Novelist Walker Percy once said that his greatest fear for America was not that the nation would be defeated by some external enemy but by “weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed, and in the end helplessness before its great problems.”
I have that concern not just for our nation, but for the church, for a wide variety of community organizations, and for our lives as individuals. Call it what you will—indifference, apathy, or the old-fashioned word “sloth”—but there are far too many of us who are shrugging our shoulders instead of rolling up our sleeves in the face of problems and opportunities; reaching for the remote and settling into the sofa instead of reaching out to one another and the world in love; cocooning rather than connecting; staying busy with things that matter only a little so we can be distracted from the things which matter most; and chasing empty goals as a way of running from our emptier hearts.
The early church fathers and mothers called this problem “acedia.” It has many moods and nuances. “Acedia” can be listlessness and boredom which show up as the inability to summon energy to do what we most need to do. It can be the familiarity which breeds contempt—the kind of disinterestedness that strikes us when we have been somewhere long enough that it no longer seems to hold the possibility of surprise or the promise of grace. Acedia is the nauseating, numbing dullness of the routine; it is what we feel when we are sick and tired of the sameness of everything: the same bed to make, clothes to wash, same problems to solve, same phone calls to make, and same people to love. It is what makes us want to scream if we have to do one more of the same old things. “Acedia” makes us want to get out and get away; it causes us to crave something new and shiny, something we don’t already know too much about, and something where the problems are still hidden from our eyes by the temporary cover of novelty.
Sometimes “acedia” shows up in us as a kind of escape, either through frantic activity which keeps us from paying attention to things that really matter or through equally frantic pursuit of leisure, pleasure and entertainment. We live in the age of the workaholic and the couch potato—often the same person: running, hustling, hurrying; collapsing, hiding, disconnecting.
“Acedia” isn’t about the pace (slow or fast) of our lives; it’s about our purposes and priorities. It is possible to be busy to the point of burnout and still be slothful, because we are busy at the lesser and not occupied by the greater.
A salesman can fritter away the day in busy-ness; in the morning, drinking coffee with the sales manager, talking with suppliers, and making lists of potential customers and in the afternoon, trying to decide whom to call first and dreaming about what he’ll do with the money when he makes the big sale. The salesman is busy, but he never sells.
A writer can spend hours anxiously preparing to write—sharpening pencils and lining them up on the desk, arranging resource material and reviewing what others have written, and making coffee and adjusting the thermostat—but she never writes.
A minister can spend hours leafing through a lightweight journal and fussing over the fine print of the Sunday bulletin, and never actually study.
Parents can run themselves ragged and their children into crankiness, hauling their kids to various enrichment opportunities and never actually spend time in conversation with their children. They are busy on behalf of their children, but not involved, with them.
Our lives can become so cluttered and complicated that we don’t have time to be quiet, to pray, and to hear God’s voice through the scriptures. We can’t find the time to sit with distraught friend or to care for the disadvantaged.
We’re busy, but when it comes to the things that matter most, we’re cocooned away in our comfortable justifications: How could we possibly do anything else?
When “acedia” strikes, and it hits almost all of us from time to time, it’s wise to step-back from our routines and remember what matters most in life:
It matters that God loves us with an everlasting love. When our caring is at low ebb, it helps to remember that God’s caring is inexhaustible. Giving ourselves time and space to remember that Originating Love will renew our own energy for caring.
It matters that we remember that love—love for God, neighbor, world and self—is the purpose of life. Whatever blocks our loving and being loved is draining energy and power from our lives.
It matters that we realize we have some choices about how we use our time. None of us has absolute control of the calendar or the PDA, but we can exercise more control than we often do. Sure, we might disappoint some of the people who benefit from our always saying “yes” to their ideas for the ways our lives should go, but only we know what uses of our time reflect the deepest desires, callings, and priorities of our lives. And, only when we are doing what we are meant to do will our energy flow again.