What should you be doing right now?
If the answer is “not reading this article,” you might want to keep going.
If you're reading this article because you're distracting yourself from something that needs to be done, you might be struggling with something called acedia.
On March 2, just before the coronavirus pandemic caused shutdowns around the world, Fr. Harrison Ayre, a priest in the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia, started tweeting about his experience with the vice of acedia.
Acedia (pronounced ‘uh-see-dee-uh’ in English) comes from the Greek word akēdeia, meaning “lack of care.” It is closely akin to the sin of “sloth”, but it is more complex than mere laziness or boredom.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, acedia is a kind of sadness about things that are spiritual goods, or a “disgust with activity.”
“My one-phrase definition is: the inability to choose the good,” Ayre said. “It's an affliction of the soul that attacks desire - our desire for the good.”
It manifests itself specifically in listlessness, distraction, and wanting to avoid the task at hand, Ayre noted. Paradoxically, it could look either like sitting around and doing nothing, or busying oneself with anything and everything but the task at hand.
Ayre, who is one-half of the podcast “Clerically Speaking” and has an active Twitter following, became well-known for his tweets about combatting acedia in the past few weeks. So much so, that some of his friends have dubbed his timeline “Acedia Twitter.”
“It always was something that's been on my heart because I would say it's one of those things that I struggle with a lot, so it definitely comes from experience,” Ayre said.
“I tweeted something about a month ago and then...I had a couple people ask me in the DMs, ‘Can you give me some practical tips on overcoming this?’” Ayre said.
Ayre thought he would just do a thread on the topic, but because so many people were asking questions and looking for more information, he decided to keep going.
He now tweets daily tips for identifying and overcoming acedia, as well as regular check-ins with his followers, asking them how they are doing and what specific struggles with acedia they have noticed lately.
“It kind of has just taken off,” he said. “Not like ‘blown up,’ but I'd say it gets pretty reasonable engagement every day whenever I would tweet about it, so it's obviously touching people's hearts, which has been a good thing.”
The “noonday devil”
In a 2015 book on the subject, Fr. Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., called acedia the “noonday devil”, because the temptation has a tendency to strike in the middle of the day.
The phrase has been used to describe acedia for centuries.
“It's when even your bodily tendency is to be a little bit tired and a little restless at the day,” Ayre said.
Nault likened the experience to restless monks staring out of their cells (rooms), longing for escape.
“You're in the desert, it's hot, you're in your cell, and the sun's beating into your cell, and it can be a great temptation to want to leave the duty of the moment. That's why it's called the noonday devil,” Ayre said.
But for people who aren’t monks, what does acedia look like?
“Let's say you're at work and you know that the task you need to do right now is answer those 10 emails in your inbox. That is the most important thing for you to do in this moment,” Ayre said.
“But instead, you're like, ‘I'm going to go make those photocopies,’ or, ‘I'm going to go to the water cooler to get some water and see if anyone's there,’ or, ‘I'm going to browse the internet for a bit,’ or, ‘I'm just going to sit here and not do anything for 10 minutes.’”
“You're doing stuff or not doing stuff, but you're doing all those things to avoid the task of the moment. Acedia attacks what I'd say is the giftedness of the moment.”
For parents, Ayre said acedia might manifest itself in a temptation to stay in bed when the children are up at 3 a.m.
“Acedia would say: I'm going to stay in bed. I don't care if they're throwing up. I'm staying in bed,” he said. Combatting that temptation would look like: “you (get up) because you love them and it's a good thing to do for them and it's a sacrifice for their good.”
“It's about accepting whatever has been thrown to us at the moment and not wanting to avoid it,” Ayre said.
According to Nault, the battle against acedia is about accepting the full gift of one’s vocation in life.
“The ‘noonday devil’ can be vanquished only by accepting the love of God and the sublimity of our vocation, which, in turn, gives rise to the joy of true Christian freedom,” he wrote.
Why acedia matters in the spiritual life
Why does something that might seem like mere distraction in mundane tasks matter so much in the spiritual life?
“I would call (acedia) the temptation of our age, because our age is very dependent on this idea of distraction - of moving my attention to something that is not what we need to do right now,” Ayre said.
And that matters for the spiritual life because “at the heart of every sin, and then every temptation, is to deny the good of a thing - its proper end,” Ayre noted.
“Gluttony comes with taking in a good, which is food, and overusing it, right? Or envy is seeing a good that has happened to someone else and then twisting it and wanting it to be your own,” he said.
“Every sin wants to twist the good, and acedia, it’s saying: ‘I don't want to recognize the good of what I have right here, right now.’ It creates a sense of dissatisfaction of what's been given me.”
And the present moment matters, Ayre said, because it’s where God can be found.
“Our work of the moment is the precise place that we find God...because God shows himself through things, that's how God works. So, if we're trying to say, ‘I'm going to distract myself, I'm going to check Instagram instead of working on my emails or my Word document or whatever’, what I'm saying is: ‘I don't want to encounter God through my task, through the work of the moment.’”
Combatting acedia isn’t about white-knuckling through distracted thoughts and forcing yourself back to the present moment. Ayre said that properly ordering one’s day, and giving things their proper place, can go a long way in combating acedia in one’s life.
“It's not wrong to go on Instagram and Twitter. Obviously I don't think that, that'd be really weird,” Ayre (@FrHarrison) said.
“But do I do that in a rightly ordered way? So, for example, I'll do my office work for half an hour, and then I'm going to take a five minute break and check up on my texts and my WhatsApp and get those things done, and then I'm going to go back to my task.”
“Acedia really gets fought when you start to organize your day properly. It doesn't mean we're going to live strict monastic schedules,” he said. “But I always say: if you can find those three or four most important tasks of your day and order them properly, then everything else will fall into place around that. And you'll stop going to your phone as much, because the reason we go to our phone is because we don't actually see the gift of the moment.”
It’s also about making time for prayer and proper rest and leisure in the day too, Ayre said.
“Find stuff you really enjoy to do and actually give yourself permission to do it, because acedia makes us think that we can't enjoy anything,” he said, such as reading a good book or watching a good movie or spending an hour playing an enjoyable video game.
“Acedia plagues us because sometimes we forget how to enjoy the good things of life. Choosing a good that we enjoy helps remind us of God’s goodness,” Ayre added in a May 9 tweet.
In another recent tweet, Ayre also compared overcoming acedia to a Seinfeld episode, in which George Costanza decides to be “opposite George” - he does the opposite of his normal tendencies, and is surprised to find his life improved.
“(George) meets some girls in a bar and he goes, ‘Hi, I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.’ And they loved him because he was so honest,” Ayre said.
“While beforehand, he wouldn't have done that. He would probably come up with these weird stories about why he was staying at his parents place. And so he found that 'opposite George' was leading to a lot of success for him.”
Fighting acedia can be similar, he said. “Sometimes the best thing to do is to do the opposite. So if you find that you're just slothful in general, and doing anything with remote physical activity is something difficult to do, the opposite thing to do would be to go for a walk,” he said.
When is it acedia, and when is it depression?
Acedia and depression seem to have some things in common, including a lack of desire to do one’s normal activities.
Ayre said he has been asked before about the difference between acedia and depression.
“I'm not a counselor or a clinical psychologist or something like that,” Ayre said, but “personally, I do think there sometimes can be a connection between the two... I think people ask this question because they see a real similarity between the two, and there may be even a connection at times.”
Ayre added that he has never experienced clinical depression himself, and encouraged anyone who was concerned that they might be going through something more than just acedia to talk to their priest and to a mental health professional.
“I'd say if there is almost a lack of desire to do anything in life, that's probably a good sign that it's deeper than acedia and that it perhaps needs medical attention,” Ayre said.
“With acedia, you're often able to function, but maybe not function to the extent that you ought to,” Ayre said.
But depression’s symptoms will likely be more severe, he added.
If one is thinking "’I just, I can't even get out of bed to go to work anymore.’ That's not acedia anymore. That is a sense of, ‘I don't have the tools necessary to get through day to day life.’”
Corona and acedia: How the “new normal” impacts distraction
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the United States and the world, nearly everyone’s daily routine was dramatically upended.
Non-essential workers either worked from home or were laid off. Essential workers kept at it, albeit with either adjusted commutes or schedules or safety protocols in place. Almost all businesses including bars and restaurants and hair salons, were closed.
Busy people who normally had lots of places to go and things to do suddenly found themselves with something they hadn’t had in a while: time.
“I think for most of us, we probably fell into it in a pretty extreme way for about that first month,” Ayre said. “I think it was the fog of the moment. We didn't know what to do with our lives. We didn't know what to do with this time. The future is uncertain...and you just wander throughout the day and you do your things but you don't have a real target of life. So I think in that sense it was bad.”
But people adjusting to working from home or going out far less have “time and space to get our lives in order,” he said.
“I'm hearing people say they've been attacking acedia now by picking up a chore every day. Whereas before, they didn't have time to pick a chore every day. Or they're cooking more because they're not running to five different appointments at night, so they're not just grabbing McDonald's quickly as they're running to the next thing.”
“They're having time to do the things that are necessary in life; the busyness stopped. When we were so busy, we were not able to see what is essential,” he said. Ayre said he is hearing from families that they are realizing the slowness of life right now has actually been very good for their kids as well.
“I've heard from families saying, ‘I never realized I didn't have to take the kids to three things every night.’ And they love it. They love the slowness. Their kids are playing on the front yards again, and the kids are happy.”
Ayre said he hopes that one lesson people are able to take away from the extra time they have been given during this pandemic is the need to contemplate God and what is most essential in their lives, which is in itself a big step in fighting acedia.
“I really hope and pray that we can learn our lesson from this, that we don't need to be this busy. And then when you start to choose these essential things, acedia will rip itself from your life, because you'll see - I'm doing what is essential. And a full life makes it easier to choose the good and see the good. It's like that meme, right? ‘Nature is healing itself.’ In a way, it is.”
For those looking to dive deeper into acedia, Fr. Ayre recommended Nault’s book, as well as “Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire” by R.J. Snell, and “Acedia & Me” by Kathleen Norris.