A virtuous path

Feeling a bit better today after massive amounts of ibuprofen, a therapeutic massage, ointments, citron spritzer, peppermint oil, Traumeel, Arnica, GABA nasal spray, brain music, vibrating pucks, etc., etc.  Call me desperate!  At least some or all seems to be working.

Why is it so hard to do the routine stuff that might’ve headed this off in the first place? The daily stretching and muscle strengthening, the anti-inflammatory herbs and ointments, the routine walking, all that?  I know it makes me feel better at the time; I know it helps keep me out of these crises…so what’s the problem?

At times, it feels like it’s not just lethargy, but a positive attraction toward disability and illness as excuses to withdraw from life, like that same dark temptation to drink and drink and drink, long after I knew it was sucking the life out of me.  Why, if there’s a life force directing us toward preserving our species and away from danger and death, do some of us feel this way?

From the chapter “Acedia” in Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk (yes, again!):

Severe lethargy has set in, what the desert monks might have called “acedia” or “listlessness,” and in the Middle Ages was considered sloth, but these days is most often termed “depression.”  I had thought that I was merely tired and in need of rest at year’s end, but it drags on, becoming the death-in-life that I know all too well, when my capacity for joy shrivels up and, like drought-stricken grass, I die down to the roots to wait it out.  The simplest acts demand a Herculean effort, the pleasure I normally take in people and the world itself is lost to me.  I can be with people I love, and know that I love them, but feel nothing at all.  I am observing my life more than living it.

I recognize in all of this the siege of what the desert monks termed the “noonday demon.”  It suggests that whatever I’m doing, indeed my entire life of “doings,” is not only meaningless but utterly useless….

It describes what I often feel, why I search for excuses to withdraw.   But not for pain.  Once I have that sharp, stabbing pain–not aches and soreness, but the kind that makes you gasp and wince–all I want is to find a way out of it. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing to have a little pain in your life, a prick of reality to bring you out of your torpor.

Later, Norris developed these ideas in an entire book called Acedia & Me.  In a review of it in a national Catholic weekly, William A. Barry writes:

The poet and author… here brings close attention to her own experience and her immense reading to bear on exploring the nature of acedia, the “noonday demon,” as the basic temptation besetting the modern world. True to her calling as a poet she notes that the word acedia at root means a lack of care. In the noonday sun the monks of the desert were tempted to give up caring for their way of life and eventually for God. Norris is careful to distinguish acedia from depression, with which it has many similarities. She comes at the distinction from a number of different directions, among them the following: “A crucial distinction between depression and acedia is that the former implies a certain level of anguish over one’s condition, while in the latter it remains a matter of indifference.” –“The Noonday Demon,” America Magazine, Oct. 6, 2008.

Acedia is a disposition away from virtue, a temptation to slough off on commitment.  Barry continues:

“The early Christian monks staked their survival on their willingness to be as God had made them, creatures of the day to day.” They saw clearly that the antidote to acedia’s blandishments was commitment to the discipline of developing good habits, another name for which is virtues. 

And that’s what my inaction in so many areas of life feels like to me–not being paralyzed into immobility by depression, but choosing to avoid the necessary work.

As a life-long atheist, I am amazed to find myself learning this from desert monks of the 4th century and modern day Catholics.

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6 Responses to A virtuous path

  1. Imogen says:

    Oh what wonderful questions you pose. Why do some of us defy logic and continue with our self-destructive behaviours? Every time i drank i knew i would be hungover and it would prevent me from achieving anything the next day. It was my way out of life.
    Very interesting too re depression vs acedia and the distinctions between the two.

    • sswl says:

      I guess the big question is how much choice is involved–does addiction preclude choice? I know once I take that first drink, the choice is out of my hands, but as to what makes us start drinking in the first place, I guess right now I’m going with the theories about too little dopamine, serotonin, etc. making us look for pleasure enhancement. Why some people have THAT problem, I do not know, though some sort of deprivation in childhood or fetal development seems to be a popular theory (see Gabor Mate).

      Thanks for your good comments!

  2. Pingback: Sherwood Forest | A Life Spent Drunk

  3. So glad I found your blog! What a great post, and great writing. I’m hoping that getting sober for longer than a few months might part my “cloud” and allow me to see the way I observe and react to the world with more clarity — if that brings me closer to a deep and fundamental misunderstanding of (my) life, then so be it. I hope for otherwise at this early stage…

  4. Mary LA says:

    Good to read you blogging —

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