“Acedia is sorrow so complete that the flesh prevails completely over the spirit. You don’t just turn your back on the world, you turn your back on God.”
– Thomas Aquinas
I sit staring at a blank page … a blank screen with a blinking cursor.
I’ve got nothing but time, but I can’t write.
I’ve spoken to so many people who have said similar things … with all this time, you’d think I could paint; with all this time, you’d think I’d have an amazing garden; with all this time, you’d think I could meditate, you’d think I could exercise … there seems to be a collective state of listlessness.
Looking at the blank screen, and feeling an overwhelming need to not write … I did the next best thing, I searched to find out what this listless feeling might be.
And lo and behold, I found it:
Acedia – the lost emotion we are feeling right now – a bodily listlessness and yawning hunger
In the midst of a pandemic, with movement and connection restricted, and with general anxiety heightened, the excitement of making sourdough bread has soured; Zoom ‘parties’ have lost their novelty (although I am so grateful for this technology to keep me connected to family and friends that I cannot travel to see); Netflix can only release so many new series, (I find myself continuously asking my sons for recommendations for new things to watch). The news gets worse every day, yet I compulsively scroll through it, attracted to the evil that is trump, like craning my neck to see a train wreck. I desperately want to write, and yet I spend hours reading distressing articles about horrible politicians.
I open my laptop to write, but social media distracts me, scrolling through conspiracy theories and chaos; I have a pile of books that I really do want to read, and yet I pick up my phone and play Sudoku. I want to meditate more, but cannot stay focused; I am bored, listless, afraid and uncertain.
John Cassian, a monk and theologian, wrote in the early 5th century about an ancient Greek emotion called acedia. A mind “seized” by this emotion is “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room … It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading”. He feels ”such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast … Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.”
In Ancient Greece acedia originally meant indifference or carelessness along the lines of lack of care; although in modern times, when it is used, it tends to be more connected with depression.
But it was Mishka Shubaly, described as a bestselling author, cult songwriter, storyteller, and general smartass, who described it in a way that really resonated with me; and it made sense that I resonated so strongly with Shubaly’s description, he is a recovering addict and he spoke my language.
Searching for a better description of this rotting sadness, I came upon the concept of acedia. In Christian theology, it’s an antecedent to sloth, the least sexy of the seven deadly sins. Thomas Aquinas winnowed it down for me: acedia is sorrow so complete that the flesh prevails completely over the spirit. You don’t just turn your back on the world, you turn your back on God. You don’t care, and you don’t care that you don’t care.
You don’t care, and you don’t care that you don’t care … that just about summed it up for me. So although I have not added any words to my book today, I have expanded my vocabulary with the word acedia; and I have acquainted myself with another inspiring recovering addict, so today has not been a loss … Now where is my phone, I think I have earned myself another game of Sudoku.
For those of you looking to find … perhaps not focus to cure the listlessness, but at least some calm amidst this chaos, I’ll leave you with this lovely video posted on PBS: