Pollyanna Versus Acedia

Lyda here.

I recently read “Acedia & me: a marriage, monks, and a writer’s life” by Kathleen Norris.

And now I know what I’ve been battling lately. And by “lately” I mean the last several years. Actually, most of my life.

Acedia. Naming the beast is the first step to taming it. I hope.

Because of its subtle and complex nature, defining acedia requires some effort. Wordsworth described “a state of almost savage torpor.” [Preface, “Lyrical Ballads.”] 

Norris writes:

The person afflicted with acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

She says “the boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid.” And later, she writes:

Acedia contains within itself so many concepts:  weariness, despair, ennui, boredom, restlessness, impasse, futility… [It is] a time of great spiritual aridity, when desire itself seems dead, and forsaking hope seems the only adult thing to do.

The medieval monks understood acedia to be a deadly sin (it was later absorbed into “sloth”), and called it “the noontime demon.”

Norris includes quotes about acedia throughout the book, and collects many more in the last chapter:

In Inferno, Dante speaks for the dead who had succummed to acedia in life, now confined to the fourth circle of Hell:

Once we were grim
And sullen in the sweet air above, that took
A further gladness from the play of sun;
Inside us, we bore acedia’s dismal smoke.
We have this black mire now to be sullen in.

Poet Anne Finch  in “The Spleen“: “Through thy black jaundice I all objects see / As dark, as terrible as thee”

 Henry David Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Shakespeare certainly understood acedia. It is one of the reasons I’m drawn to “Hamlet.” I feel at home from the opening scene when Francisco says “’tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart.”

I realize that many of the characters I identify with suffer from acedia.

Hamlet:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world.  Act I, scene ii

Sherlock Holmes:

I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-coloured houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? The Sign of the Four” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Adrian Monk:

Don’t get me started on joy. When you’re older you’ll understand. Joy is a trick, a diversion. It doesn’t last forever. It breaks your heart every time. DAMN JOY!  “Mr. Monk and the Man Who Shot Santa”

It may seem strange, but reading this book really helped me. Kathleen Norris did a lot of research, but she also describes her own battle with acedia, her own ups and downs. Somehow, it helped to read that she has her own noontime demon, that others throughout history have struggled with this, that I am not alone.

What have I found that eases my acedia?  Meditation is very helpful, when I can do it. For me, meditation is one way to pray, and the medieval monks believed that prayer was the cure for acedia.

I often find that I cannot start with prayer or meditation, that I have to use another coping strategy first.

Like cleaning. Cleaning helps a lot, actually. It has something to do with physically changing my environment for the better; if I cannot do anything else, I can at least clean.

And then perhaps I can move on to something else.

Journaling. Writing. Quilting. Knitting. If I can get myself started, it is meditative for me, moving me into a more peaceful and positive place.

Painting. Photography. Collaging. Sketching. All of them help.

Sometimes the images created during these times are horrific, dark, and frightening. Sometimes they are surprisingly light and positive.

The very thing that blocks my creativity is healed by expressing my creativity. Just as the medieval monks found it difficult to pray when suffering from acedia, yet knew prayer was the cure.

The irony is not lost on me.

And so my battle continues with my own noonday demon.

Other things that almost always help? Talking with the Resident Sith Master. Talking with Anna-Liza.

And humor. Humor is essential.

So I think we’ll give Monk the last word: 

 From “Mr. Monk and the Actor”:

Dr. Kroger: And they canceled the movie [about you]?

Monk: [Ruskin] said he wanted to play a character who wasn’t so dark and depressing. [pause] He’s in England playing Hamlet.

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4 thoughts on “Pollyanna Versus Acedia

  1. savanvleck

    I have never heard of acedia before but I just love Monk. There is so much wisdom in that show. And, I really think I am more tolerant and understanding of my mother who is Obsessive Compulsive, because of Monk. I think you are an artist at heart. I’m glad you have found that it helps because I go to a very dark place when I cannot be creative too

    Reply
  2. Marin

    This makes me very sad because I think of you as a funny, vibrant soul who’s always about two steps ahead of me and I feel like a very bad friend that I was so far off. I’m so sorry I’m so oblivious.

    Reply
  3. lyda Post author

    Marin, you have no idea how much you help me – every time I see a construction crane, I laugh because of you. I read your blog and you make me laugh. Your friendship means so much, it doesn’t matter that it is through the innernets.

    Reply

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