I remember shopping in a bookstore in Moscow several years back and picking up an English-language book called Twelve Stories of Russia, A Novel: I Guess. I couldn’t help but buy the book because nothing can be more interesting to an American living in Russia than a book written by an American living in Russia (you just know there will be a lot of self-indulgent complaining that after a long, dark winter will feel really good). I brought the book home where my friend Christina (also an American living in Russia) caught a glimpse of the title.
“Ha!” she said disdainfully. “That author sounds like a typical, totally bored American guy.”
When I read the book I found out she was right. The novel’s (or rather, memoir’s) protagonist was a directionless dud. His grimly hilarious stories about living in Russia were entertaining, but you could tell that this guy had absolutely no respect for himself, no motivation to do something with his life, and most of all, no ability to care about anything or anyone. (And this is a mildly sympathetic portrait!) He moved to Moscow because he had nothing better to do with his life and teaching English to good-looking Russian women sounded like a good career move.
This guy had a serious case of what Kathleen Norris calls acedia.
So do I.
The word “acedia” is exactly the right word to describe that which plagues my generation (those currently in their 20s and early 30s). Though archaic and arcane, it’s the word we desperately need to combat this thing–for without a name for the syndrome, we can’t talk about it; and if we can’t talk about it, we’re probably not very aware of it; and without full awareness of this horrible thing we’re experiencing, we languor in it. We might know that something is there, that something that is terribly wrong, but we can’t quite say what it is.
Acedia is spiritual sloth. And this isn’t the sloth that sends us to our couches to grow love handles. It’s that which makes us distracted, restless, unable to commit to anything, unable to care about anything. It can make us angry for seemingly no good reason at all. According to Norris, it can even fill us with hatred. In the fourth century context in which it was originally said to be one of the “eight patterns of evil thought” by the monk Evagrius Ponticus, acedia was a demon that possessed a monk and robbed him of his ability to pray.
Today acedia can arise from the constant barrage of news about rigged elections here and plane crashes there. With everything coming at us, how can we care about anything specifically? We’re too numb to care. Millions of people killed in the Congo? Oh. What ridiculous thing has Britney done this time? Acedia can come from our busyness, though I’m not sure whether it is caused by or causes busyness. It definitely arises from the degree to which we are stressed and overburdened.
So what now? That’s what I wanted to know. How can I NOT be an “acediac” for the rest of my life? I’m not sure Norris directly answered that question in her talk. She did say this: make prayers out of the ordinary things you do in your life, for Christ can burst through the ordinary as surely as burst from the tomb.
I might be able to care about that.
~posted by Allison
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Tags: Acedia, Evagrius Ponticus, sloth