Monday, September 22, 2008
Though almost everyone is familiar with depression, acedia is a much less well known affliction. Mostly a term used in the monastic community, acedia can be described as a type of emotional slothfulness. Everyday tasks become harder and more pointless to perform, and emotions are dulled almost to the point of desensitization. Acedia takes the form of an unsettled boredom that permeates every area of life, be it physical, emotional or social. In her new book, Kathleen Norris examines acedia in all it's mysterious forms, attempting to explain why it is different from depression and some of the ways that it can be dealt with. Interspersed with her reflections on the issue, we become familiar with the religious implications of acedia and get a crash course on the spiritual response to this ponderous problem. In addition, Norris chronicles her life with acedia and her relationship with her husband, who battled physical and mental illness. Part memoir, part reflection, Norris attempts to explain the emotional lassitude that so many suffer from and so few can name. With courage and determination she delves into her psyche and that of the community at large to engage and define a problem that defies drugs, therapy and advice.
In large part this book was theoretical and illusive. Not really recognized by the mental health community, acedia lies merely in the realm of speculation and experience. While the author's attempt to explain and understand this problem was interesting, many people to whom I mentioned the topic "acedia" gave me a blank stare and said they had never heard of it. This included a mental health professional who expressed interest in the book. Though this problem seems to be an unknown entity, Norris gives us a historical frame of reference for this malady and explains why it is no longer recognized in society. She encourages the reader to look at this problem in terms of a spiritual dissonance that can be corrected with reflection and prayer rather than medication and rationalization. As the book went on, though, there were a few things that stuck out. The first was that although an attempt was made for the book to be hopeful, it was not. The picture portrayed was not unlike the myth of Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down over and over. The author seems to suggest that this affliction is doomed to be suffered over and over again, with different results from each self-administered treatment. Her own battle with this problem, she acknowledges, has been a lifetime struggle that she can never seem to overcome. Another issue that I came across was the implication that only those sufficiently pious would be able to overcome this problem. Many times her solution to acedia was prayer or spiritual reflection. While prayer is something that I do regularly, and does indeed benefit me tremendously, many people do not have the same feeling towards spiritual meditation. This makes her discourse a little alienating. With as many religious ideologies as there are out there, there are many people who don't ascribe to religion at all. To them, this book would be pointless. One can argue that most of those people wouldn't pick up this book, but the good points made in this book should be able to be shared by anyone affected by this problem. I think it is a bit dismissive to only examine one way of dealing with a problem. I am aware that this is the author's show, and it is her prerogative to handle her reflections in any way she would like, but the effect is a bit non-inclusive.
Despite these misgivings, I found that this book had a hypnotic quality to the writing that kept me wanting to explore further and delve deeper. Many of the passages had bits and snippets of prayers wrapped in, and some were moving and beautiful. I found many hidden gems among this book, new ways of looking at things, and reflections and connections that I would have never made without the author's introspective analysis. Her information had a way of winding around itself, coming back to the same points repeatedly, but this was not troublesome. In a way it was like a good speaker highlighting the same points in order to reaffirm their importance and drive home the message. The book was also very informative about the monastic community, its tenants and its values. There is no doubt in my mind that acedia exists, and that there is relief from this problem. I believe that the ability of this author to take a foreign and illusive concept and relate it in a way that everyone will recognize and understand is a great achievement.