Battling acedia through energetic engagement

I’m happy to report that the weekend was acedia free and full instead of life admin like grocery shopping (hooray for cheese imported from New Zealand and ground beef from the German butcher, let me say), and seeing friends here, and dining out at a new restaurant, and eggs on toast and ginger tea for breakfast.

Oh, and chocolate and coconut ice cream from the German guy down the street. I plan to con/beg/plead/command/cajole until we walk down there this evening and have some more. It’s getting warmer here again and those two little scoops of ice cream served in a frosty glass goblet… luscious.

Sorry, I seem to spend 50% of my time at the moment thinking about food. There is plenty of perfectly lovely food here in Laos, so no one need feel the slightest bit sorry for me, but there are certain things that are just not the same. Do not even get me started on how much I miss really good hamburgers and bbq sauce and sweet potato fries. Or ribs. Or (and I blush to admit this) Panda Express orange chicken and chow mein…

I must stop. Therein lies the road to madness. And 15 extra pounds.

So I’m not at all sure I did a decent job of explaining the concept of acedia last week. Here are a few more summary points that might help clarify things before I get to what Norris says about fighting it.

Who? “Acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married ‘for better, for worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.”

When? In the middle of the journey. The monks used to talk about it striking when the day was already halfway through but evening seemed a long way away (I wonder what the monks here in Laos would have to say about the whole concept?). Norris takes that and stretches it out like this:

“Acedia, it seems, is not only the demon that lobs an assault at midday but also the bad thought that afflicts us in the middle of life, when it seems impossible to care about so many things that used to matter. Do I have to care, if it means having to acknowledge the contradictions and dissonances by which I survive?”

Acedia verus depression: Norris tries hard to differentiate the concept of acedia from depression, and I’m not sure she always succeeds. As she herself says, “the boundaries between the two are notoriously fluid… acedia operates on the border between the physical and spiritual life.” At risk of oversimplifying, Norris suggests that depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication and that it’s causes are often easier to discern, while acedia is a temptation or a vice that is best countered by effortful engagement in life, spiritual practices, and the discipline of prayer.

The power of routine to help us fight acedia: “What is it about repetitive acts,” Norris asks, “that make us feel we are wasting our time?… Everyday life [which can numb and weary us] also holds the seeds of salvation.”

I don’t think Norris is saying that we should find cooking dinner every night or scrubbing the toilet regularly so meaningful that we are inherently fulfilled by the activity and set other dreams and aspirations aside. But she does believe that these sort of routine activities – when done mindfully, inhabiting the moment with acceptance rather than resenting it as a chore – can help provide the scaffolding of a more peaceful and centered life. These and other spiritual disciplines – practices that connect us to something larger than ourselves and help grant us perspective – can return us to “essential understandings that we can discover in no other way.”

Food for thought: “Disdaining ordinary mundane chores that come to nothing can lead to my discounting personal relationships as well.”

What to do about it? Norris describes the opposite of acedia as energetic devotion, and the monk Evagrius had this to say about fighting it; “What heals acedia is staunch persistence. Decide upon a set amount for yourself in every work and do not turn aside from it before you complete it.”

Norris’ remedies for acedia are simple: Start something. Go for a walk. Memorize Scripture. Read the Psalms and monastic writings. Seek community. Worship. Shovel manure. Dust a bookshelf. Wash dishes. Write. Be kind to one another.

Do this all deliberately, with thankfulness for the moment, with self-awareness, and without haste.

Food for thought: “Do you devour each moment distractedly, hurling yourself into the future?”

For writers: Even as she discovered her vocation as a writer, Norris says, she had to struggle to maintain the boring work habits and routines necessary for nourishing it. In discussing what she’s learned about weathering dry spells as a writer she says:

“It helps considerably if one has developed writerly habits. People often remark that they would write, or paint, or sculpt, if only they had the time. But this is pure fantasy: the artist does whatever is necessary to arrange her life so that she will have time to make her art. Even as I fret over juggling responsibilities to my ageing mother, my disabled sister, my friends, and my art, I have to admit that it is not obligation I fear, but my distressing eagerness to squander the precious time I do have in running from the emotional demands that writing will make of me.”

Anything jump out at you from this post? Anything that rubs you the wrong way or that you still wonder about? For me, many of her words on the writing process resonate. It is usually when I am spending a lot of time alone and I’m in between projects (or avoiding starting a new writing project that I know will be difficult) that acedia is likely to take hold.

I hope you’ve had a great weekend, wherever you are placed around the world – a weekend free of acedia and full of ice cream.

8 responses to “Battling acedia through energetic engagement

  1. I have enjoyed these posts Lisa. They have given shape and words to some of my experiences recently. Thanks.

  2. All right, I give. I just ordered the book from the library. I don’t know what my deal is with this book — something about it (so far) makes me angry. Hopefully I can get through it without throwing it across the room many times. But I’m also wondering if there’s a chapter in the book about people like me: “If someone is angered by the ideas in this book and, in fact, throws this book across the room, you can be certain that he/she is suffering from extreme acedia manifested as anger and self righteousness.” Hm.

    PS – sweet potato fries!!! MMMMM!

    • I do not remember that chapter, but do let me know if you find it. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it. I remember really liking her book Amazing Grace when I read it about six years ago now – it was all about her struggle to “reclaim” the language of church and religion in ways that made sense to her after having wanted nothing to do with church for 20 years.

  3. It always seemed like a conundrum to me: it takes discipline to be disciplined. It seems like all the traits needed to combat acedia are traits of a non-acedic person.

    The part about writerly habits definitely resonates with me, too. And it can be applied to my schoolwork, as well.

    • Yeah, a bit of a vicious cycle, isn’t it. It’s like the conundrum regarding exercise and depression. If you exercise regularly (every day or two days) to a certain level then after about six to eight weeks it will start to help depression lift (some studies say it’s about as effective as medication). Except… depressed people find it incredibly hard to muster the willpower to start and then stick to that sort of exercise routine.

      • I agree about exercise. It’s hard to start, but I know it works because the healthiest part of my life (the time when I could handle whatever came my way) was the couple of years in which I ran regularly. The endorphins were gloriously helpful with keeping a higher energy level during the day, and achieving a deeper relaxation at night! All the talk about it being bad for women’s knees came after I had done the damage to them. My later experience with being a psychiatrist’s “guinea pig,” is that even when a medication works, the side effects can sometimes take away something else that is precious, like the desire to exercise regularly or the creative impulse that leads to a deeper quality of work. And in the end, lacking these things can lead to more depression. These vicious circles can get so aggravating! I guess all anyone can do is to get as much information as possible and with or without a professional, work on identifying their own specific issues and needs. It’s great that you’re adding to that useful dialogue.

  4. Yes! May our lives be filled with ice cream every where. Yes.

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