Acedia has a variety of faces and can manifest in many ways, but I’ve noticed three common trends among mothers home with their children.
1. We turn to electronic escapism. When acedia hits, I find it all too easy to turn to a screen to give me input, and to help me avoid whatever task is in front of me. Acedia has been called the “noon-day demon” because monks often struggled particularly at that time to stay focused and joyful. At my house it’s more like the post-nap-time blah’s. In the mornings I can usually stay reasonably focused and energized, but once 2:30 hits, I’m ready for some chocolate and some diversion.
Evenings can be even worse for me. By then I am exhausted and don’t feel like doing anything. Enter Netflix or Facebook, anything that will help me to forget that pile of clean laundry staring at me, or that conflicts I’m having with my teenager, or my anxiety over the health of my children.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with entertainment occasionally, and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with taking time to rest, but we need to evaluate our motives. Kevin DeYoung put it well in a blog post last year:
For too many of us, the hustle and bustle of electronic activity is a sad expression of a deeper acedia. We feel busy, but not with a hobby or recreation or play. We are busy with busyness. Rather than figure out what to do with our spare minutes and hours, we are content to swim in the shallows and pass our time with passing the time. How many of us, growing too accustomed to the acedia of our age, feel this strange mix of busyness and lifelessness? We are always engaged with our thumbs, but rarely engaged with our thoughts. We keep downloading information, but rarely get down into the depths of our hearts. That’s acedia—purposelessness disguised as constant commotion.
Acedia is that demon that takes us by the remote-holding hand, or the texting-thumbs, right down the path to numbness and death.
2. We turn to busyness. When faced with the hard work of sanctification – of allowing God to shape me through the daily, mundane or hard tasks – I’d rather do something else. And I want it to be loud enough and consuming enough that I can’t hear God’s whisper reminding me that He has called me to something else.
Most of my fellow moms are pretty educated. Many of us have been to college and/or prepared for careers. So when the opportunity comes to do something, we are skilled and ready! We can throw ourselves into a book drive or a church ministry team or a fundraising effort or a school function with great gusto – and even a sense of fulfillment. “Finally,” we think, “Finally, I am getting to do something that will not get undone, something that will be appreciated, something that gives me a sense of worth.”
Aha! I’m looking for something to do to give me a sense of worth! The ironic thing is – acedia is leading me to find my sense of worth in a deceptive way. My worth will never be defined by the type of banquet I throw; it can only be defined in my relationship as God’s child. That “bad thought” that the monks recognized – acedia – is leading us away from this truth. God tell us to be still and know Him. Acedia tells us to do something – anything – else.
It also wants us to be busy so that we don’t have time to think, or to care. Kathleen Norris (the author of Acedia & Me) says that acedia has come so far with us that it easily attaches to our busy schedules. Even though we appear to be the opposite of slothful, we actually are using our activity as an excuse to do less of what we should, and to even care less about what we should. She quotes Wendy Wasserstein, who says that some people keep themselves so busy in their active lives that their spirits actually reach a permanent state of lethargiosis. (Now there’s a thousand-dollar word for you!)
Sometimes we pride ourselves in being so busy that we don’t have time to think. But, as Norris points out, that also means we don’t have time to care about the things we should- -namely our transformation in Christ.
3. We turn to consumerism. Another way that acedia sneakily takes hold of us in persuading us that we need more, which is true, and that the “more” that we need can be bought in stores, which is the distortion of the truth. I wish we could measure acedia and that we could do a historical study of it because I suspect that as the age of consumerism has grown, the amount of acedia has trended up right along with it.
Acedia turns us away from our True Love, away from the hard work of discipline and sanctification, away from the tasks we don’t want to do… and drives us right into the welcoming arms of the big, lovely, brightly colored stores who can seem to be organized, crumb-less refuges to the young mom. In the mirrors of those stores, she can be a trendy woman, a woman who has a lovely, clean home, a woman who has kids who have clothes that fit, match, and are ironed! The stores promise hope… but as we all know, it is an empty hope. Those new purchases are soon grasped by little hands, stained, broken, and lost.
We chuckle about “shopping therapy,” but that’s exactly what it is - -an attempt to heal the hole that our turning away from the tasks at hand causes. When we don’t want to face what is going in our world, inside ourselves or in the lives of people around us, we go shopping.
Consumerism has a way of acting like the black mold on my shower walls. One day I might spot a little bit in the corner, and by the end of the week it has spread to all four walls and is grotesque. (And then I want to ignore it—and just leave and go shopping!) Once we start giving in to consumerism, it begins to take over our lives. We measure ourselves by how well we, our homes, and our children look. The appearances and purchases crowd out the other thoughts we don’t want to face, the ones that matter. As Norris says, we become, “more concerned about the thread-count of our sheets than the ones who have no beds but the streets.” The things that break Jesus’ heart no longer break ours.
The really sad thing about seedy acedia is that it generates a cycle of itself. When we turn away from God’s desire for our lives, and choose entertainment or consumerism or busyness or anything else, we think we are making ourselves better off – but we’re doing quite the opposite. I like how Benedictine monk Hugh Feiss puts it: “[T]he confused heart, having lost joy within itself, seeks… consolation outside… itself. The more it seeks exterior goods, the more it lacks interior joy to which it can return.”
So, what is one to do about all this acedia? Tomorrow I will summarize some suggestions for how to overcome its lies.