Acedia (the ‘c’ is pronounced like an ‘s’) is an old word with surprising modern resonance.
Kevin DeYoung covers the topic in his excellent little book Crazy Busy:
“Acedia is an old word roughly equivalent to “sloth” or “listlessness.” … [it] suggests indifference and spiritual forgetfulness. It’s like the dark night of the soul, but more blah, more vanilla, less interesting.”
Like laziness, acedia keeps us from important work. But laziness and acedia differ in this important regard – whereas laziness leads to inactivity or sleep, acedia leads to action. But the action that acedia leads to is generally mindless and worthless.
Richard John Neuhouse describes it this way:
“Acedia is evenings without number obliterated by television, evenings neither of entertainment nor of education but of narcotized defense against time and duty. Above all, acedia is apathy…” (quoted in Crazy Busy)
Today, acedia rears its ugly head in the world of electronic media. It’s easy to get lost in the inactivity of actively browsing our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, or playing games on our phones. “We are always engaged with our thumbs, but rarely engaged with our thoughts” (DeYoung, Crazy Busy).
In the digital world acedia is combined with addiction. I was listening to a TED talk where the presenter – who was familiar with modern design practices – admitted that the psychology behind the technology in apps on your phone is the same as the psychology behind slot machines. Every time you check for notifications, or refresh your feed, it’s like you’re pulling that little lever, with the same addictive results. Kevin DeYoung describes the addiction like this: “For many of us, the Web is like the Eagles’ Hotel California: we can check out anytime we like, be we can never leave.”
And the truth is we may not want to leave. We must ask: “What if we prefer endless noise to the deafening sound of silence?” (DeYoung, Crazy Busy)
So what can we do? DeYoung offers several suggestions but my favorite is to “deliberately use ‘old’ technology.” Read real books. Write on real paper. Take a car ride with the radio off. Spend some time unplugged.
Sometimes doing this is absolutely necessary. When I’m working on a sermon I have found that I am far more efficient spending most of my time preparing for it with my computer shut and my phone in the other room. Otherwise, when I get stuck on a thought, my first reaction is to jump on the web instead of fight through it and think deeply. But if I read a real Bible, and take my notes on a real piece of paper, my mind remains far more focused.
I’m not sure if this solves the problem of acedia (this is an underlying heart issue) but at least it interrupts the disruptive cycle – if only for a moment.