Overcoming Acedia

This is a partial repost with some additional thoughts. Scroll down if you just want to jump to the questions.

Catholic writer and poet Kathleen Norris:

“I was a bratty kid who didn’t want to make her bed.

“Why bother?” I would ask my mother in a witheringly superior tone. “I’ll just have to unmake it again at night.” To me, the act was stupid repetition; to my mother, it was a meaningful expression of hospitality to oneself, and a humble acknowledgment of our creaturly need to make and remake our daily environments…..

One of the first symptoms of both acedia and depression is the inability to address the body’s basic, daily needs. It is also a refusal of repetition. Showering, shampooing, brushing the teeth, takine a multivitamin, going for a daily walk, as unremarkable as they seem are acts of self-respect. But the notion of pleasure is alien to acedia, and one becomes weary thinking about doing anything at all. It is too much to ask, one decides, sinking back on the sofa. This indolence exacts a high price. (pp. 13-14)

When traveling somewhere, or when I take a wrong turn, of all things, I hate back-tracking, and I hate it so much I will go out of my way and take twice as long just to go a different route. And I had this exact conversation with my mother over making the bed as a child, and I still have it with myself as an adult- only now I can add to it that it hurts. Seriously- it is physically painful for me to make my bed. It hurts my back, it hurts my hands, and if I move just right (or just wrong), it hurts my broken and not very well healed ribs. I would like to blame the fact that I do not make my bed on this physical pain, which is not slight, but the fact is, I never made it before, either.

Laundry and dishes are so repetitive. Cooking is less so, because you can make something new and different or change how you do it every time, and it’s probably why cooking is my favorite of the household chores (except that now it, too, hurts).

Why bother?

A monk in the fourth century created a name for this condition- acedia. I have found much food for thought in the writings of those early monks. I suspect it is because they had much time and the inclination for deep, contemplative thought on the human condition- which is not so different today than it was in the fourth century.

-Kathleen Norris has written an entire book about acedia, the word used to delineate that sort of dreary, soul darkening, strength sapping deadness, which we often mask by frantic overactivity like the tasks dear to the Terrible Trivium in The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Juster surely knew something about it in order to create a character like the Terrible Trivium, ‘demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit;’ the nasty little voice that prompts us to act as though we believe him when he whispers, “what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you’ll never get to where you’re going.”

Here’s another description:

“The demon of acedia–also called the noonday demon–is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren apppears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself.”

That sounds like school, doesn’t it? And some other situations as well.

The longer description of that ‘noonday demon’ is by the fourth century desert monk Evagrius Ponticus, but taken from Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris

“Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some weird Christian monks,” Norris writes, but a modern force that “easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules.

“We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do more still.”

Sloth is one of the Catholic Church’s seven deadly sins; acedia is defined as spiritual sloth. Unlike the grave illness of depression, acedia is a conscious choice, a moral choice; that’s what makes it a sin, Norris says.

More here, including a side-bar: with a sampling of Kathleen Norris’ collected compendium of woeful observations on acedia down through the ages.

So… on to the questions- Things I’ve been pondering and/or discussing with two or three friends (numbers are for ease of answering or discussion, not in order of importance):

1. What are the most important things to get done every day? IF you had to pick just five, what would they be?

2. How important is time and space for daily contemplation? What activities seem to foster contemplation? What things hinder it?

3. *How* do you make yourself do things that you *really* do not want to do? These things can be anything, btw- from making the bed to doing a math lesson to speaking to a stranger to befriending somebody you find simply tiresome to scrubbing the sink to balancing the checkbook to taking the time to call and price check something instead of just buying it because it’s quicker to taking a vitamin every day to taking a walk to going into a thrift shop where you know you will find excellent bargains but you just don’t like the smell, to getting up when the alarm goes off, to regular family devotions to cutting back on the length of your showers to putting tools away where they go instead of tossing them in the general direction, to ????

Whatever the ‘thing’ is, what does it take to break the inertia, to get you moving toward doing those things that you are most resistant to doing?

4a. For those who struggle with this, do you think it’s a question of being more weak of will than others, or is it a different weakness- that we have a longer list of things we just really don’t want to do?

4b.. Is the need just one of really just needing more self-discipline? Forcing yourself to do what you really do not want to do? Or is it changing your outlook and finding a way NOT to dislike those things so very, very, very much?

5. A reworking of 3- HOW?-
WARNING: The answer ‘just make yourself’ is not an answer to this question at all.

I was a young girl who didn’t want to eat her dinner. It wasn’t, in this case, because of stubborn, willful disobedience- I did not like what we were having for dinner even a little bit, it was something I hated, and I couldn’t make myself get it on the fork into my mouth and swallow it. I am reasonably certain that we were having that item for dinner because it was cheap and my mother was struggling mightily and against great setbacks to try to feed the family with no money. In tears I asked her for help, “How do you do it?” I asked, “how do you make yourself eat it when we have food you cannot stand?” She answered automatically without thinking it through, “I don’t fix foods I don’t like,” she said.

We did not have to eat our dinner, but were allowed crackers and peanut butter instead.

Sometimes I think that those who say “you just do it. It’s not that big of a deal” are like my mother in that regard- they can say it’s not that big of a deal because, to them, it isn’t, and they are unable to understand that to us, it IS that big of a deal. Our question then is really “How do you handle the things that ARE a really big stinking deal to you? And if there are no such issues for you, how did you get there? What is the secret in your life that made you the kind o”f person with no such insurmountable mountains in your life?”

And those people who have no such mountains will again shrug and say, “You just do it.” Those who struggle with these issues already know that the rest of the world ‘just does it’. What we do not know is HOW. How one motivates oneself, how one alters one’s outlook so the thought of doing those things is not so impossibly overwhelming to imagine, how one removes whatever mental, emotional, or spiritual block it is that is making something other people do so hard to manage. How?

“Just do it” is the end result, the goal- what we need is the small, practical, baby steps between HERE and THERE. People with high energy, high motivation, or low obstacles just don’t get it- it’s as though we ask them, “How do you get to the Jones’ house?” and they reply blankly, “You just get in the car and *drive.*

That is SO not helpful. and it’s obvious that it isn’t helpful. We would laugh at, scoff at, even, anybody who gave physical directions this way. Just think off all the important details they so nonchalantly would be leaving out: Drive where, which direction, how far, what landmarks to look for, where do you turn, which way do you turn, what, if any, hindrances are there along the way?

But people do give this kind of utterly useless and even insulting personal direction all the time, and when the recipient of this useless advice is frustrated or points out it doesn’t actually answer the question we are asking, the giver of the useless advice blames the receiver rather than considering just how unhelpful (even discouraging and further depressing) his advice is.

“It’s a sin not to” is also not useful. Depending on the issue this may or may not be true, for one thing. For another, what we’re looking for is prescriptions, not descriptions, a step by step map, not a tour guide of the delights of the final destination. We presume the final destination is indeed a worthy goal.

We don’t know how to get there.

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