Once, after feeling awful for a few days but not thinking it was the flu, I sat up in bed, my stomach churning, my whole torso in pain, and asked my wife to look up the symptoms of appendicitis because I believed I had it. My wife went to WebMD, typed in appendicitis, and rattled off my symptoms one by one. I got dressed and we headed off to the hospital.
I had a similar experience when I read Kathleen Norris’s excellent memoir, Acedia & Me, about six months ago. As she wrote candidly about early Christian thought on acedia and how it applied to her life, it read like a list of symptoms that one by one, diagnosed my soul. It was WebMD for my soul. I quickly realized I had acedia, which is defined by the Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church as “a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray.”
Not to be a spiritual hypochondriac, running from diagnosis to diagnosis of my spiritual inadequacies, I began to contemplate how the sin of acedia, experienced by monks in the desert seventeen hundred years ago, in a place and time so different than ours, affected me so acutely. I began to find that the common denominator of acedia throughout the ages was how it affected a person’s vocation. I was struck by the words of John Cassian in The Institutions: “Once [acedia] has seized possession of a wretched mind it makes a person horrified at where he is, disgusted with his cell, and also disdainful and contemptuous of the brothers who live with him or at a slight distance, as being careless and unspiritual.” This diagnosis of acedia began to make sense to me when I realized that the monk’s vocation was to worship and contemplate in his cell. His work was accomplished there, in his intimate space, surrounded by the spaces of other individuals. Cassian’s description of acedia relates to the modern working world when we substitute cubicle or office for “cell.” Upon this substitution, we are confronted with the reality that the place we inhabit to do our work is a place that intimately affects our spirituality.
The cubicle confronts us with the reality that we can be separated from our coworkers in some way, as the monk with acedia separated himself from his fellow monks by disdaining them and puffing himself up, while at the same time looking down upon his own vocation within his cell.
In my own work life, I find that it’s easy to look down upon my vocation. I work in a cubicle. That means my role model is Dilbert, the affable yet pathetic cubicle dweller who suffers mediocrity in work and leisure. His anemic work life transfers to a hollow, unfulfilled social life. I have, so often, noticed how the unpleasurable aspects of working in a cubicle have led to acedia in my broader vocations: to write poetry, to read, to pray, to blog, to fish, to play tennis, and to garden. My restlessness with my day job seeped into the rest of my life.
The signs of acedia in my life were excuses and procrastination. I would have a scribble of poetry, just a line or two, that I had written down sometime during the day and would feel the urge to craft it into a poem. The urge to participate in my artistic vocation would become overwhelmed by the restlessness I felt about work in the cube, and something would come up: I’d read an article, go get a drink of water, or check my e-mail. I noticed acedia creep into my writing in graduate school, when constant drinks or breaks could beleaguer the completion of a paper for a few hours.
Acedia comes on in subtle ways more often than not. It is often subconscious, presenting itself without a trace. This happened recently in the morning, as I went to pray. I was tired, having just woken up, and as I went to sit and pray, I walked over to get a drink of water. Sitting on the table was an open issue of Poets & Writers. Before I knew it, I was two paragraphs into an article. I looked up. Wasn’t I supposed to be praying? How had I gotten to the article? I didn’t know, it just happened.
Acedia happens like that. It is sneaky, deceptive, and subtle. It is a chameleon, manifesting itself in what Norris calls “extreme lethargy or hyperactivity.” In a nutshell, it is what keeps us from our vocation. And from my experience, it is hard to cure once diagnosed. I think in my case it’s chronic: it will be with me for the rest of my life. Yet I recognize it now, when I have an article due or watering to be done and I watch clips on Hulu or check my e-mail, and shake myself out of restlessness before it takes over. One day, I hope I can conquer it.