Acedia and Me (and You)

Several columns ago, I considered the difficulties a number of students seem to be experiencing, and noted that, when I discuss their situation with my colleagues, they have identified many of the same issues with their own students. The two most marked features of stress some of my students display are strangely contradictory. On one hand, I have students who are so anxious that they will sometimes cry when presented with assignments, will obsess over two or three marks, or panic at the thought of having to speak in class. These students, in short, seem to care too much.

Acedia By T.B. Jackson-Williams, property of the Conley Family Association. CC BY-SA 3.0

On the other hand, I have students who seem strangely, even disconcertingly, indifferent to their studies. They sign up for classes but attend only sporadically, they don’t get assignments in, and when I bend over backwards to make it easy for them to get work in (“Just do it! I won’t take any marks off for lateness!”), they will often promise that the assignment will be in next week… but nothing ever appears. These students tend not to participate in discussions when they do make it to class, and sometimes, in an effort to get to know them better, when I ask them what other courses they are taking and who their other professors are, they seem unsure both of the courses and about who is teaching them.

In a previous column, I also noted that I now think of my struggling students as functioning like cultural canaries in a coal mine, as people who respond first to trends in the culture which are impeding our ability to live well. While I have never found the anxious students difficult to figure out (who wouldn’t be anxious, at least sometimes, these days?), the indifferent ones have really puzzled me: why sign up for courses you seem to have absolutely no interest in? Why promise your professors you’ll get your work in, when you seem to have no intention of getting your assignments done? What is going on with these students, and how might their behavior and attitude relate to trends in the culture that surrounds them?

I recently read a book that helped me think more clearly about my indifferent students, the culture that we are all immersed in, and even my own struggles to make at least some of my activities seem worthwhile – if not to anyone else, at least to me. The book in question is written by Kathleen Norris, and it is entitled Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life.

Until I encountered this book, I was unfamiliar with the concept of acedia – but Norris’s discussion has persuaded me that it is a concept with which we should all be familiar, because it captures elements of our experience that we have difficulty naming, and, for the same reason, that it is a term that more of us should be using. I am going to devote this column to a consideration of the concept of acedia, and the next two to ways in which we can see it manifest itself in the larger cultural context in which we presently live.

 

Acedia, Norris writes, was first identified by the early Christian monks who lived in the desert. For them, acedia was considered to be one of the eight “bad thoughts,” and the one that they must be especially on guard for, because it lay at the root of the other bad thoughts, and manifested itself in bad actions. Acedia produces a feeling that everything we do is meaningless, and that nothing, therefore, matters. Its noxiousness and pervasiveness in the lives of those early monks was so apparent that they gave it a name: the noonday demon. Acedia, Norris argues, is not the same thing as depression (and she has experienced both conditions). She describes the difference between them in the following way:

A crucial distinction between depression and acedia is that the former implies a certain level of anguish over one’s condition, while in the latter it remains a matter of indifference.

Historically-speaking, the eight bad thoughts of the desert fathers became the seven deadly sins, and acedia was collapsed into “sloth,” or profound laziness. Norris argues, quite persuasively, that “sloth” and “acedia” name different things, that sloth implies that we just need to get our acts together, overcome our indolence, and all will be well; acedia, in contrast, cuts much deeper into the soul (or psyche). Noting some of the synonyms for laziness, Norris observes that:

’Dolor’ is an ancient word for ‘pain’, and indolence is the inability to feel it. We’ve now come close to the worst acedia can do to us: not only does it make us unable to care, it takes away our ability to feel bad about that. If we can no longer weep, or desire, or feel pain and grief, well, that’s all right.

Acedia is often rooted in the realization that our lives are short and our accomplishments, such as they are, are ephemeral – we will die, and both we, and our work, will be forgotten.

When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

I now think that at least some of my students, those who are strangely absent and detached even when they are physically present, are probably suffering from some form of acedia. Indeed, I can sometimes identify acedic feelings in myself: why wash that dish when there are just going to be more dirty dishes to wash tomorrow? How can I bear to sit through yet another department meeting with the same colleagues who have been saying the same things for 20 years? How can I bear to give yet another lecture on medical research or carefully correct yet another essay when there is such a pile still to mark, and nobody ever even seems to read my comments anyway?

Norris argues (again persuasively) that acedia has come into its own in our time, even though – both ironically and paradoxically – the larger culture no longer uses this term to describe how many of us feel (at least on occasion), and how we respond to contemporary stressors.

I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.

 

The form acedia takes in her own life is also familiar to many of us with respect to our own behavior. When she sits down to write:

…a host of thoughts arise. I should call to find out how so-and-so is doing. I should dust and reorganize my desk, because I will get more work done in a neater space. While I’m at it, I might as well load and start the washing machine. I may truly desire to write, but as I am pulled to one task after another, I lose the ability to concentrate on the work at hand…

After all, none of it really matters, anyway.

Acedia has cultural consequences as well, both for our politics and for our shared consumerism and the damage that does to the environment, so its dangers go beyond the personal realm. (I shall explore the political and consumerist dimensions of acedia in future columns).

How can we deal with acedia in ourselves? Norris has found, in her own life, that prayer and routine are key. Even if we are not religious, and so are uncomfortable with the idea of prayer, routines which ground us in the world and in our bodies can be helpful. Ironically, that is to say, the very same routines that can provoke feelings of acedia in the first place can help us deal with it: I should wash the dishes today even though there will be more dishes to wash tomorrow, because a clean and tidy kitchen can generate satisfaction; I should make careful comments on this essay I am marking even though I have already marked hundreds in my life and will probably mark hundreds more before I retire, because this particular student has made at least some effort to grapple with the task I have assigned, and the work, therefore, deserves my focused attention.

Readers of this column who may be experiencing acedia in their own lives might focus on their routines as well, and find in them some solace.

 

Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.