It is often a challenge for me to admit my faults; humility is not my strongest area. Were you wondering why we did not have an essay this past week? That lack of content falls squarely on me and my recent battle with acedia.
For those unaware, acedia is a vice typically associated with sloth and laziness, yet in many ways extending beyond those two concepts. To the desert fathers, it typically was used in a way that meant lack of care. While laziness has often replaced this vice in the paradigm of sin since medieval times, this does not mean that this “sloth on steroids” is something that should be taken lightly.
A bit of a sidebar here before we continue: It took me a bit of time to title this post. My first inclination was towards “Conquering Acedia” but I have yet to conquer it completely in my own life and don’t want to spread theory that I have not practiced. Furthermore, this is something you and I may never root up from the garden of our lives; it may instead be an ever-present thorn in our sides, coming back to deliver pain at inopportune moments. Thus, I settled on “Beating Back Acedia” since that designation is more along the lines of winning a battle in an ongoing war. This short reflection is by no means meant to be a comprehensive guide; that will come later on this site and plans are in the works for a series on acedia for our podcast.
A good starting point is a discussion on why I’ve fallen into this vice recently. I have historically struggled with depression which tends to sap my motivation. Nevertheless, I would not say that this was a result of a depressive episode. Vice, in general, is something that we find ourselves mired in only after we have made a conscious effort to wade through there. Yes, we can be more inclined to certain vices over others, but it takes that “I do” in order to really cement ourselves firmly in the muck.
During the COVID-19 quarantine, I’ve spent a good deal of time on things beneficial for my body and soul. I’ve also wasted a lot of time on more fruitless endeavors. I have a bad tendency of convincing myself that I need and deserve certain types of relaxation in order to function like a normal human being. This justification process has had the negative result of leading me down the slippery slope of leisure to mindless doings, such as watching TV and browsing the web aimlessly. I have heard the siren song of distraction and did not use my strength to resist them like Odysseus.
By planting these seeds of mindlessness I have given way to their fruits of acedia. Ordinary things, necessary things have seemed less pleasurable recently. The initial justification for relaxation has led me to justify putting off writing, reading and other things good for my soul. I’ll admit, even as I write this the urge to quit and do something “easier” is pulling at my attention.
I cannot say that these feelings, inclinations or results of mindlessness are the same for everyone. We all tend to experience them from time to time. This “lack of care” for ourselves and other good things can manifest itself in many ways. The underlying rot is the same for everyone though as are the prescriptions for winning your next battle against acedia.
This brings us to the action part of this post. What have I done to beat acedia this time around?
I. Make a Plan of Attack
Acedia is fed by the fruits of mindlessness. During this time where we are spending more time inside, alone with our thoughts and feelings which may make us feel bad, it is easy to seek an easy method of escape or release. If you go through your life without examining and thinking about who you are and what you will do, you will be swept up in these currents of despair.
In order to beat back my current bout of acedia, I needed to ramp up my day-to-day planning. I scheduled in times to write, times to read, times to relax in ways that are productive rather than consumptive (for me, working on some 3D modeling). I scheduled times to browse the web with hard cutoffs. My calendar was not packed to the brim, but it was full.
Don’t get me wrong, this simple act did not stop the urges of distraction. That’s not how beating vice or improving yourself works. What it did do is provide me with more structure for the day and a solid way to bookend my days. I plan things out more meticulously than before in the morning and at night I have a way to better reflect on how I bettered myself or grew as a man. If you already plan out your day and are still struggling, it’s important to evaluate if you are doing too little or too much as well as if you are providing the proper balance. You don’t want to overdo it or swing for the fences on the first pitch.
II. Think Beyond Yourself
Acedia can often manifest itself by causing you to wonder why you should bother doing anything at all. Life seems to lack a purpose and the special can often become mundane. When we are stuck in the mire of listlessness, it’s crucial that we tilt our head up out of the swamp and look to things that are true, good and beautiful. These things can help restore some purpose or direction, helping us move beyond our own beings.
Oftentimes when I am in a rut like this, I will turn to classical music or 19th century marches. As weird as it may sound, Borodin and Piefke stir things in my soul that show just how beautiful and moving things can be. When I look or listen to things that point to eternal goods, the juxtaposition with my own present listlessness smacks me in the face with its triviality.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that we are stewards of our time, goods, well-being, and that of others. Sometimes, you need to suck up the bad feelings and do something because it serves your wife, your children, your work. Real men do not complain and a big mark of a man is the ability to use one’s discipline to move past roadblocks. It’s important to remember that acedia is not mere sloth though and that is why remembering your real motivations in order to push back against this lack of care is critical in beating back this vice.
III. Move your body
Oftentimes, particularly during this quarantine, we feel physically trapped and pent-up with energy. This is certainly the case for me with gyms closed and a big outlet of physical activity removed from my life. Acedia has a tendency to exacerbate this. Our minds get stuck right alongside our bodies.
Physical exercise has been shown to help mitigate depression and other non-physical problems and this is another good way to get back on track. Our being is not that black and white that our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual sides do not crossover. Improving one can have a great impact on the other. Oftentimes, acedia can result because of poor energy management and mindless living as I mentioned above. I don’t wish to beat a dead horse as many other more worthy people have covered this topic, but the importance of exercise cannot be overstated. Even simple things like stretching and walks have helped me to push back bit by bit against the noonday devil. Don’t think you need to start doing goblet squats and handstands in order to fight this spiritual vice. Start small and remain consistent.
This is as much insight as I can muster from my personal life right now. But the fight against vice and the pursuit of virtue needs to start somewhere. I hope this reflection can prove beneficial in your own fight against this plague and tide you over till we arrive with more comprehensive guides to tackling vice.