Blogger: Rachelle Gardner
I sat down to write this post and just kind of stared at the screen for a while. Found myself clicking over to Facebook for a bit, then resolutely back here to write. Hopped over to check email but there’s nothing new since ten minutes ago. Has anyone texted me lately? No. Back here to write.
Ugh. The listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate, otherwise known as acedia, has got me going in circles.
I’ve never been this way before. How about you? Has 2020 found you behaving in ways unlike your usual self?
Over a decade ago, Kathleen Norris published a book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. I thought it was a great book — I love Kathleen Norris — but it didn’t really apply to me, you know? I mean, I’d had some depression off and on. But it couldn’t really be characterized as the acedia she describes in the book. Fast forward to this year and it feels like the story of my life.
A couple of months ago, the journal The Conversation featured an article on acedia in the context of 2020: “Acedia: the lost name for the emotion we’re all feeling right now.” Worth reading if you want to hop over and check it out.
The notion of acedia feels like a breath of fresh air when you read descriptions of it. It puts words to that weird, nameless listlessness we feel, the disinterest in doing the things we’re supposed to do, the hovering anxiety that we can’t quite put our fingers on. It says to us: You might be tempted to characterize yourself as lazy right now, but you know that’s not true. You’re not lazy. You are experiencing acedia, and there are good reasons for it.
Acedia was first described by a 5th century monk, and it was very much related to a feeling of isolation. Hmm, isolation. Sound familiar, anyone?
And yet, the notion of acedia has been supplanted in our vocabulary by more modern notions of depression and anxiety. We don’t have a word that really captures this “noonday demon” as it was known, this state of being that looks from the outside like laziness but from the inside feels completely inscrutable, like someone else has taken over your mind and body. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of acedia is just that — it’s not your clinical depression, it’s not your anxiety diagnosis, it’s not a sudden onset of laziness — it’s a state of being completely outside your normal realm of emotion and behavior.
So what do we do? I don’t know — you tell me! Calling it by its name can help, I think. Pushing through our to-do list one step at at time, taking it easy on ourselves, giving ourselves grace to get through this. Setting our daily goals a bit less ambitious than usual. Getting outside help to accomplish tasks, if needed to meet a deadline or commitment.
What else? I’d love to hear whether you’ve experienced acedia, and what you’re doing about it.
Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash
This seems to describe me perfectly. Over the past few months, I’ve had more time and more freedom to do all those things that have been put off, and yet… I just look at things that need doing, that I want to do, and I just… don’t. I will super-focus on a given project, ignoring all those other things – or I will end up sitting there, playing solitaire. My son described as “inertia” – if I can get started, I will keep going. I just can’t get started. It’s like watching a boring movie, only it’s ME that I’m watching.
Star, there’s another lovely word or this…’ennui’. I always liked to toss it into conversations so that I might seem cultured.
But it would land, rocklike, for it was spoken by a bloke who had the well-deserved nickname of ‘Mongo’.
And for the sake of sheer bewilderment, there’s an art gallery in Taos called ‘Ennui’; if ignorance is bliss, the owners thereof must be in ecstasy.
The topic of acedia reminds me of a vignette Alexander Solzhenitsyn included in ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, about life he shared in a camp with two cellmates. For those who know my personal story, it resonates, and brings both hope and resolve.
Three men share a prison cell
in deep Siberian snow;
for two of them, it was pure hell,
for they do not know
what the coming days will bring,
or the coming years,
and they do the worst of things,
take counsel of they fears.
But their stalwart companion
speaks cheer and discipline;
he becomes their champion,
a winner born to win,
a name writ flaming ‘cross the sky,
for his sentence is to die.
I thought when the pandemic started and my schedule cleared, I’d have so much more time for writing. But I’ve found it hard to pull thoughts together. It’s nice to know there’s a name for it!
I have found that I can get physical tasks done, if I can push through that initial resistance. I cleaned out my closet yesterday while listening to an audiobook and felt good about accomplishing two things at once. But that was after multiple days of thinking how much I needed to get to the closet.
Norris’ book is excellent.
The last 2 months have been personal acedia—I’m Glad for this reminder— against fire craziness. It makes for an interesting contrast.
The tasks are now stacked in my living room—scan those photos! Now! Don’t haul them around a third time escaping fire!
Hoping a mundane chore that recalls a fun life full of people I love, will do the trick!
I hope you stay safe through the fires. I cannot imagine adding that to our current life.
Yes, I am experiencing it, acedia, off and on every week since March. Sometimes it lasts hours. Occasionally it lasts days. I do agree that recognizing it, naming it, takes some of the power out of it. I also agree giving grace to ourselves and others is essential in the toolbox. I have that book by Kathleen Norris that you mention, though it remains unread. Perhaps I’ll get it down and read it in this season. Next steps. Thanks for this post. I feel we have company in acedia.
Yes! Thank you for this. I’m doing all the things you suggest. Especially being gentle with myself and my goals. The second day of our shutdown in March, I made a quick video to encourage readers and friends on Facebook. Six months later, it is still a daily habit. Forcing myself out of Acedia long enough to connect with others who are suffering makes all the difference. Those three minutes help me keep going on days when the sun is taking a long time to set.
Oh Rachelle, yes. I’ve never heard the term acedia before, but man, what you’re saying makes sense. I’ve definitely felt that before. And in this COVID-culture, I’ve realized it doesn’t take as much as it used to to move me into feeling overwhelmed. Like you, I’ve made a point of getting outside more. When I am feeling acedia, or overwhelmed, I’m learning to take a little time to do something less stressing. I’m learning to give myself permission to not accomplish everything on my to-do list so I can recalibrate my inner self by doing something that relaxes me. Whether it’s taking photos outside, watching an enjoyable movie while working on something completely nonstressful, or something else. For me, the first step is identifying when I need to give myself a little time and then doing it.
The word is new to me. The feeling is oh-so-familiar. Thank you, Rachelle, for putting a name to it.
Janet Holm McHenry
Ah, so that’s what it is.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yes! I thought that I’d have so much time to write without the beautiful blessed insanity of running summer camps … but instead I found myself mourning the purposeful march forward into craziness that usually characterizes our summer full of ministry. More mourning and less writing. I am taking little steps though. Getting to bed early so that I can set that alarm for 4:00AM anyway and get up to write. Seeking to grow more healthy instead of less, like earlier in the pandemic. Looking for ways to thrive with my family instead of just sog. Even in the weariness, there are steps to take that move us forward. There is joy to be seen and moments with my family to be cherished, even thought it doesn’t look the same.
Acedia is a new word for me but the feeling it represents is all too familiar during these COVID days. It’s good to know others feel the same way. I keep thinking tomorrow will be better, but it isn’t.
I’ve never heard this term, but I believe a better word to describe these feelings is “grief.” It’s one we’ve all heard and most have experienced. The familiar term doesn’t throw us out of the story, when we wish it would. I’m not even sure we all know what we’re missing, grieving. What are you missing? I miss my mother, who passed away weeks ago. In her last cognitive moments, I couldn’t be there … and I’m grieving those moments with her. I only got to be the second person to stay with her that next day (with my dad) because I had to waste moments calling the hospital and getting permission to be there, only if I consented to come and talk about taking her off life support. I feel an emptiness I can’t explain, but I keep filling the void with God’s Word. Today’s scripture from Bible Gateway is Deut 13:4: “It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.”
Janet Holm McHenry
I agree with you, Shelli. You’ve experienced great loss, but perhaps we’re all grieving some layer of loss right now. Sending love. Praying.
Thank you, Janet. Yes, we are all grieving some layer of loss. Beautifully said.
I’ve definitely experienced this and am glad to know there’s an actual name for it. I’m not a type A personality, but there are times I simply can’t hold a thought for very long, and I seem to distract easier/quicker than before.
Thank you for putting this out there. Maybe I should start setting a timer for work. Once that goes off, then I can check email, texts, or social media.