Do you remember those afternoons at school, sitting by the window as the sun shines outside, the air stifling and the buzz of a bluebottle trapped somewhere. The teacher talking far away, and your thoughts drifting as time moves at an interminable pace and a sense of hopelessness sets in. You would rather be anywhere but there, doing anything but that.
That experience sums up a state described by the desert Fathers called Acedia. The sense of apathy, listlessness and lack of motivation, which often sets in in the long afternoon. What am I doing, does any of this make any difference, am I just wasting my of time?
We have a pathological fear of boredom. We’re terrified of it. Before a long flight you see people loading up with more magazines and books than they can possibly read. At bus stops and during lunch hours we stand in a line all poking mindlessly at smartphones Technology promised to free us from drudgery. But all it has really done is multiplied our capacity for distraction.
And the problem of this thing called Acedia, is that it prompts a sense of crisis and guilt. We get angry and frustrated with ourselves and our circumstances. We feel like we are wasting our time, and want to be anywhere other than here.
But just as distraction doesn’t solve the problem, neither does running away from it. The problem is not with our circumstances, and constantly changing things will never get closer to addressing the real issue. There is a good article on the BBC News website about procrastination. And research show that what makes the difference is not in managing time better but in managing emotions. It is not our circumstances, or our work that is the problem, but our inability to manage those emotions – the frustration, the irritation, even the boredom.
And the Desert Fathers would say that the solution lies in simple faithfulness to small tasks. You don’t need to fix everything, you just need to move a little bit in the right direction. And despite the difficulty, by recognising the small accomplishment we will be helped to take the next step. There is no quick fix, and the problem of Acedia will not go away, easily but the solution lies in faithfulness and small steps.
The child in school would rather just escape, to be anywhere but there. But if they can be helped to take just a small step, to learn just a little more, instead of despair or self condemnation, it begins a virtuous cycle of positive steps for better results. And it is true of us too.