Months of isolation, online classes, meetings, family gatherings and reduced social contact have shrunk the breadth of our horizons considerably. The monotony of the routine is seeping in: pray, work, eat, sleep, repeat. And while the availability of vaccines represents a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it is becoming apparent – as relentless waves of COVID-19 continue to roll over one vulnerable community after another, now engulfing the global south—that we will likely be in this for a long time to come.
A recent piece in the New York Times is getting a lot of attention, no doubt because it speaks to what so many are feeling these days. Author Adam Grant names the malaise—the blahs that have so many stuck in a rut—as “languishing.” He describes it as a sense of stagnation and emptiness that saps our motivation to do even the simplest of things.
There are important parallels between what Grant perceives as a mental health crisis and the “noon day demon” that Christian monastics have come to know as acedia. Acedia sets in naturally in the ascetic simplicity of monastic life whose daily routine of prayer, work, meals and sleep is marked by repetition. It comes with the depressing thought that the long road ahead might be nothing more than a meaningless monotony. The soul-weariness of acedia is described variously as melancholy, boredom, listlessness, discouragement, indifference, apathy, despondency. We encounter its temptation, now amplified in our pared-down routines, in the little voice that asks, “why bother?” or “what difference will it make?” and “who cares?”. When seized by acedia’s pathology, our discouragement gives way to the paralysis of despair. We simply cease to care. The I-don’t-give-a-damn version of indifference can degenerate into a virulent sin or vice against charity.
Kathleen Norris has written eloquently on the malaise of acedia prevalent in North American culture, drawing from the Christian spiritual tradition to distinguish between psychological illness and the temptation to acedia. When she began writing about it, she observed how our daylong exposure to television and electronic news media fuels indifference and an inability to really care and act on things. In a world where we are constantly inundated with information, it becomes impossible to distinguish the nonessential from what really matters.
We are unable to absorb the mind-numbing scale of human suffering all around us, with nightmarish new twists each day. It is unbearable to witness the heart wrenching catastrophe that has fallen upon our sisters and brothers in India. In Latin America and elsewhere, the uncontrolled pandemic is leading to the collapse of governments and of public order. Around the world, a contagion of despair is creating new populations of refugees. Closer to home, my neighbors struggle with lost employment, home schooling and increased family pressures while the health-care system is tested to the limit. What is a soul to do? Pray, work, eat, sleep, repeat.
If self-centered indifference is the sickness of our time, the present moment reveals the need for a corrective vision of the world. Hunkered down in COVID bubbles, perhaps we can refocus on what really matters, shed some ballast, redirect our attention to the few simple things, especially the relationships, that count. We can find new freedom in the cultivation of a healthy indifference to the many things that distract us from what truly gives life.
The monastic remedy against the temptation of acedia is essentially a practice of stability, including perseverance, meditation on the scriptures, tears and manual labor.
Persevere. Don’t look away. Resist the temptation to flee. Christian faith tells us that God is waiting to meet us in our disarray.
Return to the Scriptures. They contain a vision of the world as God sees it, not as we would like it to be. This might be a good time to turn to the psalms. They give voice to the whole range of human emotions welling up within. We can pray with a great cloud of witnesses who have never hesitated to lament or cry out, “How long, O Lord?” (Ps 13).
Weep. An especially difficult aspect of the present crisis is the inability to gather, to mourn, to console those who have lost loved ones. Weep and mourn. Shed tears of compassion for the whole earth in travail. Weep with compunction for our many failures to love. May our souls not be deadened by the weight of grief and sorrow.
Work. As much as you are able. Let each simple gesture of quotidian labor become an act of love: cooking, cleaning, reading, writing, ploughing, planting, building a new world. Reclaiming life through the practice of ordinary acts of self-care and care for others moves us from self-centered indifference to the beatitude of joy.
Now more than ever, the world needs a culture of mutual care to save our fading collective soul.
Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.