re the quote on the church and sin… I agree that this concept (and this book, in fact) treads on sometimes dangerous territory with regards to the blurry boundaries between what is within our control and what is (at least temporarily) outside our control. For example, Norris knows that in our culture to attempt to distinguish between depression and acedia “can make one suspicious of being in denial, or worse, of judging people who are ill as being morally deficient.” She admits that teasing out distinctions is murky and wants to avoid the “false assurances of either/or thinking”. I’m not sure she entirely succeeds, but she does offer some good food for thought. PS Hope your own writing is going well as you work on your latest story post editing input!

      • Thanks for your good wishes about the story! The changes came along well for a short while, but I calmed down from needing it to be done Right Now, with the unfortunate realities of a family illness coupled with Chicago’s nearly paralyzing “thunder blizzard.” Lately, I’ve had some new adventures in editing regarding a recent blog post. Sigh… I really do hope practice makes perfect! Or at least better!

        • You and me both. That’s great that you’ve managed to back off from needing to finish it RIGHT NOW… I sometimes find that hard to do, but when I let stuff sit it almost always ends up better.

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