The Common Good
September/October 2008

Why Bother?

by Julie Polter | September/October 2008

Kathleen Norris explores how an ancient concept of spiritual malaise speaks to us today.

Writer Kathleen Norris admits that the spiritual concept of acedia is difficult for the modern mind to grasp. “It’s sort of untranslatable,” she says, with a clutch of English words—including torpor, apathy, indifference, sloth, despair, depression—approximating, but not capturing the fullness of the word as used by early Christian monastics. “Acedia is more than just restlessness, indifference, or despair,” Norris explains. “It goes down to the Greek root, absence of care. For me, the essence of it is that inability to care.”

In her forthcoming book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (Riverhead Books), Norris explores acedia through monastic literature, contemporary culture, and reflection on her marriage, including the debilitating illness and death of her husband, David Dwyer. As with her previous books The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and Dakota, Norris’ far-ranging intellectual curiosity, gentle humor, and honesty about her own doubts and missteps make it a welcoming read for people of diverse spiritual experience.

Acedia was, and is, almost a given for those living a monastic life—the commitment to place, work, and daily rhythms of prayer inevitably is dogged by periods of restlessness, malaise, even hopelessness. But Norris believes acedia is utterly relevant for the rest of us too. “Acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude,” she writes, “anyone who remains married ‘for better or worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.” And she suspects that the individual experience of acedia is mirrored and multiplied in our cultural and political life. “The more I read about it in monastic literature and medieval theology, the more I realized this isn’t just a personal problem, this is a societal problem,” says Norris.

Among her primary weapons against acedia, Norris counts self-awareness, prayer, monastic writings, and the psalms. “I can always turn to the psalms and say, ‘someone has been here before,’” she says. Hers isn’t a precious piety, however; she observes that “the early monks are so great, because if you start thinking too highly of yourself, they really nail you.”

In June, Kathleen Norris spoke with Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter by phone. At home in Hawaii, Norris was pre­paring to go on a pilgrimage to the Middle East and was looking forward to seeing the Sinai, where some of the desert mothers and fathers once lived.

Julie Polter: What impact did writing this book have on your life?

Kathleen Norris: One very personal thing is that it helped me put a lot of things from my marriage into perspective. I needed to do that, because my husband passed away almost five years ago, and it still feels like yesterday in some ways. This let me put the marriage into perspective and honor it. Another effect is realizing that I’m always going to struggle with acedia—just having written a book doesn’t get me off the hook.

Polter: How is acedia different than depression?

Norris: The biggest dif­ference is that clinical depression is an illness that can be treated. Acedia may feel like a kind of a psychological affliction, but it’s a temptation. If you’re aware of the workings of acedia like the early monks were, you can observe it: It pops up in your mind, you go ah-ha, what is it tempting me to do? How is it tempting me to think or feel? So you can analyze in a way that, if you’re really suffering from clinical depression, you can’t. You need that help from doctors. There is a difference.

Polter: Do you feel acedia has become more prevalent in contemporary culture than in past eras?

Norris: Yes, I think so. I wanted to write about acedia from the personal point of view—how I discovered the word and how it really resonated with me. But one of the breakthroughs in writing the book was when I realized the extent to which the 24-hour news channels fuel our indifference, our inability to really care and act on things. You’re inundated. The important news often isn’t really reported, because so much that is nonessential is pushed up front and made to sound important. I looked at what happened with Iraq—other countries are condemning us because we’re defying the Geneva Conventions and torturing people and trying to justify it. We’re holding people without charges in prisons throughout the world, but there’s no protest movement, really.

Polter: Yet you observe that people can keep busy with good, important work and still be in the grip of acedia. So acedia isn’t just manifested through inaction?

Norris: I’m someone who often runs with all four burners going and can get a lot done in a day. But one of my biggest temptations is to acedia. Keeping busy can foster indifference. You’re so busy that you lose the ability to concentrate, to read seriously, because you’re so used to skimming—you can’t get the big picture. It’s almost a form of self-protection. If we’re really, really busy and we’re running really fast, then nothing bad can happen. We’re way too important to die. We’re necessary because we’re so busy. It’s a mindset that many of us get into.

We certainly see compassion fatigue and burnout. People’s willingness to use their energy and all their time to do something like work against poverty—there is that turning point where they just get burned out and can’t do it anymore and it turns into indifference. Unless you’re aware, it is likely to happen. It’s the shadow side of caring. You also have to realize that it’s okay to be indifferent to some things—you’re not going to save the world by acting on every single thing that comes along.

Polter: How is acedia different from the positive goal of spiritual detachment?

Norris: Apatheia [spiritual detachment] is detachment from the concerns that keep you unfocused on your spiritual life and distracted from remembering that life has a higher purpose than eating, drinking, and sleeping. It’s not callous indifference—apatheia only comes after you’ve struggled with callous indifference and acedia. What all religions are looking for is inner peace that translates into living peaceably with other people. You have to seek it over and over again; you may have a really good week and then you get angry and something pulls you back down. It’s also peace that’s grounded in reality, not illusion. Not just having inner peace while everyone around you is miserable. That’s not how it works. It has to translate into other people recognizing that you’re a peaceable person.

For an extended version of this interview, with audio, click here.

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