This post is for the folks who are still in their pajamas at noon, binging on scary news and Candy Crush, bored, irritable, anxious, simultaneously restless and listless. Are there projects you thought you were waiting for a break like this to tackle, but now you can't bring yourself even to look at them? Do you lack the energy and motivation even to keep up your existing good habits? Do you feel disgusted with yourself, with your environment, with the news, with other people? Yeah, oh yeah, I KNOW that feeling. In fact, probably we've all experienced it from time to time -- but it's a particular occupational hazard of hermit-monks.
The desert fathers and mothers called this syndrome acedia, or more charmingly, the "noonday demon." They talked a lot about it, and they offer some excellent advice for combatting this very destructive demon. So what's the prescription? The two most important ingredients are:
a) stay put -- there's no geographical cure!
b) manual labor.
We don't have a lot of choice about the first part nowadays, since we're all sheltering in place. But I think the urge to do anything but this, anywhere but here, with anyone but these people, is pretty familiar.
But it's the second part, manual labor, that I want to recommend here. Particularly, spring cleaning. You know, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, à la Marie Kondo. It's life-changing, not only because of how it transforms your living space and your relationship with your possessions -- both of which are pretty wonderful. It's also a surprisingly effective cure for the noonday demon.
I know, I know, the whole point of acedia is that you don't have the energy or the motivation to get off the couch, so how can you tackle spring cleaning? Here's how: pick just one very small job, and do it now. Look around you and see: one baseboard that needs to be dusted, or some clothes picked up off the floor, or a trash can that needs emptying. It sounds pointless, doesn't it? But it's not, because like many demons, acedia is not as tough as it likes to appear. The thing is, MOST of your willpower goes toward breaking out of inertia. Once you drag your behind up out of that chair, grumbling and scowling get the rag from the cupboard, and wipe that one baseboard ... well, hell, you might as well do the rest of them now. And before you know it, you're straightening up the shelves and tabletops so you can dust those, too, and you find that your mind has changed. At least a little bit.
And if it doesn't work, at least there's a clean baseboard in the house. And an hour or two hours from now, try again. And again. You will be training your brain that that demon can be faced, even if it's still a big bully. With repeated attacks, inertia will get weaker. At some point -- and I'm not going to lie to you, for me it took a few straight WEEKS of moaning and groaning and gritting my teeth and house-cleaning before this switch flipped, a few months ago -- at some point, you're going to see a difference, and you're going to start to feel energized, not just for chores but for LIFE, and that's when you'll know you've won. Not the war, no, but this battle. The most important one, because it's this one that will show you that the noonday demon is a fraud, a paper tiger. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you." (James 4:7-8)
At least, that's how it worked for me. But don't just take my word for it. For further reading:
- an excellent article from hermitary.com
- very good from the NY Times Book Review, although if it's actually reviewing a book I can't tell which one it is
- Straight from the ancient Egyptian desert, here's John Cassian on acedia
Keep the faith, my friends. This, too, shall pass.