When you can't care enough to care

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By David Whitlock

You can often see it in their eyes, if you take the time to look: That far away gaze tells you they are somewhere else---maybe in the future or the past but not the present.

Or sometimes their eyes dart this way and that, like those of a trapped animal searching for an escape route.

And if you have occasion to be with them for very long, you’ll notice a restlessness---an inability to move forward with any kind of fruitfulness---even though they might exhibit workaholic tendencies or conversely, extreme lethargy.

I’m not referring to someone afflicted with ADHD or Lyme disease or mononucleosis.

Then, what is it?

If, like a “Jeopardy!” contestant, you’ve just said, “What is acedia?” you should be hearing Alex Trebek saying, “Right you are.”

This is no recent phenomenon. Acedia  (pronounced uh-SEE-dee-uh) was first described by a fourth century monk named Evagrius of Ponticus. The Greek root of the word literally means “without care.” It’s a complex condition that defies a simple definition.

 It’s a spiritual lethargy---an extreme kind of indifference: the awareness that you don’t care, but you can’t seem to care that you don’t care, even though your apathy weighs on you, crushing your spirit.

Evagrius described it as the “noonday demon,” perhaps because it’s bold enough to attack in the middle of the day instead of sneaking in late at night, or maybe because that’s when the intensity of the sun begins to wear on us, and the drag of the day creeps in as the freshness of the morning evaporates, leaving us languishing with the staleness of the afternoon’s work awaiting us.

Acedia can be dangerous because it is subtly attractive.  Kathleen Norris, who has struggled with acedia for much of her life and written extensively about it, describes it as “spiritual morphine.”

Disconnecting from people, God, and yourself can be seductive because there are times when we grow weary of them all. Like someone teetering between being comfortably numb and inebriated, we stare at the world as it passes by.  Soon, cynicism sets in: We criticize ourselves and others but have no desire to make improvements; we watch TV shows we dislike but are too enervated to pick up the remote and change the channel.

No wonder, as Norris notes, Aldous Huxley called acedia the primary affliction of his age. “Its baleful influence still sours our relationships to society, politics, and our families,” she said.

Maybe John Plotz, Professor of English at Brandeis University, is right: “It takes an acediac to know acedia.” If he’s right, I can’t say I know acedia, except as an occasional minor affliction, an unwelcome guest that’s bothersome but not permanent. And yet, like the winter cold that seems to keep hanging around, when you’ve got it, you wonder if it will it will ever go away.

The cure for acedia is not as easy as repeating a few positive statements, as Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) did in the movie, “What About Bob?” “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful... I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful... I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful...” Bob rehearses to himself each morning in an effort to conquer his neuroses.

The Egyptian monk and early Desert Father of the fifth century, Abba Poemen, knew something about overcoming acedia. He admonished his disciples to recognize it for what it is: a temptation to despair. Naming it is at least a beginning to finding peace when the noonday demon strikes. Again, Abba Poeman said, “Teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.”

I’ve learned to speak to acedia as I would to any seemingly insurmountable mountain in life. “Greater is the Spirit that is in me than the spirit that is in the world,” I say to myself, paraphrasing I John 4:4.

Another Desert Father, John Cassian, advised patience, prayer, and manual labor as the way through acedia. And Norris suggests such practical actions as memorizing Scripture, finding community, shoveling manure, washing dishes, dusting the bookshelf, and being kind to one another as ways of coping with acedia.

Since we are in control of our thoughts, we don’t have to be dominated by acedia or any temptation. We may not be able to avoid it, since it is part of the human condition, but we can respond to it in positive ways. As the reformer of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “You can’t help it if a bird flies over your head, but you don’t need to let him make a nest in your hair.”

The challenge of course, when it comes to acedia, is caring enough to wave the bird away.