What an Ancient Sin Has to Do With Our Unwillingness to Change

Of all the reasons that people give for our unwillingness to change, spiritual failing rarely makes the short list.

Fear of the unknown, yes.

Attachment to the status quo, yes.

Fear of failure, definitely.

But suggest the problem might be sin and heads might spin. However, that’s exactly one of the powerful insights Kathleen Norris offers in her 2008 book, Acedia and Me. She spends much of the book wrestling with how to define this ancient sin, so to simplify her concept here is almost disrespectful. Acedia is an absence or lack of care, indifference, apathy, sloth, and somewhat akin to depression.The Desert Monks first called acedia as one of the eight “bad thoughts” and this understanding of human failing has fallen in and out of favor with theologians, philosophers, writers and great thinkers throughout the centuries.  

I would add malaise to the many words Norris uses to explain the complexity of acedia. Malaise is my favorite word for describing what I often see in people and groups who have become cut off from their God-given power to create change. They know something is not right, they know they are not happy, but they have grown attached to their misery.

According to Norris’ recounting of the advice through the ages, we can use some surprisingly humble tactics to confront acedia.  She recommends embracing the repetition in our lives as a good thing that sustains us.  At our best, we have built relationships, organizations, companies and even economies by paying close attention to routine processes and bringing quality and aesthetics into the experience.  As a writer, she even suggests lowering your standards. It’s our own aspirations to do really good work and our self criticism that prevents trying.  

She tells an intimate story of loving her husband until death and struggling through her own life in a way that seems wildly unconnected to the highest praise for her work. Who we are is so much more than what we do. Acedia is at the root of our confusion on this point.            

To confront acedia, we have to accept that our individual labors, our own brilliance, and even our persistence are rarely enough without trusting in a power beyond ourselves.  That power can be as familiar as trusting in others in your community to share in this work..or as countercultural as trusting in the grace of God to guide and renew you.