Sometimes the choice ‘not to care’ seems the most logical.
The struggle with addiction to drugs and all the attendant issues have been part of our family story for over twenty-five years. The cycle became predictable - drug use, petty crime, arrest, jail, detox, the establishment of more healthy routines in prison, the formation of plans and the building of support systems upon release, a period of well-being, relapse. Repeat.
Every member of the family, including my son, deals with the cycle in their own way.
The temptation “not to care” - one definition of acedia - proves compelling at times.
I find a similar temptation with my brother. Diagnosed as on the autism spectrum with a high degree of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) it is often the small, ever-repeating demands and habits that grind me down.
Boundaries are critical to maintaining my mental health, and yet, at times, I recognize the temptation to back away further, to become indifferent, to quit listening because the requests, implied or verbal, seem unrelenting. How many times need I say “No”? And, if I concede once, then the agreement threatens to become policy, increasing the firepower of the next volley of requests.
Life can be overwhelming.
The calendars stuck on the fridge of many young families document exhaustion. Not to mention demanding work schedules and the effort required to maintain any semblance of a work/life balance. Add in a background awareness of global warming and the arrival of massive technological change that will reshape our society as inevitably as the ice ages recast the geographical formations of earlier times and it is little wonder that we feel the need to withdraw.
So the prevalence of the ancient temptation named acedia.
Gabriel Bunge lists some English equivalents for the old name: repulsion, boredom, inertia, indolence, lassitude, dislike, dejection, and his preference—despondency. This state of the soul moves like a shadow, yet its presence carries substance and weight. In my experience, the most prevalent expression of acedia comes in the temptation not to care - or not care to an appropriate degree - about a person, situation, relationship or even the state of the world.
The early fourth century Desert Christian, Evagrius, named acedia as one of eight “bad thoughts.” The translation undervalues his meaning. Perhaps a more powerful description would be to cast acedia as a gateway temptation, in the way that many street drugs are considered gateways to harder and more devastating drug abuse. The other temptations, “thoughts,” on Evagrius' list were gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, vanity and pride. Each, like acedia, carried different meanings than our current rendition.
Evagrius was not alone in making lists of sins, thoughts and temptations. The practice continued with Pope Gregory, in the sixth century, taking the list of eight bad thoughts and turning them into the famous list of seven deadly sins. Evagrius though continued to argue that acedia was “the last of the sins to conquer.”
Others called them capital sins, the term “capital” derived from military usage where the captains led the way into battle.
Some early lists name gluttony, avarice and vanity as the front line because once they broke through the first lines of resistance other temptations could move more smoothly.
Strategically then, focused resistance becomes essential.
The response to acedia was two-fold, the replacement of the “bad thought” with other thoughts, like gratitude, and the establishment of preventative practices. In early monastic communities, a key practice was the observance of daily “offices.”
In upcoming blogs, I want to explore both but, for now, I take comfort in noting that the temptations around my son and my brother are not new to Christians. They are real and not just the sign of a “bad day,” and the power of the temptation is such that it requires an intentional response if the infection is not to spread.