Accidie, acedia, or sloth, is often defined as a life-draining lethargy or heaviness of spirit that is characterized by a lack of passion, will, and motivation, leading to melancholy, apathy and indifference. But the term accidie actually denotes, as the desert contemplatives describe it, as a sorrowful, bitter, and self-defeating refusal to partake of life which is far more destructive than the simple laziness and torpor the pejorative sense of the word implies. In fact, sloth may entail a kind of relentless restlessness that takes the form of a manic escapism and withdrawal from the world, symbolized by the animal archetype of the wild boar who spends all day digging for truffles. A proverb reads, “The slothful man has no time.” Sloth connotes a distraction from a lived life, and in many ancient texts, the sin of sloth was viewed as the primary vice, more debilitating and dangerous than pride and envy. Dante placed acedia as the central evil of the seven deadly sins. The monastic tradition speaks of sloth as the daemon meridianus, or “demon of the noontide” because the solitary hermits who lived in the desert often described a sudden loss of vitality most common at the noonday time, a sudden feeling of “giving up,” self-hatred, rageful resentment, and loss of spiritual energy. Keeping in mind the numerous historic challenges and social unrest so pervasive in the world today, it is timely to examine the various descriptions and symbolism of acedia, and to widen the complex meanings of acedia in religious life to include psychological perspectives, especially in regard to Otto Rank’s notion of life fear and death fear, characterized by the struggle between counter-will and creative will, a hallmark of acedia.
Gerald May once lamented that when psychology and religion become engaged, religious views are more often than not annexed by psychology, ending up as “psychologized religion, a religion denuded of its legitimate transcendent focus (May, 1955). Indeed, on one episode of the popular culture satire, The Simpsons, a judge angrily invokes a restraining order between science and religion, decreeing that the two must stay five hundred feet apart at all times! Charles Gerkin offers a more dialogical perspective and hope. He says:
Theology is a unique and self-defined mode of discourse with it own tradition, its own rules of language, its own ways of viewing the cosmos and human behavior…. Yet, the languages of other disciplines can be of great assistance to theologians in what has come to be called a mutually critical dialogue (Gerkin, 1994, p. 55).
Clearly, psychotherapy and religious experiences have much to gain by a critical mutual dialogue (Gerkin, 1994) especially in regard to their shared worlds of hope and healing. Together these great rivers of thought create a contextuality constructed from an “intellectual commons” made possible by our views of the individual in a wider socio-cultural setting—a context suggesting a larger, more complex dimension of experience. With this intellectual commons in mind we can explore the interdisciplinary worlds of acedia, spiritual depression, and creative recovery.
How can we think about the phenomenon of acedia? The comedian Sarah Silverman reported a conversation when a friend said to her, “Have you thought about talking to someone about your problem with aggression?” And she responded, “I don’t have a problem with aggression. I do it very well thank you.”. One can often imagine the same response about the non-doing inaction, relational stuckness, and counter-will of acedia. Indeed, we can do it very well.
Wendy Wasserstein wrote a book about how to live a happy and guilt-free slothful life (Wasserstein, 2004). She argues that the first step in becoming a true sloth is to enter into “lethargiosis,” a state which “breaks the cycle of excess energy and stored dreams.” She recommends eliminating activity by counting activity grams. She chides overachievers like Shakespeare and offers a sloth mantra: S, is sit instead of stand; L, is let yourself go; O is open your mouth; T, for Toil no more; H is for happiness is within me. She discusses strategies for maintaining slothfulness through diet, work, when you have to work at all, and the joy of complete indolence. “You have a right to be lazy”, she says, “You have the right not to choose, not to respond or even move.” (Ibid. p. 7).
In a recent book, Seven Sins for a Life Worth Living, Roger Housden remarks, “If you spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live” (Housden, 2005, p.125). Although Housden sees keenly that true rest happens when we take a rest from ourselves, he also adds quickly that this is not the same as the sluggishness of mind, or acedia.
Acedia was originally one of the eight not seven principal logismoi (tempting-thoughts or passions) of early Christian monastic writing—from the desert abbots and abbesses. The term reflects many root sources, and its meaning is informed by cultural specifics. Acedia was originally understood as the most destructive of all the demons, the number one deadly influence on our thinking and being. Acedia is translated as sloth and sluggishness, apathy, spiritual weariness, and spiritual depression. The desert contemplatives preferred to talk of acedia not so much as sins, but primarily as “bad thoughts,” thoughts that influence a negative view of self, other, and reality. This view contrasting the notion of “sins” to simply negative thinking is also found emphasized in Babylonian mythology, particularly in the notion of the “soul journey” that describes the eight evil thoughts the soul must contend with after death—a lexicon that pre-dates Christianity. Thomas Aquinas called acedia the “weariness in the face of work,” but also elaborated on the term, calling it a “sadness or listlessness in response to the need to strive for some spiritual good” (Aquinas, 1920). In other words, it connotes the enervation, diminution of energy toward a lived life, a depletion of the spiritual zeal and direction. Acedia in Latin also suggests “sorrow,” deliberately self-directed, turning away from life or a loss of spiritual determination that then feeds back into the process, pushing us into anything, increasing sorrow. Acedia is an uneasiness of the mind, in a sense a disturbance of the self.
A detailed description of acedia is found in the Praktikos by Evagrius of Pontus (399CE), drawn from anecdotes and his own experienced reality. He describes the phenomenon well:
The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon (Psalm 90:6), the daemon meridian, is the most oppressive of all the demons. It attacks the monk at about 10am and besieges his soul until about 2 pm. First it makes the sun seem to be moving slowly or not at all, so the day appears to be fifty hours long.
Then it compels the monk to keep looking out of his window; it forces him to race out of his cell to watch the sun to see how much longer it will be until 3 PM, and it makes him look all around in case any of the brother has come to visit him. Then it makes him hate the place and his way of life and his manual labor. It makes him think there is no love remaining among the brothers; no one will come to console him.
If anyone has recently offended the monk, the demon adds this too so as to increase his hatred. It makes him desire other places where what the things he needs will be easy to obtain, and where he could practice an easier, more productive trade. After all, the demon adds, pleasing the Lord does not depend on being in a particular place: God is to be worshipped everywhere (John 4:21-4).
It joins to these the memory of the monk’s family and his former way of life. It points out that he still has a long time to live while conjuring before his eyes a vision of how burdensome the ascetic life is. Thus, as they say, the demon employs every device it has to make the monk abandon his cell and give up the race. (Ponticus, 1972)
We can see in these descriptions the dangers and will dilemmas of acedia—the “negative thinking” dynamic appearing as both akin to depressed listlessness and apathy, and also agitation and restless anger and aggressiveness. As Luke Dysinger says about Evagrius’s description, “While often experienced as slothful inactivity and apathy, acedia may also manifest as eagerness or compulsion to do anything (no particular thing or place), do everything, except the spiritual good that is most needful. It may even masquerade under the guise of prudence – Let me think about that and I’ll get back to you in ten years” (Dysinger, 2005, p. 24). We see this aspect beautifully illustrated in modern literature, in Herman Mellvile’s character, Bartleby, the Scrivener, a copyist hired by a Wall Street firm who keeps cutting back on the job description until he finally abandons work altogether. He once remarked, “I like to be stationary”; he was famous for his “dead-wall reveries,” and his stock response to almost any request for meaningful activity was, “I would prefer not to” (Melville, 1853).
Clearly, sloth or acedia is not simply laziness or idleness only, nor is it a demon for contemplative monks who live far from the local village; it can also manifest in surprising ways, manifest in our contemporary edges and interpersonal fissures—uneasy feelings that form such as restlessness, empty activity, boredom and deadness; we become caught in a directionless hustle rather than with a creative flow.
Dante places the morbid condition of acedia in the black slime of the River Styx in the Inferno, the central evil of all the seven deadly sins. The lesser state for those inflicted with a steady dose of acedia in life will be placed in the purgatory terraces. He shows the working through of sloth in the Ante-Purgatory where all penitent must wait, learn to wait, and be washed clean. This place reflects the proverb that reads, “the slothful man has no time.” This theme is captured well in the Place of Waiting in Ante-Purgatory. The Terrace of Acedia is a chaotic skelter or frenzy of running feet, the antidote for sloth, but also a compromise of sloth’s restlessness. This is the terrace devoted to those whose sin is acedia. As the pilgrims arrive, the sun is setting, and they feel lassitude and can hardly move. But with the sunrise they are restless of body, and are not talkative, avoidant of task—there is no conversation on the terrace. As the Jungian analyst Helen Luke writes about this theme of rest and restlessness, “We know the continual cry, ‘I have not time!’ which betrays this condition” (Luke, 1883, p. 43). The sojourners must confront the nature of time before entering into timelessness. Eventually they will proceed from the terrace that reflects how they chose the wrong kind of individualism—those who would not listen to the wisdom of others—and enter the second terrace of the indolent, the over-preoccupied, those impatient souls who are in such a hurry to arrive that they try to hurry ahead. As Luke describes the story, “these individuals are joined by “do-gooders, the preoccupied, those who in life were too busy and troubled by other people’s needs—people rushed off their feet to always be helping, neglecting their own needs. It is here at these levels of acedia, that Dante dreams and wakes in great fear—dreams of the heat of fire, lightening, and the cold fear—the wedding of opposites that is anticipated by his spiral way toward paradise” Ibid., p. 44). In summary, the Terrace of Acedia in Dante’s Purgatorio is filled with the sound of rushing feet, not unlike, in modern terms, Grand Central Station New York City in the late day, or an urban museum on a rainy Sunday. In Dante’s place of penance, it is also the place of waiting for those who struggle, fidget, refuse to sit with themselves. The Terrace of Acedia is a weigh-station for the indolent, the over-preoccupied, those impatient souls who are in such a hurry to arrive that they try to jump ahead in directions that lead nowhere. On the Terraces one hears no prayer or hymns, for all are forced to do double shifts, working night and day to make up for lost opportunities on earth. They work and wait to ascend beyond time and space, to embrace their penance.
As we see in these descriptions and metaphors, acedia is a signal that a person is not so much energy depleted, but in fact “distracted from the soul.” By acknowledging the presence of acedia, we can rediscover a healthy direction toward becoming and fulfilling our unique idiom opposed to the notion of disruptive thoughts that cause us to miss our mark—the struggle where we refuse the person we may become, refusing to engage the world much less making an art of our lives.
This leads us to associate acedia with spiritual depression—that is, a spiritual apathy or spiritual weariness that resonates with depressive characteristics. The novelist William Styron said about the term depression: “For over seventy years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control” (Styron,1992, p 5). But to speak of spiritual depression is not to simply speak of clinical depression in regard to biological factors—although the desert fathers and mothers’ description of acedia may hold in common many clear indicators of our contemporary understandings of depression. In contrast to clinical depression, we can compare the phenomenon of spiritual depression, suggesting an experience of feeling “de-pressed” or “pushed-in” so that the focus of attention is withdrawn from the world to primarily the self, resulting in self-preoccupations.
William Kraft is helpful about the distinction between clinical depression and spiritual depression when he notes, “Depression is caused primarily by an internal loss (endogenous) or by an external loss (exogenous), meaning that some researchers think that depression, or the endogenous type, is due to biological determinants such as a change in neurotransmitters (such as serotonin), and may require medication” (Kraft, 2000, p. 18). Dsythmia, developmental depression or situational depression may include biological foundations, but we can also understand them as internal losses that affect us psychologically, and this pertains more to the history of acedia. For example, when perfectionistic persons meet their limitations, they may “lose” self-esteem and feel depressed—the typical understanding of repressed anger, or the reaction to the sudden loss of a loved one. We can also see this loss in the narcissistic investment in an identity that suddenly is challenged or annulled by circumstances. However, a two-sided dynamic may appear: even though we may experience a listlessness or restless emptiness, we may also find that we are asked by a sudden experience of spiritual weariness and loss of energy to slow down from our business, and to take time for ourselves-—to take stock, discover a kind of inventory (Kraft, 2000). It reflects a loss of what we have grown dependent on, a change of values. We feel lost in a kind of nothingness difficult to explain; we lose the familiar sense of things around us; our past is outdated. Life becomes heavy. Nothing seems to make sense. According to the early ascetics, spiritual depression means that we have nothing to lean on and nothing to stand on, and so we are thrown back to our creatureliness, and thus new awarenesses may come to us when all boundaries break down. As Kraft notes, “our nothingness throws us back on ourselves and asks us to find a different place and pace in the world, to search for something we can not lose, and to find meaning this part of our being and that no one can take from us—thus being acquainted with desert depression can affirm the limits of living” (Ibid. p.42). Can we begin to see the possibilities of our limits? Can we find the discipline to actualize ourselves within our limits, to be still on the Terrace of Acedia? There is a Zen saying, “if you sit ten minutes and nothing happens, sit twenty.” When we experience a loss of fundamental meaning, we may be motivated to renew ourselves and to find deeper meaning in life. This can reanimate our capacity to love, which is an important component to overcoming acedia.
We can speak of spiritual depression in this context, for acedia is not only a descriptive term for internal and external losses that trigger depressive characteristics, it can be a signal to review the loss of meaning in one’s life, the loss of love of self and other, and thus lead to a rediscovery or a “finding time”, a movement physically, spiritually, and psychologically– indeed an activation or impetus toward an evolving self which mirrors the life-force. We can see this finding time emerge in creative play and physical activities. Paradoxically, we can see that acedia contains aspects of spiritual depression which can nevertheless harbor hope and freedom from the terrible heaviness or manic restlessness of which both contemplatives and psychologists speak.
Blaise Pascal wrote that “one must occasionally make new efforts to acquire newness of spirit since one can preserve a former grace only by acquiring a new one; otherwise one loses what he thinks he retains; like those who wishing to wall in the light, manage only to shut in the darkness” (Pascal, 1995). In comparison, Siegfried Wenzel writes in his book The Sin of Sloth that “sloth is such a universal experience that one will find it analyzed and condemned whenever human reflection on his or her nature has reached a fairly subtle stage” (Wenzel, 2012, p.14). However, we find its deadly expression in all cultures, for it designates a “hatred of all things which entail effort and a faintheartedness in matters of difficulty” (Ibid. p. 23).
In ancient Hebrew an asel is a person who “lets himself drift, shuts in the darkness, refusing to observe his fundamental obligation to provide for the necessities of life, devoting himself instead to responsible indolence—therefore is unreliable to self and community— like plowing in the summer having not planted, no harvest to be found” (Wenzel, p. 47 ).
Another example of acedia in found in a midrash on Proverbs 26, mocking one who will not go out to study with his teacher:
“When a man is told, ‘Your teacher is in the city nearby, go and learn Torah from him,” he replies. ‘But I fear the lion in the way… When he is told “Your teacher is within your township; bestir yourself and go to him,” he replies, ‘I fear that the lion may be in the streets’… When he is told, “Behold, your teacher is in his house,’ he replies, ‘If I go to his house, I am certain to find the door bolted’… Then he is told, ‘But it is open’… at that point, when he is at a loss to reply, he says, “Whether the door is open or bolted, I want to sleep just a little longer.”
Further word studies of acedia in Hebrew, Latin and Greek are also telling. The Latin acidis derives from the Greek acknos that mean “not caring” or “I do not care.” It also has roots in the word acidum, which means “sour,” and also accidere, where we get the word accident as well as access. All the meanings suggest a bitterness toward life, an accident waiting to happen, a person who is inaccessible, or a sudden loss of caring. Also, the possibility of access to what is denied is inferred.
Overall, the abbots and the abbesses underscore that “at the base of acedia in the ancient texts is the undervaluation of the gifts God has endowed upon the particular being, and the work bestowed on them also is despised” (Wetzel, p. 56). If one says continually, “I cannot do it,” I am not good enough,” “I have not studied enough,” “I am not smart enough,” it depicts the presence of the shadow who is one’s real antagonist. It suggests a self-hatred that may grow and eventually reject oneself completely, which is why acedia is viewed throughout centuries as the root of all the other temptations and struggles of thought and body.
Animal Archetypes of Acedia
In medieval iconography, sloth appears as a man riding on, or leaning against a donkey, without passion, without business or diversion, without study. This image is often contrasted with the metaphor of a person holding a rooster, an animal archetype of pride because the bird is always looking for what is coming down the road, sitting high on the barn like the weathervane—high up and puffed up that connotes the characteristics of grandiosity and vanity.
A fascinating image of acedia is found in the animal archetype of the wild boar. As Jungian analyst Anne Mcguire points out, the desolation laid upon the life of an individual in a state of inertia or sloth corresponds to the land where “frost has cast its glacial spell, and this land is the source of the boar image, traditionally a Hyperborean creature which means it comes from a land beyond Boreas, the North Wind, so beyond the North Wind—this glacial world of spells” (Mcguire, 2004, p. 117). It is a very ancient image, often found on tapestries, depicting a time of magical powers and spiritual authority. The boar seeks out the truffles of the forest, foraging all day with busy distraction, yet divining the ancient fruit that was believed created by lightening—so the taste of truffles do not originate in the earth as much as they are created as a sacred gift from above. The Boar seeks them out all day, repetitively all day.
According to Mcguire, the boar represents a communion of opposites. On one hand, it is a creature that helps clear the land so crops can be planted due to is rooting the soil of weeds. However, at harvest time, when it roots the field with the bounty, it is seen as a destroyer, waster, and is associated with death and decay. In addition, it is a very dangerous animal that has great courage when it is hunted and trapped and will lower its head and charge in a trickster way, killing many hunters. It thus symbolizes the raging fury behind melancholy and depression, a creature who both wanders all day digging truffles, and who suddenly withdraws, hides, and then with great strength and courage defends its domain to the death. It was believed that to eat the flesh of a boar was to ingest such hidden courage and strength waiting to manifest.
The wedding of opposites is indicated by the boar’s courage, and by its tandem association to death. As Mcguire points out, the boar represents the absence of the sun, the withdrawal of light. The French word for the wild boar is sanglier, the “one who lives alone,” suggesting the solitary pain of acedia. We can see this kind of pain in individuals who are de-pressed within themselves, unable to interact, lacking humor, restless and cranky, lacking in playful interaction—incombered by a noonday darkness. Mcguire tells us that in Celtic world, a boar without bristles (that is without the sun’s rays) is the last darkness of the world, and the destruction of the sun at nightfall. In fact, the black boar represents decay and winter, a symbol for sloth or spiritual depression. The boar is indicative of a perilous crossroads charged with acedia; the danger of going either way, toward life or death, is signified in this powerful image.
To dream of a boar is a powerful archetype of the psyche. It often suggests that the individual has descended into a winter inertia where the emotional life is suspended. Many persons who dream this image often speak of feeling too busy to actually have a life, and that it is hard to make a decision or choice in their lives. Feeling always distracted in their day-world, the boar appears to them in a dream, revealing the dangerous state of one’s life. The confrontation with the boar’s collective meaning often jolts the dreamers into a review of their situation, and can have great efficacy toward a renewed going-on being. The boar’s bristles can be seen as the winter rays of the sun, the hope of Spring reappearing, and the courage to accept the cycle of time and nature—what the travelers on the Terrace of Acedia in Dante’s epic must confront in themselves. But the boar is also death, and thus it is indicative of perilous crossroads charged with sloth, the danger of going either way, toward life or death. In addition, as we have seen, the lion is also often an image that suggests this twofold nature of acedia. As the poet Wallace Stevens said, “The lion sleeps on its paws. It can kill a man” (Stevens, 1990).
Creative Will and Recovery from Acedia
Acknowledging the images of acedia– from the lion in the street, to the wild boar, to the destructive initiatives wrapped in inertia and refusal, manic doing, and busy undoing– we can see also another side of the life-force that serves as both a psychic gravity, potential creative motivation, and healthy vitality that compensates the presence of sloth. For hidden in the counter-will of acedia is a creative will.
The psychotherapist Otto Rank posits an existential view of creative will that suggests the two-sided nature of acedia. As Rank says, “There is in the individual a primal fear, which manifests itself now as fear of life, another time as fear of death. The fear of life, seems to me actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual—a fear of separation from the whole—although it may appear later as fear of the loss of this dearly bought individuality, as fear of death, of being dissolved again into the whole” (Rank, 1936). Acedia includes a life and death fear dilemma, as we see depicted in the image of the wild boar in dreams.
The interface between life and death is echoed in Rank’s view of the will phenomenon as presenting a basic paradox inherent in the life-force: We require, indeed must have, closeness, connection and acceptance in order to survive. Yet, self-actualization requires separation and differentiation. We are caught between the desire for and fear of self-affirmation, and this becomes heightened as we grow to more developed cognitive capacities and notice consequences of our actions as well as the reaction of others. Rank asserts that the affirmation of one’s difference is a manifestation of the will toward individuation which is expressed in a person’s creative acts. We can understand acedia or spiritual depression as this kind of experience located in the gaps of the will dilemma.
Rank maintains that willing is always accompanied by a modicum of guilt because not only does it necessitate some aggression in the service of self-assertion, it also means that the individual must separate from the original mother-child empathic bond, and later the experience of the group and the security of collective affirmations. This presupposes an opposition of wills. Rank is clear that our differentiation includes both an identity with the “other” and an experience of separateness. Therein lies a dramatic human struggle: how to live out one’s unique expression when it opposes the wishes and needs of another. Rank understood that relatedness is jeopardized by self-assertion, and guilt arises when separation creates a presumption of injury to the other’s need for togetherness. He calls this dynamic “ethical guilt”, an inner reaction from the fear of hurting the other through separation.
Early expressions of will emerge as counter-will, or negative will- the oppositional “No’s” of the child toward the primary caretakers. As autonomy is expressed, guilt ensues by virtue of the child’s departure from the ethical relationship with the mother. By “ethical,” Rank means the capacity for relatedness originally experienced when the child and mother were one. In fact, Rank sees guilt as an ethical problem, and in doing so contrasts “ethical” to “moral” connotations, instead referring to the inherent and inevitable relations of self to other. Thus, when we express our will, the empathic response may be charged with the assumption that the “other” does not wish us to separate. Guilt, then, is a natural consequence of the creative urge toward individuality, a by-product of the experience of separateness. Succinctly put, “Guilt is a confession of the narcissistic origin both of self-assertion through separation and of empathy through union” (Menaker, 1982, p. 36) Thus, Rank echoes the theme of self-betrayal of individual potential that can be seen in acedia by emphasizing that a source of guilt also includes a person’s betrayal of his or her social nature.
Will assertion and its expression particularly as it acts to separate the self can be experienced by the growing child as “bad,” especially when he or she discovers that difference leads to inevitable conflicts with individual and social expectations. But Rank, in accounting for the oppositionalism of the child, “differs from Freud in that he does not place the emphasis on a particular phase of libido development, but rather on the psychological birth of the child as an autonomous self” (Seif,1980, p. 28). As Rank points out, will assertions, unfortunately, may be responded to with censure, condemnations and oppression– implications that the expression of difference is wrong. Excessive guilt for having inclinations toward striving can become threatening to the child’s need to grow, impeding a healthy balance of impulse and inhibition. Rank called this kind of guilt “social and moralistic guilt,” and argued with the prevalent psychologies of his time that the then definition of resistance often held such value-laden connotations (Barbre, 1997). In contrast to negative will, Rank coined the term creative will to “express a spontaneous and freely arrived at act of will that is uniquely individual and is not predictable by any laws of causality” (Menaker, 1982, p. 42).
Throughout his writing, Rank would stress that distressed individuals often suffer from an inhibition in the ability to will, a dynamic we can see conveyed in acedia. Often this inhibition to choose or to act, stem from obsessive and excessive self-consciousness, a kind of “hyper-consciousness” that paralyses the individual from the ability to decide or discern how to choose. As Rank says about this conundrum, this type of suffering occurs when a person “finds his own subjective truth but cannot accept it as such and destroys therewith the given reality (Rank, 1936). His will is unavailable, and he becomes “overly self-critical or over- idealizing, and who then become overly dependent for his self-image on others” (Menaker, 1982, p. 82). This inhibition Rank saw as largely the result of the interaction of original endowment with a primary environment which failed to affirm the will of the growing child. Simply put, Rank underscored that the task of psychotherapy is to address, support, and affirm the client’s creative will so that the individual can learn to create his or her reality from the truth of what he or she discovers, and subsequently search for the subjective truth of things and make them into works of art. This “making” suggests the volitional aspect of creativity.
In conclusion, how do we confront individual and cultural sloth, especially knowing that behind its false lethargy is a quick and charging anger? Confronting sloth, the desert fathers and mothers suggested the striving toward apatheia, or learning to live with passions in a balanced way. In medieval times, Christian theologians created the Seven Heavenly Virtues: prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity. Thomas Aquinas opposed acedia to the joy of charity, and in a precise study demonstrated its dangers by showing the excessiveness of even legitimate sorrow when it impeded an eventual going on being in life. C.G. Jung speaks of this when he notes that sometimes a refusal to suffer can create further deep psychological conflicts, and acedia is the spirit of this refusal. The idea of charity is the return to outward looking energy as an antidote to inertia, the acceptance of the other and of the obligatory challenges of life. Sigmund Freud refers to this proclivity when he speaks of transforming “neurotic suffering into common unhappiness.”
Luke Dysinger says succinctly that the cure for acedia lies in cultivating the virtue of perseverance, helping one to persist and not lose hope. In regard to the ascetic monks, there were practices that helped, such as psalmody and song, the deliberate choice not to abandon the place where the spiritual discipline is practiced; mediations on one’s limitation, on one being loved by God; respect for one’s body, and reasonable attention to one’s health (Dysinger, 2005). In the Praktikos, Abba Anthony was given a vision while struggling with the demon of acedia: he cried to God, “How can I be saved?” In his vision he saw himself sitting down at his work, intermittently standing for prayer with outstretched arms, then sitting back down to work for an interval. “Do this” he was told, “and you will be saved.” We can see the emphasis on the doing in this vision. Short prayer and small actions link us to the self and other, and meaning-making, and little breaks consecrate the whole of ordinary life—and then there is no room for acedia, since all ordinary activity is incorporated into spiritual progress.
Today in this busy and rushing world the onslaught of acedia in narcissistic cultures is rampant as the wild boar. The heaviness of acedia points to unconscious anger which has not been resolved, but it also may precede the advent of creative release and renewal, as we have discussed. Encountering acedia, we see in both religious contemplatives as well as contemporary psychology the importance of holding one’s ground against the aggression that lurks in the acedia personality. We must meet the wild boar head-on and be aware of the dangers therein. We all know the hesitation to address acedia in our works and days, the powerful anger that lurks beneath the surface and is ready to release. Yet, we must be aware that the interaction with this inertia may be the turning point toward creative will, or the opportunity to speak to the core of aliveness in the individual, hidden behind the often over-dramatic and manic performances that abdicate the self. To overcome sloth, we must not only discover and actualize new priorities, we must find our own peculiar possibilities for creative engagement and unfolding. In short, as Mcguire says, “the desert mothers and fathers were wise in their condemnation of an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s emotional storms and resentment when acedia presented itself.” (Ibid, 2004, p. 119).
Paraphrasing Andrew Solomon, acedia is a flaw in love. As Solomon notes, to be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and acedia may awaken us to the mechanism of that despair. He points out that when this depressive force comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection, adding that “it is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no single defense against acedia, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself. In acedia, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident” (Solomon, 2001, p. 74). The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance, the nettled field, the lion in the street, the broken vessel. We must help renew an individual’s protection against acedia, making it possible to love and be loved, and that is why it works.
Rollo May once said that the fundamental psychological problem is the fear of living fully. By repressing the causes of acedia, people live a partial reality, what Jung called “a provisional, twilight life.” Indeed, by addressing the forces of acedia and its tandem heavy world weariness, we can encounter enormous ego strengths and even manic positions that signal recovery, containment, plenum, and play.
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Claude Barbre, Ph.D., L.P., is Distinguished Full Professor, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He is the Course-Lead Coordinator of the Psychodynamics Orientation, and lead faculty in the Child and Adolescent Studies. Dr. Barbre served for 12 years as Executive Director of The Harlem Family Institute, a New York City school-based, psychoanalytic training program. Author of prize-winning articles, books, and poetry, Dr. Barbre is a five-time recipient of the International Gradiva Award for “outstanding contributions to psychoanalysis and the arts.” He is currently a Board Member and Training Supervisor at The Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis (CCP), and in private practice in Chicago.