Sunday, November 9, 2008

Comfort Queen: Comfort During Fearful Times

I finished reading Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris last night and I want to shout (I guess blogging is my shouting), “This book could change your life!”

Acedia - what the hell is that? I’d never heard of it before. Kathleen defines it as:

…as the spiritual aspect of sloth. The word literally means not-caring, or being unable to care, and ultimately, being unable to care that you can’t care. Acedia is spiritual morphine, but it does more than mask pain. It causes us to lose faith in ourselves and in our relationships with others.”

We are awakening from a time of collective spiritual morphine stupor. We sank into a profound state of weary not caring — not everybody, not all the time but a lot of us. Now we feel the breath of hopeful possibility, the brush of optimist trust upon our hearts and to help that goodness grow into sustainable action, we need to name the demon that has beset us (excuse the demon talk but it feels right, especially after reading the book).

There is such power in naming. Reading Kathleen’s struggles with acedia woven with early Christian theology and reflections on contemporary life, I kept having that electrifying feeling of being known. Of “Oh me too, me, too.” I kept having to stop and read sections aloud to Bob.

One reason I wrote this book was to explore my suspicion that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plague us today are the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. When we look at acedia’s root meaning, as not caring, we can see it as a social problem, and perceive that the sloth it engenders is anything but an insignificant physical laziness. It may even manifest as hyper-activity, but it is more like the activity of a hamster on a treadmill than action that will enhance the common good.

I was very glad to find the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s observation that “When you achieve true slothdom, you have no desire for the world to change. True sloths are not revolutionaries,” she adds, but “the lazy guardians at the gate of the status quo.” The question she raises is one I think we have to ask ourselves: “Are these hyperscheduled, overactive individuals 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 for themselves?” She suspects that “Their purpose is to keep themselves so busy, so entrenched in their active lives, that their spirit reaches a permanent state of lethargiosis.” Lethargy, acedia: in some ways I think they define American culture today. The plethora of 24-hour news sources are perfect carriers of the disease, bombarding us with so much “information” that we can no longer distinguish between what is important and what is not, and discern what we truly need to care about.”

We live in a time where traditional ways of making meaning have mostly vanished. Heck, it used to be surviving was our meaning, then we had close (murderous) tribal ties and work that had a final product that could be touched, eaten, bartered. We had religion.

But in the post-modern world, we’re not even sure we believe in meaning. We often don’t have a community with whom to share our questions of “What the hell am I doing with my life?” We fall prey to a questioning of our life’s purpose that eats away at our souls and our ability to get out of bed. And when we do try to find our purpose, it can easily turn into a narcissistic quest that ends up feeding the acedia.

The concept of acedia has always been closed linked with that of vocation. Acedia was, and remains, the monk’s most dangerous temptation, as it makes the life he has vowed to undertake seem foolish, if not completely futile… Artists can feel a similar disconnect… Acedia is a danger to anyone whose work requires great concentration and discipline yet is considered by many to be of little practical value. The world does not care if I write another word, and if I am to care, I have to summon all my interior motivation and strength.”

I’m in this boat, summoning all my strength to create a life, and work, that feels worthwhile. Have you ever felt that way? What do you think the link between acedia and fear is — I think it’s the petri dish fear grows in.

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