I came across the word “acedia” when I was reading David Brooks’ “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.” Acedia - “the quieting of passions. It is a lack of care. It is living a life that doesn’t arouse strong passions and therefore instills a sluggishness of soul, like an oven set on warm.”
Bingo. My life summed up in one word.
I’ve been a fan of Brooks’ writing, appearances on PBS Newshour, and most recently, his involvement in Weave: The Social Fabric Project, but the word “moral” in the title put me off. Isn’t “moral” just a flick away from “morality?” And morality raises all sorts of bristles on my back.
I pulled out my yellowed paperback copy of Webster’s to get a definition for moral - “Pertaining to the principles of right and wrong; arising from the inner sense of right and wrong.” The definition makes sense, but as often happens it raised another question - who decides what is right and wrong. Society? Individuals? Culture?
It would be foolish of me to get hung up on “moral” because Brooks is a deeper and more complex thinker than I am. I began the book with the introduction, something I rarely read, but Brook’s compelling writing and vulnerability in the introduction made me realize this book was going to challenge me to be present and honest.
I’m still reading the book, sticky notes marking pages I want to return to. This is not a book I will do once - it will need a second or third reading. It has come into my life when I’m wrestling with the very topics Brooks’ is writing about - purpose, meaning, service, passion.
For the past year I’ve struggled to define the acedia in my life. My life, both professional and personal, is rich and robust. I work a job I enjoy and do well at, my blended family is a joy to be around, my own children are happy and successful. I have friends, hobbies and take nice vacations. It feels selfish and ungrateful to have the life I have and feel dull and apathetic. I’ve managed to fill up my life with all sorts of busy work - boards to sit on, shopping, exercise, even religion - but nothing has stuck.
Sometimes I catch a glimmer of what I’m seeking - akin to catching the flicker of movement in the corner of your eye. Turn your head and nothing’s there. When I talk to my friends about this, their gaze drifts away or worse, they tell me to buck up and do something productive. As though more busyness will help me find what I seek. And the heart of this is - I can’t tell you what I seek. Purpose, yes. Meaning, yes. But in what?
The only thing I know is just keep moving forward. Keep open, keep asking.
Brooks, David, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” 2019, New York, p. 24.
Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary,” 1996, Boston, p. 447.