Acedia & Me: a review of Kathleen Norris' book

If I’m honest myself, my own blanket of acedia fell not  after I completed my MFA, but in the last two months of it. Bored with the subject matter, the characters and the places in my master’s thesis, I  became despondent and unhappy with the project. I’d long been familiarizing myself with the flaws and omissions in the narrative, but by the last two months or so, something deeper wormed its way into the feelings. I could no longer muster up the will to care about anything, school related or not.  

Acedia, first used in the 1400s, was defined then as a kind of hollow depression;  by the 1500s the word was declared “obsolete” in dictionaries. By 2008, when author and poet Kathleen Norris wrote her book  Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life, the term was  only found mostly in conjunction with sacred texts and meaning “apathy, boredom or torpor.” Norris found the term in her 30s, as she familiarized herself with  Benedictine spiritual practices and sought to understand the type of soul-tugging depression she’d battled all her life.  It was in embracing an  obsolete word and a lonesome life that she truly came to understand the feeling, the word and a cure.

I may be more willing than most to employ the language of religious discourse [to understand depression] but it helps to have more than none language at hand. It humbles me to recognize that even words considered archaic can still reach us at the deepest level.

 When I slid this book from off the shelves at my local library I had no idea what acedia was or had been or is. I was  like Norris, another South Dakota writer who has been all over, spiritually and geographically, and that is why I like her work, and chose the book. So entering Norris’ world of depression, spiritual longing and mild boredom during the last few days of my grad school career was a happy bit of synchronicity in an otherwise bruised world.

At its Greek root the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so.

So far, so similar. I couldn’t generate interest in what I was doing at school, and in the job I normally love, during the  last weeks of school I came to feel bored, irritable and unhappy there, too. I had a nagging sense of what was bothering me–that my thesis did not turn out as I’d expected/planned/desired–but the soft motes of discontent blustering around inside of me were, I knew, something more. Something that  I was avoiding, even as I sought  to relieve it.

When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

Acedia was upon me, and only in turning to Kathleen Norris’ memoir could I see  the feeling for what it was. For Norris, who grew up in Honolulu, matured in New York and settled back in South Dakota (home of her ancestors), acedia blossomed  early.   One day as a teenager, while the author was eating lunch amid the lush landscape in Honolulu, the then fifteen year-old Norris became deeply discouraged with life and its possibilities.

Who would care for me when [my mother] was gone?” she writes. “The obvious answer, that it was time for me to learn to take care of myself, induced anxiety. I took for granted so much that my parents did for me, and those daily tasks loomed large when I considered that one day I would have to do them on my own. How in the world would I manage?.. Suddenly, the future seemed oppressive and even monstrous.

Although these might seem to be the common thoughts of a lucky, if somewhat privileged high schooler (Norris writes that although she was a sophomore, her mother still packed her lunch, and she lived a comfortable, if modest, life in Hawaii), the author does not dwell on the youthful sorrows that many at such an age experience. Her writing quickly moves through her adolescence, when she first understood  a quiet longing within herself, touches upon her time in New York, and develops in the midst of her husband David’s health crises and the stress and joy these issue injected into the marriage.  She gives little in the way of specific dates, but readers of her other work, especially Dakota: A Spiritual Geography will recognize that she must have been  dealing with David’s mental breakdowns as well as her own failures and depressions during the writing of that book. Her ability to spin the straw of sorrow into a rich reflection on life and spirituality shines clear here, and as Norris ages  through Acedia,  she explains the varied meanings of  the term through the ages.

This is one of the pleasures of the book: no matter the circumstance in which  the author is enveloped, she’s found a way to write eloquently about her experience of  of sorrow, of acedia, of emptiness that colors the time.  Reflecting on the days after her husband’s hospitalization, Norris notes that “…love is stronger, fiercer even, than death. If I had been emotionally drained by the events of the past few days, I was no longer frightened.  The word crisis derives from the Greek for ‘a sifting’ and even in my distress I sense that there might be a purpose for our present upheaval: to jostle, sift, and sort thing until only what was most vital would remain.”

This is the second great joy of Norris’ style. Her commitment and interest in understanding herself has led her to a commitment of understanding and unpacking the words she uses to chart her experience. Throughout this book  readers will come up on terms and etymologies and ideas perhaps previously unknown, or  unconsidered. She is actively thinking her way through things, digging herself out of the darkness with her own illuminations. This is no surprise; in a book weaving together “a marriage, monks and a writer’s life,” one expects the illuminations of monastic writings to shine through on these pages. And they do. 

Norris is as much a historian as a story-teller, and her inclusion of primary sources rests beautifully alongside the personal anecdotes she uses to tell this story. I always appreciate the craft and thought that goes into a book, and I recognize that these marks of craft and mastery help reinforce Norris’ point on acedia. However, it is in this too, that I found the greatest criticism of this book.

At times I found myself thinking “you’ve already told me that acedia is a bit of sorrow, depression, torpor, spiritual desire and boredom all blended into one icky feeling. Tell me something new, or wrap it up.”   

For instance, Norris continues to cycle back and forth between encountering, examining and explaining acedia, and for the person who turns to this book for hope and answers, then gets them, being pushed back into the dark spot of spiritual depression is, well, depressing.  This is not to say that the book is overbearing, or the narrative depressing, because Norris’ style is always considerate and gentle, never preachy nor self-serving. Although the story of her life and struggles, paired with those of her husband’s, is fuel for this book, I don’t believe a story of sorrow is the one Norris intends to tell here. Her writing is alive and pulsing with the breath of creativity we writers get when we’re know we’re “on to something good.”  The story flows and dips, moves forward and blinks backward, but always grows, even as it reminds us that after light will come, once again, a period of dark.   In the end, it is this, Norris tells readers, that helps one move beyond the sticky spot of acedia: momentum, motion. Actively pulling oneself out of the hole is the only way to go forward.

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