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Why Acedia? Why Now?by Kathleen Norris
My book Acedia and Me stems from an experience that I suspect most readers have had: when a writer describes something you've felt but have never been able to put into words. I believe that making such connections to other human beings keeps us reading in the digital age. It reminds us that we are not alone, sometimes in a dramatic way. In my case, the person writing about an emotional state he termed "acedia" accurately naming a sudden onslaught of despairing thoughts that I'd first had at the age of 15 had died in the year 399. He was speaking loud and clear across a distance of 16 centuries.
I had two immediate responses on reading the passage in The Praktikos by Evagrius of Pontus, an early Christian monk, in which he conjures up an emotional state that can manifest as either stultifying boredom or extreme restlessness, as either inertia or workaholism. I said to myself, "He's describing half my life." And I also sensed that there might be a book for me in this strange, obscure word "acedia."
At its Greek root, acedia means the lack of care, or being unable to care, even that you can't care. The word and concept may be ancient, but the condition is thoroughly modern. I began the book suspecting that much of our anxious boredom, commitment phobia, and enervating despair might be the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. I knew I would have to tackle the differences between acedia and what we now term depression. It's a tricky subject, as they share many of the same symptoms. People are rightfully suspicious of any notion that a depressed person should feel guilty for having a medically treatable condition, any suggestion that we can simply snap out of a depressed state with exercise, prayer, or positive thinking.
But I also knew that I would have fun exploring the curious history of the word acedia, which dropped out of the Western lexicon by the sixth century, as the "eight bad thoughts" that the early Christian monks had identified as the primary human temptations slowly evolved into the Church doctrine of the seven deadly sins. For a number of reasons, acedia was subsumed into the sin of sloth, which soon was regarded as physical laziness. Acedia's power as a nasty spiritual condition was effectively hidden from view.
For some 20 years, as I worked on writing other books, I collected everything I could find on the subject of acedia. (And I included many quotes, from Dante to Ionesco to a James Bond novel (!) in the Commonplace Book at the end of Acedia and Me.) I was gratified to find Aldous Huxley's tiny tour de force, an essay entitled "Accidie" in which he labels the condition as the prime affliction of his age. I delighted in the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein's recent book, Sloth, which includes a parody of a self-help book entitled Sloth and How to Get It. She wonders if the overactive and hyperscheduled who reap the rewards of our consumer society "are really creating anything new? Are they guilty of passion in any way? Do they have a new vision for their government? For their community? Or their ourselves?" Like Wasserstein, I suspect that one of the reasons we keep ourselves so busy is to avoid caring about the true condition of our lives and our world. As our 24-hour news media bombard us with more "information" than we can absorb, we grow less able to distinguish between what is important for us to care about and what is not. We're mired in acedia's world without knowing its name. And as any reader of fairy tales can tell you, that's a bad predicament to be in.
Writing about a Negative
In some ways, the process of writing this book was familiar to me, as I was containing a personal memoir within a larger subject. But this book proved extremely difficult to write, partly because it's hard to write about something as negative as acedia. Acedia is a slippery operator, and describing it often felt like trying to grab hold of a shadow. Early on in the process, an Anglican nun warned me, "You know, when you take on acedia, you're taking on the devil himself." She wasn't kidding.
This was also a book that I had to set aside repeatedly, mostly because of medical crises involving my father, my husband, and one of my sisters. Coming back to the project felt like climbing a mountain. In a raging hailstorm. On some days, I would settle for watching America's Next Top Model marathons instead. The last shut-down came when I realized that I had to include in the book an account of my husband's death. It took me about three months to decide to do it, and another three to figure out how I might do it. In many ways, the existence of this book feels like a miracle to me. And I'm just now beginning the letting go, sending it out into the world to stand on its own, so that readers can now give it back to me.
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Kathleen Norris is the award-winning poet, writer, and author of the New York Times bestsellers The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Norris has also published seven books of poetry. A popular speaker, she is an editor at large at the Christian Century. A recipient of grants from the Bush and Guggenheim foundations, she has been in residence twice at the Collegeville Institute at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and is an oblate of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota.