We all experience moments when we struggle to initiate. We stare at our computer screen and wait for inspiration to strike, longing for our to-do list to snap into a sharp focus we have not experienced for months. Sometimes it does and we experience that elusive sensation called productivity. Far more often, we don’t. We drift through our days, doing our best to engage over Zoom meetings, Webex calls, and emails, longing for face-to-face human interaction.
Dean of Faculty Karl Methven (who should really start his own blog given how much good grist he sends my way for blog posts like this) shared THIS article late last week. The author, Jonathan L. Zecher, explores the ancient Greek emotion of acedia, a term used throughout the Middle Ages to describe the spatial and social constrictions that a monastic life necessitates that generate a paradoxical combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Zecher goes on to explain the term acedia was derived from Greek noun kēdos, which means “care, concern, or grief” Zecher acknowledges that while acedia sounds like apathy, as many of us are experiencing right now, it is far more layered of an emotion than apathy. As I read, and reread, this article, I repeatedly found myself saying, “Yes! This is the struggle I have been experiencing, but have been unable to name.”
Having students back on campus has helped those of us on campus move beyond this paralyzing emotion in many ways - their energy, their smiles, their excitement of being back together, the breaking of monotonous routine - but the mere presence of our students has not cured us of acedia’s impact on our lives. Our workload this fall parallels other Fall Terms, but the emotional weight of the entirety of all we are shouldering right now as a community is real: safety protocols, new restrictions on behaviors, the sanitization of classrooms, challenges around food, a politicized political climate as a national election approaches, and the continued national and hyper-local conversations around race and justice.
Our hope is that in naming this emotion, admitting to feeling it and struggling with it, we legitimize it and gain agency in dealing with it. Emotional regulation requires us to have had experience with the emotion we are seeking to regulate. For many of us, the idea of acedia is new. We have not endured prolonged isolation, limits to our individual freedoms, or the layered anxieties that accompany our lives right now. But, just as we teach our students through experiences, so, too, must we learn from that which we are experiencing right now.
We must experiment with different strategies to manage acedia (exercise, mediation, prayer, conversation, volunteering, etc.) and listen to the successes (and struggles) of others as we move through our days. We must embrace the joy and chaos our students bring into our lives. We must welcome the interruptions, unplanned conversations, and the hard work it will take to add acedia to our repertoire of emotional proficiency. Merely acknowledging the existence of acedia in our lives will not make it go away, but we will learn to navigate it, just as we learn to navigate sadness, loneliness, and grief: one day at a time with a focus on all the good that surrounds us.