In a recently republished article written by Jonathan Zecher, a word from antiquity was brought to my awareness and I was struck by how aptly the author paralleled the ancient sentiment with our current experience. Acedia, an ancient Greek word for an emotion that is akin to listlessness, and which also hints at lethargy, apathy and indifference, speaks of an experience that can be described as a ‘turning away from the spirit’. But what is the nature of this spirit with which some of us may be struggling to connect?
When the first lockdown hit us in 2020 and when remote learning rolled out in March of that year, it happened fast. It was challenging, daunting and unfamiliar, but it was also a little intriguing, somewhat absorbing and certainly adrenaline producing… it was a new frontier. Teachers and high school students rapidly learnt new skills that definitely weren’t part of the syllabi, and they quickly became accustomed to new uses of technology and an as yet untried approach to lesson delivery and learning. Some things immediately worked well, other aspects needed refining, but we were all on a steep learning curve together. It was exhausting, but in the way running a race is exhausting, where high energy is expended over a short period of time and the respite following offers much needed release and rest that can be taken up. The novel coronavirus was indeed a novelty and like it or not, we all turned to the spirit of the times and embraced what had to happen.
But this time around it is different. Many of us are accepting but the newness has certainly worn off, and the longer lockdown with an uncertain end date necessitates a sustained reorientation. In many ways, the fact that we all know what we’re doing has enabled a smooth transition that augurs greater success! Many students report finding their lessons engaging and the workload quite manageable. They enjoy seeing their friends and appreciate the structure of the day, with learning introduced by their teachers through teleconferencing before setting off on the tasks themselves. Teachers are impressed with the students’ participation and are confident that learning is still occurring, and they are very grateful for parent support!
However, there is the feeling that the community (along with the State!) is holding its breath. Teachers, students and parents alike are observing this period in the way that fathers and mothers of young children brace for a long car trip. Have we bought enough snacks? Did we work out the rest stops?! (I remember my own mother planning for an 800km road trip with my then four-year-old daughter and telling my step-father to ‘spare no expense!’). But in this context, what specifically are the tasty morsels that will sufficiently interject what would otherwise be a monotonous term and where exactly are the rest stops?
They are found in activities that reject acedia and again turn towards the spirit, and by spirit I mean that which points to meaning. But discovering meaning in quieter moments and during periods of our lives in which we don’t regularly encounter newness can be challenging, particularly for teens and adults. When a plant grows, it expands from the apex that in many species is found at the plant’s periphery. It is the tip of the stem, the farthest point of the root or the bud where growth occurs, and it is interesting to note and hold as a metaphor that at those points there is an interaction between the organism and the outside world, with sunlight and air on the one hand and with earth and water on the other. In us, a sense of purpose, meaning and personal growth that is easy to obtain, perhaps even somewhat unconsciously, readily occurs when we are presented with something new or with interesting encounters. We rise to the challenge, we tackle the fresh problem, we debate with the newfound friend and we feel our minds and capacities expanding. These are the growths that occur through the meeting of the self and the world. In this context, the spirit is found outside of ourselves, in what is around us and, while we may talk of our inner drive and feel the spirit within us in these moments, it must be recognised that it is really the spirit of something external that is drawing us forward, and we are lucky enough to be coming along for the ride.
Meetings with the self, on the other hand, easily forced upon us during periods of sameness or suspension, require an encounter with a different aspect of spirit. But is this spirit the spirit of the self? Is this spirit the spirit within? It would be nice to say that a meeting between self and self bears fruit, but in reality that is unlikely and instead past experience suggests that it only leads to acedia. Nothing new is presented here, no opportunity for growth. So turning towards the spirit, the action that overcomes acedia, therefore can’t mean simply turning towards the self. Instead, when in a state of acedia where ‘self’ and ‘self’ gaze at each other, we first need to find ways to be in touch with the germ of creativity. Because really, what else is happening at points of growth than creation? While physical creation certainly can be viewed and experienced in the natural world, and hence why walks in nature and time out of doors are essential and incredibly beneficial, these experiences don’t really meet the yawning need for what is missing, namely our inner connection to becoming. Instead, we need to turn to the arts. Here, someone else’s human endeavour has already done for us what we are struggling to do. They have taken human experiences, questions, strivings, failures and successes and distilled them into an essence, be it a play, a piece of music, a painting, a conceptual installation or a poem. And this essence is spirit. They have made spirit visible by connecting individual concerns with universal experiences. Again in an external form so that it is in fact perceivable, but from transformed inner, human substance, spirt can be viewed and found by those seeking it. So the soul needs to flutter again if we are to overcome acedia because it is the enlivened soul that allows us to turn towards the spirit. Teachers at this time are therefore striving to ensure that the students’ souls are enlivened. But what better place for us as adults to start today than with a poem that not only in itself encapsulates what I have been referring to, the capacity to distil an idea into an objective spiritual reality, but also speaks directly about hope, an impulse we all need at this time. I give you Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers-(314) … enjoy!
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
And on the strangest Sea -
It asked a crumb - of me.