By Norris, Kathleen
Struggling with acedia THE DIFFICULT THING about days is that they must be repeated. It may be, as we read in 2 Peter, that with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. What we perceive as slowness is merely the Lord’s patience. But like many children of the middle class, I was schooled in a particular kind of impatience that devalues such chores as cooking, cleaning and taking out the garbage. An unspoken premise of my education was that it would enable me to employ someone else to perform these tasks. If the heady world of ideas tempted me to despise repetition, it also taught me to value the future over the present moment.
The immediate future for which I was meticulously preparing, of course, was college. From the eighth grade on, my classmates and I were urged to endeavor to become “well rounded” so as to be more attractive to college admissions officers. As the dean politely reminded me every year, when I met with her to assess my program of study, I was deficient in that regard, harboring a virulent case of “math anxiety.” But rather than attempt to become less lopsided, I rebelled, enrolling in both art and music courses. The dean disapproved, but my parents backed me up, and I won that battle. In the long run, though, the preparatory nature of my schooling had its effect. I had learned that the present is but a prelude to something more important.
I was a moody adolescent, unathletic, the last to be picked for any team sport. Perversely, I turned my shyness into pride and wore my role of campus oddball like armor. Eventually I found a small group of friends with whom I shared similar interests and who were also socially inept. I could reveal myself in their company, in the safe environs of the art studio, English class or the office of the school literary magazine. Under my senior photo in the yearbook, where my classmates cited Kahlil Gibran or the Beach Boys, I placed a quotation from S0ren Kierkegaard: “When a man dares declare, ? am eternity’s free citizen,’ necessity cannot imprison him, except in voluntary confinement.” In way over my head, I had misread this statement as a manifesto of the airy freedom I aspired to. The significance of “voluntary confinement” escaped me, and I sensed none of the grit of Kierkegaard’s insight, that true freedom develops out of discipline and a healthy respect for necessity. 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 creaturely need to make and remake our daily environments. “You will feel better,” she said, “if you come home to an orderly room.” She was far wiser than I, but I didn’t comprehend that for many years. Neither of us could see that I was on my way to becoming a cerebral disaster zone. Reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I identified uncomfortably with her protagonist, Esther, and cringed at her rationale for not washing her hair for three weeks: “The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly. I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes. … I could see day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue. It seemed so silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it. I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”
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, taking a multivitamin, going for a daily walk, as unremarkable as they seem, are acts of self-respect. They enhance the ability to take pleasure in oneself and in the world. 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. Esther’s desire to “do everything once and for all and be through with it” has all the distorted reasoning of insanity. It is a call to suicide.
Repetition is at the heart of learning to play any musical instrument, and while I knew that practicing scales and fingering exercises on my flute was intended to provide a foundation for more advanced work, I was easily bored, and often skipped to playing what I enjoyed. I mystified my long-suffering teacher by excelling at the Bach flute sonatas when I had done miserably with work she considered much easier. I had an affinity for the Bach and enjoyed it more. As she pointed out to me, with exasperation and on more than one occasion, I liked to play rather than to practice, and that marked me as an amateur.
If I was slow to appreciate the role of repetition in my learning to play the flute, I also resisted acknowledging its value in learning to live my life. My father used to say that if he ever wrote a self-help book, he would call it Overcoming Peace of Mind. His little joke packs a punch for me, because it reminds me that I all too readily spin my gold into straw until my precious equilibrium and sense of well-being give way to restlessness and dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, this process takes hold precisely when I most need rest and relaxation, and I succumb to an anxious acedia.
It begins as a deceptively slight shift in thought, or ratherin a process much commented on by the desert monks-a quick succession of thoughts that distract me from my right mind. I’ve been working too long and need a break; maybe I should read a mystery novel to clear my head. I tell myself that I’m too weary to concentrate. I tell myself that it is a matter of respecting my limitations and of being good to myself. If I manage to read one book and then return to my other obligations, no harm is done. But often one book does not satisfy me. My “rest” has only made me more restless, and as I finish one book, I am tempted to pick up another. If I don’t check myself, I can slip into a state both anxious and lethargic, in which I trudge through four or five paperbacks a day, for three or four days running. I am consuming books rather than reading them.
I may have begun with a well-written novel, but soon I am ingesting whatever I can get my hands on. Morbidly conscious of the time I am wasting, I race feverishly through a book so preposterous and badly written that it nauseates me. If I pick up a more serious book, something that might bring me to my senses, I am likely to plow through it as thoughtlessly as if it were a genre thriller. I have become like the child I once knew who emerged one morning from a noisy, chaotic Sunday school classroom to inform the adults who had heard the commotion and had come to investigate, “We’re being bad, and we don’t know how to stop.” In this new, repulsive world I now inhabit-and indeed have created for myself-I sleep fitfully with the light on, waking at frequent intervals to read the same sentences over and over. My days are not lived so much as wasted in compulsive reading. I stop answering the phone and getting the mail, ignoring everything but the next page, the next book in the pile.
The contemporary maxim “Listen to your body” is useless to me when all I want to do is lie down, turn pages and ignore that ringing phone. I may in fact need bodily refreshment, yet that is exactly what acedia will prevent. My lying for hours on the sofa, book in hand, is a sad parody of leisure. I have reached the state S0ren Kierkegaard described in Either/Or:”I do not care for anything. I do not care to ride, for the exercise is too violent. I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous. I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to do that either. Summa summarum: I do not care at all.”
It amazes me how quickly acedia can deaden what has long been a pleasure for me, and with what facility despair will replace the joy I once found in the act of reading. But my dilemma is less literary than spiritual. If my torpor is left unchecked, I lose the ability to savor not only reading but life itself. I develop a loathing for fresh food, letting salad greens and strawberries languish in the refrigerator while I fill up on popcorn. As Chaucer notes in “The Parson’s Tale,” acedia “wastes, and it allows things to spoil.” Although reading has led me into this dreary state, the books are not to blame. I have been reading for all the wrong reasons, rejecting life as it is in favor of a world of neat conclusions. While I would distinguish this onslaught of acedia from episodes of depression I have experienced, there are also correspondences. William Styron, in Darkness Visible, describes a state in which the mind feels “like one of those outmoded small-town telephone exchanges, being gradually inundated by floodwaters: one by one, the normal circuits began to drown, causing some of the functions of the body and nearly all of those of instinct and intellect to slowly disconnect.” As the telephone rings and my mother begins to leave me a message, I am too heavy with weariness to answer. I do not know why I am unable to respond to that dear voice, and why this should trouble me so little. If I were depressed, I suspect that I would feel more pain. But safe within my carapace of sloth, I sluggishly acknowledge that even though I do love my mother, it is easy to act as if I did not. In Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, a child responds to all parental inquiries by saying “I don’t care.” When he encounters a lion who offers to eat him, and responds with his habitual “I don’t care,” the lion pounces and devours him. The book is a perfect exposition of acedia: happily, when the lion is shaken upside down, Pierre emerges, laughing because he is not dead, and because life is worth living. If only I could so easily free myself from the lion of acedia! Often I can. But if I become too weary, I can care for so little that it becomes hard to care even whether I live or die. I need help to learn to see again, and to reclaim my life through ordinary acts: washing my hair, as well as the dishes in the sink, and walking out of doors to enjoy the breeze on my neck. I may attempt to regain my ability to concentrate by taking on a good book of poetry. And I certainly will answer that ringing phone. Even if it is someone calling over a trivial or annoying matter, our conversation will have the salutary effect of reconnecting me with another. When I stop running from my life, I can return to living it, willing to be present again, in the present moment. But this means embracing those routine and repetitive activities that I tend to scorn.
Repetition is at the heart of monastic life, which is one reason my attraction to it seemed odd at first. Morning, noon and evening, monks return to church to pray the psalms. When they have gone through the entire cycle of 150 psalms, a process that takes three or four weeks, they begin again, day after day, year after year. In a similar way, a community reads through major portions of the Bible. Every Advent one hears Isaiah, ancrxluring Easter the Acts of the Apostles and Revelation. An elderly monk, disparaging the romantic image of monastic life, once said to me, “People don’t realize how much of it is just plain tedium.”
But it is tedium with a purpose. To support themselves, the first Christian monks spent their days weaving palm branches into baskets and ropes they could sell. And as they worked, they prayed. The steady rhythm of the work helped the monks memorize the psalms and the Gospels, which was a necessity in the fourth-century desert, as books were expensive and rare. But the monks also regarded this repetitive work and prayer as their way to God, hoping that over time the “straw” of mundane tasks could become the “gold” of ceaseless prayer. Cassian’s story of Abba Paul reveals this hope as firmly established in the real world of unrelenting and seemingly fruitless toil. Because Paul lived at such a remove from civilization that he could not even distract himself with the notion of selling his baskets, he was forced to admit that he was engaged, day in and day out, in useless activity. As soon as he had filled his cave with baskets, he would have only to burn them and begin again.
The tale is a wry comment on the futility of all human effort, and on mortality itself. There is no denying that we, like Paul’s baskets, will one day be nothing but ashes. Our work is bound to be forgotten. But monks still tell Paul’s story because they take heart from his perseverance and bold humility in the face of acedia. His steadfast labor at both work and prayer reminds us that even if what we do seems worthless, it is worth doing.
The notion that repetition can be life-enhancing was not something I found in the literature that had made its way onto my high school reading lists: Sartre’s No Exit, Camus’s The Stranger, lonesco’s The Bald Soprano. Resigning myself to the notion that straw can be nothing but straw, and that ennui is an inevitable, if not preferable, emotional state, I resolved to live a life superior to that of people still entranced by the false promises of religion or the inanities of popular culture. What I most needed to know as a young woman who, like many of her peers, suffered from occasional bouts of despondency, was effectively hidden from me by the confluence of a determinedly fashionable literary education and a typically deficient religious one, which excluded much mention of spiritual experience. The notion that monastic wisdom might be of use to me was unthinkable. It took me years to discover in the curious history of acedia a key to understanding myself and my work as a writer.
Left unchecked, acedia can deaden what has long been a pleasure.
Kathleen Norris is the author of Dakota and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. This article is excerpted from her new book, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, published by Riverhead. (c) 2008 by Kathleen Norris. Used with permission of the publisher.
Copyright Christian Century Foundation Sep 23, 2008
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