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Acedia and Mom

Evagrius Ponticus

I just finished reading Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life (2008) by Kathleen Norris, a spiritual writer known for her meditative memoirs Dakota, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and The Virgin of Bennington. In this most recent book, Norris spends a lot of the 300 pages [a few too many] defining the term acedia.

Ennui, boredom, apathy, and torpor. It’s feeling too tired to care. Originally the eighth sin, it gradually became subsumed over the centuries under sloth; a sufferer may look lazy, but really just can’t bring herself to do what she needs to do. You wash the dishes on Monday. Then you have to do it again on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. How about, then, just not washing the dishes to begin with? How meaningless to keep doing the same menial task again and again!

The temptation toward acedia was well known in the monastic tradition, and monks such as Evagrius Ponticus wrote a lot about how to avoid it and how to rouse yourself out of it. I’m grateful to have learned about him and about the word — a new one to me. It’s about not wanting to get out of bed, not wanting to walk the dog, not wanting to grade the papers. Time will pass by whether you do the work or not, and what difference will it really make in the long run?

My mom spent much of the last twenty years of her life sitting in a chair in her kitchen, surrounded by stacks of magazines and junk mail, watching a TV at the end of the kitchen table. “She sleeps late most days,” I write in Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother. “If I arrive around 11:00 AM, or 2:00 PM, in late afternoon or early evening, anytime of day, I know where to find her. She is sitting in the kitchen, sometimes just looking at the air.”

When she moved, against her will, into a nursing home after breaking a hip, it was more of the same. Sitting. Looking. Not talking.

“A feeling of emptiness or boredom” stands as a major symptom of borderline personality disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. How intriguing now to think of this as a spiritual dis-ease, a temptation that some, because of bad experiences and genetic susceptibility, are more likely to lapse into.

I often felt itchy reading Norris’s laborious analysis of every nuance of the word. She makes a tiresome habit of laying out an argument and then tweaking it with a lengthy “on the other hand.”  But already I’m feeling less impatient and more appreciative of a fresh perspective on my own moods and on my mother’s desolate inactivity, all due to new vocabulary word.

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