Putting a name to the 'lost emotion' of our distracted age
It was in the throes of Melbourne’s miserable second lockdown that historian Jonathan Zecher sat to write about an ancient emotion called acedia — the so-called “noonday demon” — which induces a rare restlessness that makes it near impossible to focus on the task at hand.
From a scholarly point of view, Dr Zecher was more than familiar with the term acedia (commonly pronounced ah-see-dee-ah). He has spent years exploring the monastic literature of Christian ascetics like Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian, who used it to describe a state of spiritual lethargy affecting the desert monks of the fourth and fifth centuries.
And for the first time in his life, he was able to put himself in the shoes (or, perhaps, the sandals) of those solitary monks.
“This is something that I’ve studied for a long time, but it’s never seemed quite as relevant to my own life as during the pandemic,” says Dr Zecher, research fellow with the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry.
“Being in lockdown is about as close as I can imagine to what those desert monks experienced, and so I’ve developed more sympathy for them. But the difference is that they chose that life, and we certainly didn’t choose this. And I think that having this forced upon us probably amplifies the negative emotions of it all.”
As a result of the stay-at-home orders enforced sporadically across the globe since early 2020, many of us have, at times, lived a monk-like existence.
These circumstances have prompted in us an intense malaise characterised by distraction, boredom, fear and uncertainty.
Or, as the illustrator Fiona Katauskas aptly put it: “… strange bouts of paralysis where, for no real reason, you just can’t bring yourself to do random [and] not-unpleasant tasks, like admin or replying to a particular email or contacting a friend or doing the last, not-at-all-difficult bit of [your] taxes …”.
“I think acedia can either manifest in doing nothing, or being really busy doing a hundred things except the thing you ought to do,” Dr Zecher says.
“So you’re constantly adding to your mental ‘to-do’ list but never getting the stuff done on that list that you actually need to, because you simply don’t have the mental space to focus.
“Instead, you go back to the quick distractions … it’s back to Facebook, or compulsively scrolling through the news, or wandering around your home aimlessly.”
Acedia through the ages
Acedia’s etymological origins are in ancient Greece, where akēdía literally meant a state without “care, concern, or grief”.
But it was in the early centuries of Christianity that the term’s use became more common, and its meaning more complex.
Acedia appears again and again in the writings of the Desert Fathers, the devout Christian monks who stripped their lives to the bare necessities in the Egyptian desert.
While they certainly weren’t faffing around on Facebook, their descriptions of the emotion are strangely similar to ours.
Cassian described a person “seized” by the feeling as “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room … it does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading”.
A monk experiencing acedia felt “such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast”, Cassian wrote. “Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him … Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.”
“In the stories of these Desert Fathers, they try to live as far away from people as possible, seeking total solitude,” says Dr Zecher, whose research explores traditions of prayer and spiritual practice in early Christianity.
“There might have been some communal life, but generally they’d live as solitarily as possible, maybe with one other person. And even then, the great virtues were contemplation and silence.”
Acedia was an affliction that diverted the monks from these spiritual goals —just like the emotion we’ve been feeling has taken us away from tasks we set ourselves.
The Desert Fathers, however, believed acedia was a strictly spiritual torment, unique to the practices of solitary monasticism, and not experienced by city-dwellers or even communal monks.
Evagrius, who was the first to refer to acedia as “the noonday demon”, wrote that it sometimes appeared as “demons that touch our bodies at night and like scorpions strike our limbs”.
At some stage beyond the Middle Ages, acedia’s spiritual connections weakened, and its use to describe this unique emotion became almost non-existent. It first appeared in English in print in 1607, and nowadays, in the rare case that it is used, it tends to be employed more generally “to simply imply a lack of interest or caring”.
In her 2011 book Emotions in History — Lost and Found, Ute Frevert declared acedia as a “lost emotion”, and Dr Zecher tends to agree.
“Since the Middle Ages, emotions generally have been re-imagined, not as spiritual suffering or spiritual passions, but as perfectly normal human affective states,” he says.
“As those emotions became morally neutral, the ones like acedia, which are specifically about things like spiritual listlessness, began to sound a little passé and to fall out of favour.
“They started to seem a little less like something you would experience in a secular society, and certainly their demonic connections begin to drop away, because who’s got time for that?”
That said, the pandemic has given rise to a demon of sorts, Dr Zecher adds.
“Even if one didn’t believe in demons, one could say the constant barrage of bad and unreliable news is a lot like what the monks called demonic assault,” he says.
“I can spend my entire day reading rage and discontent on Facebook at this point, because there is just so much happening, and to me, this actually approximates the sense of assault that the monks described as the demonic element.”
The value of a name
So why is it important to revive the word acedia? Why is it time to bring back this ancient term?
As a historian, Dr Zecher admits he finds it “a fun historical exercise”. But there’s more to it than that.
He points to the misconception that acedia is just another name for depression.
“The particular sensations and experiences of acedia may look and sound like depression, and they do share features, but I would say that it’s another kind of emotion,” he says.
“In the same way that we might distinguish words like rage, anger, irritation … these are all different feelings, and they share things in common, and I think it’s important for us to be able to nuance our experiences by having these vocabularies that allow us to express different shades of meaning and experience.”
The simple act of naming this “lost emotion” may legitimise the strange feeling of listlessness and distraction that many of us have experienced.
“When an emotion can be named, it can be communicated and even shared. Once I articulate it and say it, I broaden my emotional repertoire, and by communicating it with someone else, I overcome the emotional isolation I’m feeling, so together we can claim some community and agency over the emotion instead of feeling overpowered or isolated by it.”
Acedia could be the latest in long line of foreign words with very specific meanings that have been accepted into English: like the popular German word schadenfreude, the feeling of joy derived from another’s misfortune; or the Danish word hygge, which describes a warm feeling of comfort and cosiness.
“I think acedia is the next word we need like this,” Dr Zecher says, “so that we can say, ‘Oh, I understand what you’re feeling, and I understand what I'm feeling, and now that we understand it, maybe we can start to deal with it’.”
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Jonathan Zecher is a research fellow at ACU’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry. He studies early Christian asceticism, the medical cultures of late antiquity, and traditions of prayer and spiritual practice in Byzantium and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.