Yesterday I was on the subway going downtown for an appointment and read another chapter in Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris. I have been reading bits and pieces of the book here and there (it requires some digestion after reading, so one can't race through it) and found the stories she told about her husband's troubled adolescence and his mid-life suicidal tendencies incredibly honest and touching. Then Norris hit me with a chapter that landed squarely between my eyes and poked at the complacent spots in my life. Mixed metaphors AND conviction! Ouch!
To get a bit of a background on acedia, read the first post I wrote on it. I won't go into detail about its definition here, but in the chapter I read yesterday, Norris deals with the aspect of acedia that refuses to take responsibility. You may want to stop right here. It gets pretty rough. The story of shifting responsibility onto someone else starts in the garden of Eden and continues to this day. Nowadays, however, Norris suggests that we have redefined it, excluded sin from the equation, and called it progress or freedom or some other trendy term. And to add insult to injury, we are proud of our so-called progress, thinking that boredom or hyperactivity is a sign of an enlightened and affluent society. Let me toss in some quotes from the book:
At bottom, to dismiss sin as negative is to demonstrate a failure of imagination. As the writer Garret Keizer asserts in Help: The Original Human Dilemma: "Everyone believes in sin, the people who charge their peers with political incorrectness and the people who regard political correctness as the bogey of a little mind." He adds, "What everyone does not believe in, as nearly as I can tell, is forgiveness." It requires creativity to recognize our faults, and to discern virtues in those we would rather disdain. Forgiveness demands close attention, flexibility, and stringent self-assessment, faculties that are hard to come by as we career blindly into the twenty-first century, and are increasingly asked to choose information over knowledge, theory over experience, and certainty over ambiguity. This mentality may be of some use in a business, but in a family, including the family of faith, it is a disaster. (117)
She talks about our priggishness in overvaluing our ideas, habits, and notions and disparaging those of others, even those of biblical characters in the Old Testament. She describes this attitude: We're good people, or good enough, having willed away the prejudice, tribalism, and violence in our hearts. We are at a loss to explain their presence in the world around us. (117)
It is indeed acedia's world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. As luxury goods and pornographic images permeate the culture, no longer the province of a select few, we discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets. (125)
Norris also quotes Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit who wrote this some time after the second world war : "[I]t has gone strangely with [us] in the recent decades of European intellectual history. While many felt that, having "struggled passionately against the tutelage of Church, state, society, convention, morals," they could not claim true autonomy, they often found it an empty freedom. What had originated as "a great, honest struggle" devolved for many into "a foolish protest that mistook licentiousness and unrestraint, the freedom of error and ruin, for true freedom." Far from finding release, Rahner concluded, modern people fell into "a very odd slavery...slavery from within." (120)
She concludes the chapter by observing that we are doing more and caring less. And though we do profess to care, it is most likely only about our own present circumstances. We are prone to justify our actions and ideas (which all too often reveal spiritual poverty instead of true freedom) by refusing to take responsibility for the state of our communities, our nations, and our world.
An article that I came across yesterday illustrates this all too well. A student was justifying downloading thousands of songs without paying for them by making the following points: 1) it is up to the record companies to make it more convenient to buy music, 2) it is up to the government to better regulate downloading, and 3) in the end, hardly any of the money collected by big music companies goes to the actual musicians. Someone took the time to write a thoughtful response and responded with his own points: 1) buying music online just takes a few clicks, so perhaps it is not the inconvenience that is at issue, but clicking the "buy" button, 2) it is not the government's job to regulate our integrity; that is our own responsibility, and 3) the assumption that it is the record companies that get all the money is incorrect (the writer was fairly knowledgeable about how the music industry works). He went on to explain how most record contracts work and concluded that by refusing to pay for music, one basically guarantees that the artists will never see the money. In addition, the writer suggested that the student (who incidentally claimed that she hoped to land a job in the music industry) should perhaps take a look at her ideas and see how they were sabotaging the very industry she said she wanted to help advance.
This brings me back to the very point that bashed me between the eyes when I read Norris' chapter: that we are often deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are managing pretty well and making progress. We are convinced that we are overall good people, have faced most of our demons (if we are willing to admit that there are demons), are fighting for the right causes, and are more enlightened than the masses. And yet, we have more poverty (physical and spiritual), hate, aggression, and instability than ever. However, we are content to shift the responsibility for the state of things to governments, big corporations, political agendas, leaders, messed-up world economics, or whatever our pet peeve may be. By not taking responsibility for our sin and our lack of compassionate action, we are not only lying to ourselves and to our world, we are crippling it.
I am in agreement with Keizer. We protest against corruption and inequality. We demand more rights and better services. We like to point out how "other people" don't get it or get too much of it (depending on what "it" is). We don't like to repent and forgive. And that hardly seems like progress to me. Thanks, Kathleen, for your words, hard as they may be to hear. Even harder to practice.
Quotes taken from Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris. Riverhead Books, 2008.
the photo: The parliament buildings in Ottawa. God, help our leaders. God, help us.