Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Acedia

Have been reading through Robertson Davies' One Half of Robertson Davies and recently came upon his essay 'The Deadliest of the Sins' which appears to be a speech given to a graduating class at Queen's University. What he speaks of is acedia, or what is commonly referred to as sloth. As he explains, "it meant intellectual and spiritual torpor, indifference and lethargy."

An excerpt from the piece:
"How can it be recognized? Anatole France said that the great danger of increasing age was that the feelings atrophied, and we mistook the sensation for the growth of wisdom. It is true that as one grows older, one's sense of proportion may become greater, and things which troubled us or wounded us deeply in our youth seem less significant. But that is a different thing from feeling nothing deeply, and leaping to the conclusion that therefore nothing is really very important. As one grows older, one learns how to spare oneself many kinds of unnecessary pain, but one is in great danger if one ceases to feel pain of any kind. If you cannot feel pain at some of the harsh circumstances of life, it is very likely that you have ceased to feel joy at some of the satisfactions and delights of life. When that happens, one lives at all times under a mental and spiritual cloud; it is always wet weather in the soul. That is Acedia, and it was called a Deadly Sin because it dimmed and discouraged the spirit, and at last killed it."
The similarities to clinical depression are apparent, and the prescription that Davies offers is inspiring:
"You must look clearly at the things which make your life happy and enviable, and you must give yourself up to a grateful contemplation of them. Never take such things for granted. I have seen many a promising marriage shrivel up and dry up because one or both of the parties to it assumes that happiness was something that came by right, and could never be diminished. Consciously summoning up, and consciously enjoying, the good things that life brings us is a way of preserving them. It is not in their nature to last forever; they will change, and if you cherish them gratefully, the change is much more likely to be change for the better than if you accept them as gifts which a grateful providence has showered upon you as a recognition of your magnanimity in condescending to inhabit the earth"
Much of our perceived happiness can be methodically contrived from that habits we develop to soothe our being, but whether wholesome or shallow, a build-up of indifference seems unavoidable. The consideration I get from regarding Acedia is the recollection of times when I've felt disconnected from the purposefulness I deem myself, or the activities I partake in that bring feelings of validation to my existence.

As the entry on Wikipedia mentions, "Acedia was originally noted as a problem among monks and other ascetics who maintained a solitary life." For many, after experiencing moments of great contentment or spiritual revelation, it is easy to become comfortably lost to the old ambitions that brought us to these feelings in the first place. Past joys seem paltry in comparison to the levels of existential ecstasy we have sought to achieve and cherish on our path through life. Yet, as they fade, which they are inevitably prone to do, so have those desires that once propelled our curiosity and motivation. Luckily, these desires are the very triggering points that are worth revisiting in times of confusion and despair.

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