Do you think much about the big questions of life? Do you spend much time considering why we are here or what has gone wrong with the world? Have you examined various answers to possible solutions to that problem or wondered how we should live as a result? Do you have a well thought out notion of what happens when we die?
I find it very interesting that for many people, the answer to all these questions seems to be “No.” They don’t have answers to the big questions, nor are they interested in pursuing any. Rather, they go through every minute of every day either busy with work and social duties or plugged into some form of entertainment. Even those spare minutes in line at the DMV are spent checking Facebook and playing Angry Birds. These folks simply don’t contemplate life’s biggest questions, ever.
Isn’t that odd?
Blaise Pascal certainly thought so. Speaking from the perspective of a continually distracted person, he scornfully wrote,
I know not who sent me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am terribly ignorant of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my senses, nor my soul …
As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I only know that on leaving this world I fall for ever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned. Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty. From all this I conclude that I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate. I might perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts; but I cannot be bothered to do so, I will not take one step towards its discovery. [Pensees 29]
Why wouldn’t a person try to understand what life is all about? It seems as if there has to be something wrong here. As Doug Groothuis points out, a refusal to think about life’s biggest questions is “an indication of something unstable and strange in the human condition. Interest in, or an obsession for, entertainment is more than silly or frivolous. It reveals and moral and spiritual malaise begging for an explanation.” (367)
One aspect of that explanation is acedia. As Kathleen Norris defines it, acedia is “an ancient term signifying profound indifference and inability to care about things that matter, even to the extent that you no longer care that you can’t care.” She likens acedia to spiritual morphine: “You know the pain is there but can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.”
However, acedia is not like a drug is the sense that it is something outside of us that might affect us if we let it. Rather, it is a sin that will control us if we practice it.
Indeed, acedia is a very serious sin. Joseph Pieper summarizes: “In the classical theology of the Church, acedia is understood to mean “trisitis saeculi”, that sorrow according to the world” of which Paul says, in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (7:10), that it “produces death”. This sorrow is a lack of magnanimity; it lacks courage for the great things that are proper to the nature of the Christian.” (54)
In other words, acedia is a lack of bravery to be the person God created us to be. It is a willful refusal to be the noble, holy, and righteous creature that we are. Rather than boldly follow Jesus into the heights of life in the trinity, those who practice acedia cowardly allow the ways of the world carry them along, all the way to the hell.
So although it is often associated with sloth, acedia is not really about being lazy. One can work very hard in life while being afflicted by acedia. In fact, acedia is one cause of the workaholism associated with our age. People who long to avoid God’s design for their life often do so by staying busy with work. Pieper notes: “The indolence expressed by the term acedia is so little the opposite of “work” in the ordinary meaning of the term that Saint Thomas says rather that acedia is a sin against the third of the Ten Commandments, by which man is enjoined to “rest his spirit in God”. Genuine rest and leisure are possible only under the precondition that man accepts his own true meaning.” (59)
It is a refusal to do just that that keeps many people from even broaching the subject.