People who are trapped by sloth are usually prisoners of either the future or the past. Their soul does not live in the present, which it finds burdensome. Instead, it tries to root itself in a time and place that is not here and is not now, a would-be or has-been world where moral effort is not possible.
Sloth gains a foothold when the soul squanders its time bathing in the accolades of future successes or savoring imaginary delights that have not yet come to pass. Inevitably, as time passes, these good things to come drift further and further into the future, and slowly reality creeps in. High hopes give way to the feeling that life is slipping away: the terror of wasted years.
Before long, it seems like any effort is impossible. The stakes have grown too high, and so much time has passed without any progress being made. Blissful daydreams give way to fear. Even the “hope of heaven” can, if it is not joined to the daily cross, become perverted into this sort of idle daydream.
Anxiety, worry, the building up of wild hopes, daydreaming, fear, overplanning, hypochondria and moral paralysis are symptoms of a soul that has shackled itself to the future.
The other inlet for acedia is the brooding obsession with the past: the yearning for halcyon days that can never be reclaimed or the feeling that one has been irreparably crippled by past sufferings. Instead of taking responsibility for moving forward — choosing to “strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” (from the poem “Ulysses” by Lord Alfred Tennyson) — the soul decides to swim in regret or self-pity.
Melancholy, hopelessness, grudge-holding, resentment, brooding regrets, general discontent, and the idolization of youth accompany the soul that clings to the past.
Finding joy in the present is the only way out, but this can seem difficult, or even impossible, to a soul in the grip of acedia. Sorrow overwhelms, and then work becomes empty and unfulfilling, and rest only leaves the body craving still more rest. One is tempted to abandon one’s responsibilities, to seek relief in pleasure, to abandon one’s vocation, to move from place to place searching for a sense of meaning. If any of this sounds familiar, take heart. There is a better way. The first step is to know where you are going. What are your talents? What is your full vocation? What parts of life are being neglected? Often secondary concerns rise up and block out the things that are most important, and this deepens the sense of sadness.
The only cure for acedia is moral effort. “It is proved by experience that a fit of acedia should not be evaded by running away from it, but overcome by resisting it” (St. John Cassian). Here are some ways to offer that resistance:
Mind your own business. Make sure you know what your responsibilities are and that you are fulfilling them. The Church Fathers list “curiosity” among the daughters of acedia, because the soul that is sick with itself often tries to make up for its failings by criticizing and interfering in the lives of others.
Choose. Many people spend years trying to be sure which way to go before they say Yes to a vocation or make important decisions in life. Don’t worry about this. Commend your life to God, and then set out.
Identify first things. If you are too busy to get around to the things that really matter to you, re-prioritize.
Forgive. This is not the same as forgetting. It means recalling the past to mind and making peace with it.
Set small goals. You probably won’t become holy all in one go. Settle for a realistic measure of progress. Be content when you fail.
Practice being present. Pay attention to your life. Don’t go through the day on autopilot. If you’re playing with the kids, invest yourself in the game. Look at the world. Look at God when you pray.
Work your leisure. Don’t just vegetate. Make sure you have real rest time and use it to develop the parts of your personality that aren’t employed in your daily work.
Be still. Self-knowledge and prayerfulness require silence. Turn off the TV and the cell phone. Rest in God.
Don’t accept your own excuses. Contemplate whether your self-justifications will fly at the Last Judgment. If you’re not sure, run them by God.
Persevere. If you hear yourself whining “But I tried that, and it didn’t work,” it’s probably time to try again.
The bottom line: Resist acedia, and it will flee.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.