Sunday, January 04, 2009

Kathleen Norris Acedia & Me

Subtitled A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life

It is telling that the spell-checker doesn’t recognize acedia. Norris tells us about “the noonday demon,” mostly forgotten today; even though it is arguably the dominant vice of our age.

Acedia is the “not caring” attitude. It sometimes manifests in obvious sloth, but sometimes in an irritable search for distraction. Acedia and pride were the principal vices of my childhood; and they’re sometimes considered the worst of the bunch.

Norris starts with the desert monks of the 5th century. Yes, they’re quite relevant.

It begins as a deceptively slight shift in thought, or rather—in 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 hard 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 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.

Your mileage will vary—this is one way it appears in a writer’s life.

Somehow the Romantic poets came to be associated with ennui and despair, and it has been a popular attitude for writers to take ever since. Writers are expected to find life too coarse or dull for their refined tastes, I guess. Norris shows how this spiritual vice crippled some of them.

Acedia bears some superficial resemblance to depression. Kathleen illustrates these differences with moving stories from her own and her late husband’s lives. Depression is often biochemical, and can be (sometimes: research she quotes suggests less than half the time) treated chemically. Therapy is sometimes useful (it was for her) but not terribly often. Acedia, since it is a spiritual condition, needs to be addressed with self-knowledge and action. Monks of old afflicted by this demon of noonday were told not to try to move away or change jobs (it doesn’t help at all), but to focus on physical labor and concentrating on the obligations of the day. There’s no “magic bullet,” just grace for the day and the hope of winning through to peace.

That faith and love operate best through the humble means of boring everyday occupations is a thoroughly biblical perspective, for its stories repeatedly remind us that God’s attention is fixed on what we regard as unimportant and unworthy. The Scriptures depict God not as a Great Cosmic Cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but as a creator who loves us enough to seek us in the mundane circumstances of our lives.

She likes the old desert fathers’ list of the “eight bad ideas” better than the “seven deadly sins,” since the thoughts are prior to the actions. And

For Evagrius it is acedia “alone of all the [bad] thoughts” that is “an entangled struggle of hate and desire. For the listless one hates whatever is in front of him and desires what is not there.” If we cannot rein in this thought and the depredations it brings, we become, in Evagrius’ vivid phrase, the playthings of our demons, no longer able to distinguish between what will enhance our lives and what will destroy us. “Like an irrational beast,” he writes, we find ourselves “drugged by desire and beat from behind by hate.” As always, however, there is a remedy, and it is close at hand. “Endurance cures listlessness, and so does everything done with much care and fear of God.”

She is right that this is one of the characteristic vices of our age. Those who “don’t care” restlessly hunt new amusements, new fads, new “save the world” schemes; never looking honestly at their own motives or open to real changes of life. We are afflicted with anomie and hopelessness in the middle of unexampled wealth and power.

I’m also reading Galbraith’s The Culture of Contentment. His theoretical economic analysis doesn’t hold a candle to her book.

The book is not a “linear” book. Some of the stories she tells are intensely personal and painful, and some are beautiful, and some assume the reader isn’t going to be overwhelmed by a few literary references.

Read the book. Rumplestiltskin has a lot less power when you recognize and name him.

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